The History of 1914-1918

IN a dozen years we have seen a marked change in our understanding of the war, only the least of which is attributable to fiction. With the publication of our archive material, with the summing up of judicious historians, we have come to think differently about war guilt, atrocities, military leadership, and even about the supreme sacrifice. To clear our perspective and to strengthen our judgment for the future, we need the best that historians can give us.
The Real War,by Captain B. H. Liddell Hart(Little, Brown and Atlantic Monthly Press, $4.00), is written in the critical style, and, as suits a book for the layman on so wide a subject, it is conveniently and vividly episodic. Captain Liddell Hart has set himself the unpleasant task of rewriting history as it occurred and not as he would have it read. Unpleasant because it often shows his own countrymen — and most of our revered commanders — in no happy light. It is in no iconoclastic frame of mind that Captain Hart attacks his subject. With obvious gusto he describes the few noteworthy exploits, both tactical and strategical, in a period replete with failures. But for the most part The Real War does throw pitiless light on the major strategy where it existed — which was by no means everywhere — and on much of the tactics. Finally, it directs one down paths of conjecture even more fascinating than the study of actual conditions.
The vivid description of the opening days of the war, so fertile in error and misjudgment, leads inevitably to conjecture. If Moltke had adhered to Graf Schlieffen’s Plan and had not emasculated the operation by the strengthening of his left, — an almost more heinous strategical offense than weakening his right,— the blow on Paris must have fallen. With the strengthening of his left went Schlieffen’s idea of the ‘enticing’ defense into which the main strength of the French army was to be drawn. And suppose again, the author suggests, that instead of sending their meagre force to work alongside the French, the British had landed twenty-one divisions of infantry and eighteen brigades of cavalry on the Belgian coast? It could have been done — and, thus threatened on a vulnerable flank, it is difficult to see how the three German Armies of the North could have escaped a Sedan.
Out of all the mess of blood and misspent energy the two faultless gems of the campaign stand out—each perfect in its way. The first, Messines, was a mere tactical action of siege warfare, but precisely conceived and executed — a triumph of staff coöperation. The second, Megiddo, was a strategical and tactical victory which will take its place in history not merely as one of the most notable campaigns of its kind but also as the glorious apotheosis of the cavalry arm.
To a few leaders—a very few —the author accords unstinted praise; to Galliéni, for instance, and Pétain. For Haig he has respect, for character rather than skill, although in the last few months of the war it is apparent that he regards Haig rather than Foch as the moving spirit in defense and attack. As Haig came into the ascendant Ludendorff began to make his series of fatal errors. It is of such personalities that Captain Hart writes almost as much as of their actions.
Stalemate having once arisen, there were few who saw that the Western Front could be contained but not carried, and it was those who failed to understand this fact who sought to justify their inanition and expenditure of lives with such catch phrases as ‘the War of Attrition’ and ’Blood is the price of Victory.’ It is terrible that mere words should have had the power to stifle originality, as they did, for instance, in the use of the tanks and in the use of the surprise barrage.
Our critic attributes the faults of our leadership in part to a definite cause. In previous wars the general actually shared the hardships of his men. In the Great War the general staffs as a whole were out of touch with actual fact, the Germans quite as much as the Allies. The position is aptly summed up in a story related by the author, which, suitably framed, should be hung in every staff headquarters. When fighting had been in progress for some months for the possession of the Passchendaele ridge, a general high on the general staff visited the battlefield for the first time. As he approached the front in his car he was so affected by what he saw that he burst into tears. ’My God,’he said, ‘did we really send men to fight in that?’