The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
ON THE evening of November 4, 1917, the unhappy and anxious leaders of Britain, France and Italy were arriving at the little town of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera to discuss the situation created by the crushing defeat of the Italian armies in the battle of Caporetto, and the position in which, as a consequence of this and other disasters, the Allied Powers found themselves as the long year 1917 drew to its close. They had every reason to view their situation with the gravest anxiety. Allied fortunes were at their lowest ebb since the German advance on Paris in the summer of 1914.
On the Western Front, the year had seen the crushing of Nivelle's great offensive in Champagne, followed by the series of mutinies which had shaken the military spirit of the French Army to its foundation and from which, under the fatherly guidance of Pétain, it was in November only beginning to recover. Meanwhile, time for its reconstitution was being bought in Flanders by the British Army at the price of 300,000 casualties and the Prime Minister's loss of confidence in the Commander-in-Chief and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Sir Douglas Haig was almost ready to say that his men could do nothing more for that year. Pétain was "waiting for the Americans and the tanks." As yet there were but 100,000 American troops in France, none of them fully fit for combat, and men were saying that the United States could never put an army on the Western Front.
At Saloniki, inaction and confusion prevailed under the leadership of General Sarrail, partly through that officer's fault but largely because the various Powers whose units composed his army could arrive at no unity of policy as to what they wanted him to accomplish.
In Palestine there was a single gleam of light. Allenby, the new Allied commander on that front, had just taken Beersheba and was preparing to attack Gaza; but there were plenty of voices to say that he would never do it in view of the last two futile assaults upon that Turkish stronghold.
As for Russia, that great ally upon whose inexhaustible resources of men and material so many hopes had been based, she obviously was withdrawing from the war. Already Trotsky's Military Revolutionary Committee had received the adherence of the troops of the Petrograd garrison and the days of Kerensky's Provisional Government only too plainly were numbered.
And now, with one great ally all but gone, another had suffered the most crushing defeat of the war as the Austro-German armies hurled the broken troops of Italy back over all the hard-won ground of two years of fighting -- back, and back, to the line of the Piave. It was uncertain at the moment whether even that line could be held.
The cause of all of these failures and disasters was not lack of ability on the part of either statesmen or generals, it was not lack of means, it was not lack of courage or address at arms on the part of the troops. In most of these matters, indeed, the Allies on the average were superior to the Central Powers. The cause was rather to be sought, as General Bliss wrote afterwards in the pages of this review, in "the manifest absence of unity of purpose on the part of the Entente Powers." General Bliss continued:
They were allied little more than in the sense that each found itself fighting, at the same time with the others, its own war against one enemy, and too largely for separate ultimate ends. The governments apparently had no conception that a war of such magnitude required political as well as military strategy . . . . The main efforts of the governments were individual, meeting the insatiable requirements of their commanders for munitions and men. Their attitude was reflected in that of the commanders in the field. These sometimes met together and thought that they had formed broad, comprehensive plans. But their real responsibility was limited to their own front. Naturally, their perspective of the war was largely limited by that front. There, it was hoped, the war would be won. On that front lay the essential objective of the nation behind it . . . . During the entire war no Allied plan was ever attempted under such conditions that did not result in dismal failure.[i]
The futility of these methods, indeed their danger to the whole Allied cause, had not gone unperceived by Allied leaders. There had been a great deal of talk about the need for unified control of the Allied war effort. Unfortunately much of this discussion had centered around a unified military command for the Western Front and this conception had received a serious setback at the time of the Nivelle offensive. For that operation the British Government had consented to place Sir Douglas Haig's army under the strategic direction of General Nivelle. Only friction and misunderstanding had been the result, with a poisonous residue of feeling on the part of the British soldiers that they had been sacrificed by the ineptitude of a French commander, and an increased prejudice on the part of many British military and political leaders, notably the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, against unity of command in any form. Thus the need for unity in the higher direction of the war was being lost sight of because of the difficulties of a unified command in one particular theater. The real need was for political unity to begin with; for a unified plan; and for the machinery to keep the plan in being and to adapt it to the ever changing current of events, thus providing a consistent though flexible policy from which an effective strategy might naturally flow.
To the conception of political unity some lip service had been given. Little had been done toward its accomplishment, however, save for a series of inter-Allied conferences at which there had been a great deal of talk and very little concrete accomplishment. "Theoretically and rhetorically," as Lloyd George observes, "the united front was boomed; in practice it was ignored."[ii]
It remained for Lloyd George himself, desperately resolved upon victory and face to face with the necessity for inter-Allied unity, to force the project forward into the realm of action. In so doing, he may have drawn heavily upon the ideas of others -- notably those of the French Premier, Paul Painlevé, and of General Sir Henry Wilson. It is unlikely that the idea of an agency for the political coördination of the Allied war effort was original with Lloyd George but certainly it was through his efforts that it began to take form. He was aware that he would face the opposition of his Chief of Staff and possibly that of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig; and although he was certain of French coöperation so long as Painlevé remained Premier, the Painlevé government was already tottering under the accusation of "defeatism" and the attitude of its successor was uncertain.
Lloyd George's own tenure of office was not too secure. There was an active and watchful opposition which had, on this issue, the powerful support of Britain's ablest military writer, Colonel Repington, who was devoted to Robertson and regarded unity of command as a dangerous illusion -- "a way to make sure of losing the war."
Lloyd George had therefore to proceed with the greatest care. He began by the rather unusual step of seeking independent military advice. He asked Lord French, formerly Commander-in-Chief in France and then Commander of the Home Forces, and Sir Henry Wilson, then holding the Eastern Command, to submit their views on the military situation. These reports, differing greatly in content and viewpoint, nevertheless arrived at identical conclusions. Lord French, after exhaustively reviewing the course of the war, and the many Allied failures, said:
I would therefore emphasise the extreme desirability of establishing at once a Superior Council of the Allies. It is only such a body that can thoroughly examine a joint scheme of action in all its bearings. The weight and influence of such a council must carry conviction to the minds of the several Allied Governments. . . . I think this body should be composed of the Prime Ministers or their selected representatives, and one or more Generals from each Allied country.[iii]
Sir Henry Wilson, taking a somewhat wider view of the course of the war, and attempting to estimate the situation from the enemy's as well as from the Allied point of view, expressed his conclusions in the following terms:
The superior direction of this war, has, in my opinion, been gravely at fault from the very commencement -- in fact, it is inside the truth to say that there has never been any superior direction at all . . . .
We have tried many expedients but always with most disappointing, sometimes even with disastrous, results. We have had frequent meetings of Ministers, constant conversations between Chiefs of Staff, deliberations of Commanders-in-Chief, mass meetings of all these high officials in London, in Paris, in Rome. . . . All these endeavours have failed to attain any real concerted coördinated effort in diplomacy, in strategy, in fighting, or in the production of war material. . . . I do not wish to exaggerate, but human nature being what it is and our Commanders-in-Chief and Chiefs of Staff being what they are -- all men of strong and decided views, all men whose whole energies are devoted to their own fronts, and their own national concerns, we get as a natural and inevitable result a war conducted not as a whole, but as a war on sections of the whole, i.e., a war on the British Front, a war on the French Front, a war on the Italian Front; and the stronger and the better the various Chiefs, the more isolated and detached the plans.
It seems to me that all this confusion, overlapping and loss of collective effort are due to the same causes which throughout the whole war have led to a narrow vision, and too limited outlook over the whole colossal struggle . . . .
The net result seems to me to be that we take short views instead of long views, we look for decisions today instead of laying out plans for tomorrow, and as a sequence we have constant change of plans, with growing and increasing irritation and inefficiency. . . .
What can be done to remedy a state of affairs which is undoubtedly prolonging the War to an unnecessary, even to a dangerous extent?
The answer to this question lies in the establishment of an intelligent, effective and powerful superior direction. And by this I mean a small War Council of the Allies so well-informed, and above all, entrusted with such power that its opinion on all the larger issues of the War will carry the weight of conviction and be accepted by each of the Allies as final . . . .
Such a Body will be above all Sectional Fronts, it would view the War as a whole . . . and it would allot to each of the Allies the part which it would play. . . .
Such a Superior Direction would now lay out the broad line of action for the next twelve or twenty-four months. It would show when and under what conditions and in which part of the main theatre the final decision should be attempted and reached . . . .
It would lay out the broad policy for our joint aeroplane campaign of the future, and would adjust construction to obtain the end in view, allotting to each Ally the task for the future.
In short, such a Superior Direction would take over the Superior Direction of the War -- a thing which has not yet been done, and for the lack of which we have suffered so grievously in the past and without which we shall, as certainly, suffer even more in the future.
The strain of this war increases day by day, and as the strain increases, so any mistakes that are made become increasingly dangerous, and the tendency for each of the Allies to fight for its own hand becomes more and more marked. I see no other way of drawing the Allies together and of keeping them together, of gradually enlarging the outlook and of showing the crying necessity for long views instead of short views, except by the creation of such a body. I see no other way by which a real plan of campaign for the future can be drawn up. Such a plan of campaign must be based on all the factors which go to make up this gigantic war. The greater part of these are unknown and necessarily and rightly unknown, to the Commanders-in-Chief in the field who, up till now, have dictated the strategy of the campaign, each on his own front.
Without such a body the tendency for the Allies will be to concentrate each on his own front, each on his own production, each on his own war, each thus drifting further and further from his neighbor, while all the time the enemy, under one governing authority, will be able to concentrate and to defeat each of the local efforts.
We (the Allies) hold all the cards in our hands -- men, munitions, guns, aeroplanes, food, money and the High Seas -- there remains only the question of how to play them and when to play them, and my absolute conviction is that there is no other way than by the creation of a Superior Direction.[iv]
After digesting these reports, and in pursuance of previous conversations, Mr. Lloyd George wrote on October 30, 1917, to Premier Painlevé as follows:
I am convinced from my experience of the last three years that the fact that the result of the third year's war is a definite military success for Germany and a definite military reverse for the Allies is in great measure also due to defects in their mutual arrangements for conducting the War.
As compared to the enemy, the fundamental weakness of the Allies is that the direction of their military operations lacks real unity. At a very early stage of the War Germany established a practically despotic dominion over all her allies. She not only reorganised their armies and assumed direction of the military strategy, but she took control also over their economic resources, so that the Central Empires and Turkey are today, to all intents and purposes, a military Empire with one command and one front. The Allies, on the other hand, have never followed suit. The direction of the War on their side has remained in the hands of four separate Governments and four separate General Staffs, each of which is possessed of complete knowledge only of its own front and of its own national resources, and which draws up a plan of campaign which is designed to produce results mainly on its own section of front. Attempts have been made to remedy the defects of this system by means of Inter-Allied Conferences, which have lately been of increased frequency. But up to the present these conferences have never been fully representative, and at best have done little more than attempt to synchronise what are in reality four separate plans of campaign. There has never been an Allied body which had the knowledge of the resources of all the Allies, which could prepare a single coördinated plan for utilising those resources in the most decisive manner, taking into account the political, economic, and diplomatic as well as the military weaknesses of the Central Powers.
The crushing of Serbia and the opening of the road to the East in 1915, the total defeat of Roumania in 1916, and now the break-through in Italy in 1917, may be largely, although not entirely, traced to the attempt to conduct the War in a series of water-tight compartments. It is very remarkable that each winter the Central Powers have been able to make a crushing attack on the weakest member of the Entente with complete success while no adequate counter-preparation has been made by the Allies to meet the danger, and that during these same winters, no corresponding serious efforts have been made by the Allies to weaken Germany by concentrating against her weaker allies and so destroying the props upon which her power depends. These results, which mean that the enemy has steadily deprived us of the preponderance of men and resources we would otherwise have possessed, while compelling us to squander our resources all over the globe without achieving decisive results anywhere, would probably never have happened, had there been any such unity of direction on the Allied side as exists in the case of the Germanic Alliance. If we are to win the War, it will only be because the Allied nations are willing to subordinate everything else to the supreme purpose of bringing to bear upon the Central Empires in the most effective manner possible, the maximum pressure military, economic, and political which the Allies can command.
There is, I am sure, only one way in which this can be done, and that is by creating a joint council -- a kind of Inter-Allied General Staff-- to work out the plans and watch continuously the course of events, for the Allies as a whole. This council would not, of course, supersede the several Governments. It would simply be advisory to them, the final decisions, and the orders necessary to give effect to them, being given by the Governments concerned. But it would be a council possessed of full knowledge of the resources of all the Allies, not only in men and munitions, but in shipping, railway material and so forth, which would act as a kind of General Staff to the Alliance to advise as to the best methods of winning the War, looking at the fronts and the resources available as a whole. Its composition might be settled later. But provisionally I would suggest that it should consist of one, or perhaps two, political representatives of first-rate authority from each of the Allies, with a military staff of its own and possibly naval and economic staffs as well.[v]
The foregoing three quotations, written a quarter of a century ago, abundantly repay the most careful reading and re-reading today. For they were written in a situation which was strikingly similar to the military situation in which the United Nations now find themselves. The present situation is the same in principle even though it is somewhat more complicated and has wider geographical limits.
Twenty-five years ago the leaders of the Allied Powers had learned by defeat and cruel disappointment, at the price of the lives of thousands of brave men and the untold suffering entailed by the unnecessary prolongation of the war, the fact that a coalition cannot successfully make war unless and until it possesses an authoritative inter-allied agency for the unified direction of the war. It is a sad commentary on human intelligence that this lesson, bought so dearly at the price of blood and treasure, has now apparently to be re-learned all over again at the same price before it can be applied to conditions almost precisely identical to those of 1917.
In 1917 Russia was lost to the Allies very largely because of conditions brought about by a military defeat. That military defeat in turn was due to many causes but chiefly to the Russian lack of munitions and equipment. To supply this lack would have been the first aim of any really closely coördinated Allied policy.
The one serious attempt to open a direct line of communications with Russia, undertaken in the campaign in the Dardanelles, had failed. On three separate occasions it had been within a maddening inch of success. It had failed because the British and French Governments and staffs could not make up their minds to send to the Dardanelles sufficient forces to insure success. They preferred to waste these forces in bloody failures at Neuve Chapelle and Loos. A reinforcement consisting merely of the casualties of these two useless battles and of the ammunition fired away in them without result would, in April, in May, or even in August of 1915, have made the Allies a present of Constantinople and the gateway to the Black Sea.
The Allies had been too late at Saloniki to save Serbia from being overrun, because London and Paris could not make up their minds to act in sufficient force together and in time. And so the war had gone. Chance after chance had been thrown away. No substitute had been found for the lost opportunities save the mounting butcher's bill in the blood-soaked trenches of the West.
Even there the situation had tended to deteriorate. In late 1917 a friend said to General Weygand, then Foch's Chief of Staff: "However bad our situation may seem now, it was worse for you and General Foch at the Marne; for you were then heavily outnumbered and we will still be superior until the month of April." Weygand answered: "Our situation is much worse now; for then we had the magnificent plan of Marshal Joffre and now we have no plan at all."[vi]
But at long last the lesson was being learned and steps were being taken to fulfill the need which so many had appreciated "theoretically and rhetorically" but about which so little had been done. Yet there was opposition in high quarters to any plan for any type of unified command or direction of the war -- not to the idea, to which most leaders gave lip service, but to any definite and practical step toward its realization. Some quotations from the diaries of Colonel Repington will give an idea of the nature and origin of these objections:
Monday, Nov. 5 . Lunched with Evelyn FitzGerald at his rooms. Jack Cowans and Sutherland, the P.M.'s secretary, also there. I attacked the latter at once about the beastly things that were being said about the General Staff and told him how it was alienating many of L. G.'s friends. We told him that the Army was greatly under establishment, that the Allied War Council was eye-wash and that the only thing that mattered was to raise fresh divisions and make up the deficit . . . .
Tuesday, Nov. 6. Went to see a friend at the F. O . . . . He is very sarcastic about the Inter-Allied Staff, and asks whom will they advise, and will they have any executive power?
Wednesday, Nov. 7. Went to see Winston [Churchill] in the afternoon . . . . He is as much for the Inter-Allied Staff as I am against it. . . . I saw a lot of leading soldiers home from France. They all hate the Inter-Allied Staff like the devil.
Monday, Nov. 12. Lunched with [Sir William] Robertson, just back from Italy. He had written to say that I needed no telling of the meaning of the new Paris Military Committee. He says that he had nothing whatever to do with setting up the new machinery . . . we are both contemptuous of making war by committee. He assures me that Haig saw the P. M. Sunday week and was asked what he thought of it. Haig criticized it severely. Some very crisp remarks on each side followed. I can take it that the G.H.Q. are as much opposed to the Versailles Military Committee as we are. R. is sure that Eric Geddes and the Admiralty would not allow a naval officer to act as Wilson is to act. . . . It appears that Pétain dislikes the scheme as much as we do.
Friday, Nov. 16. . . . Lucas described to me the fury of Haig's generals about the Rapallo agreement, and said that they were all unanimous. Robertson has not resigned, nor has Haig. But . . . the new plan is riddled with criticism.[vii]
The opposition in Great Britain was so strong that Mr. Lloyd George had to proceed with great care. He himself divides the progress which he made into two parts. Aiming at securing a single inter-Allied Commander-in-Chief for the Western Front, he began by getting a Supreme War Council composed of political leaders, with military advisers, and went on to the unified command later.
It was plain then, as it is plain now, that no inter-Allied Commander-in-Chief could serve four separate political superiors. The need was first for political unity of direction, upon which military unity of command would easily and naturally follow. The Supreme War Council as established by the conference at Rapallo consisted of the Prime Ministers of Great Britain, France and Italy, with one additional minister for each country. Each country appointed a military representative to provide the Council with adequate professional advice. Afterwards Colonel House sat with the Supreme War Council as a representative of the President of the United States and General Bliss became the American military member.
Thus, under the pressure of almost continuous disaster, an organized superior direction for the Allies was at last achieved. Unity of command had yet to be attained. It did not come until the imminent presence of final and complete defeat compelled it in the following spring. It was resisted by the same parochial and narrow interests and points of view which resisted the creation of the Supreme War Council, and which will always resist any arrangement in a war of coalition which seems to lessen in the least degree the complete local authority of any national government or commander.
Yet from the very moment that the Supreme War Council began to function, the fortunes of the Allies began slowly but sensibly to improve; and from the moment that unity of command was achieved, they rose skyward with almost the velocity of a rocket.
Today we face the same problems and we shall find their solution by the same means. It is useless to discuss the separate component problems which go to make up the central problem of how to beat our enemies -- the need to increase production, or the virtues of bombing as contrasted to land operations, or the respective values of battleships and aircraft carriers -- until we have made up our collective mind as to how we are going to use our strength and until we have created a machinery for making our plan effective in the various theaters of operations where our joint efforts must strike down our joint enemies. Until that time comes, those enemies will continue to enjoy the inestimable advantage of complete unity not only of strategic direction but of military command.
"The conduct of war by a coalition really poses two fundamental problems," wrote General Réquin -- "a problem of command in the most general sense of the term, which requires the appointment of inter-Allied Commanders-in-Chief and a unified strategic and political direction of the war; a problem of inter-Allied organization, seeking to place in a common pool the economic forces of the coalition in order to obtain from them the highest possible efficiency."[viii]
The more total the war we fight, the more total must be the measures we take for common action in the common cause. Let us overcome our disinclination to think that men have never before faced problems of the same desperate sort and the same enormous magnitude that we face. Let us force our minds back to the times when they did face the same problems. Let us learn by their costly delays and mistakes. Let us profit by their eventual success. Let us strain every nerve to win the elusive spirit of coalition based on mutual confidence which is the soul of effective action by nations allied in war. "Its attainment," in the words of General Réquin, "is difficult, but it is the price of victory."
[i] General Tasker H. Bliss, "The Evolution of the Unified Command," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, December 15, 1922.
[ii] "War Memoirs of David Lloyd George." Boston: Little, Brown, 1934, v. 4, p. 511.
[iii] "War Memoirs of David Lloyd George." Boston: Little, Brown, 1934, v. 4, p. 539-40.
[iv] "War Memoirs of David Lloyd George." Boston: Little, Brown, 1934, v. 4, p. 541-544.
[v] "War Memoirs of David Lloyd George," v. 4, p. 545-547.
[vi] Peter E. Wright. "At the Supreme War Council." London: Eveleigh Nash, 1921, p. 63.
[vii] Colonel Charles à Court Repington, "The First World War." Boston: Houghton, 1920, v. 2, p. 128-134.
[viii] "La Direction des Operations Militaires dans une Guerre de Coalition." General Edouard Réquin, Revue des Questions de Défense Nationale, June 1939.