The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
THE WORLD CRISIS, 1916-1918. BY THE RT. HON. WINSTON S. CHURCHILL. 2 vols. New York: Scribner's, 1927.
MR. CHURCHILL is a student of Macaulay. Unfortunately he has confined his studies to the literary methods of the master. The result is that, while he has given us two eminently readable and in parts brilliantly written volumes, he has, in treading dangerous ground, plunged up to his neck in many a hole. In England to-day oratory is almost dead, and with the decline of oratory the rhetorical style has lapsed into disuse. So, where we find the sonorous periods and the biting invective of the early Victorians applied to descriptions of current events, we experience all the charm of novelty, we are swept along by the exuberance and compelling force of our author, and are little disposed to pause and question his facts.
This method, admirably suited to the politician on the platform, whose object is to persuade an audience not likely to be too well informed of detail, has its dangers when applied to the printed word, and particularly to the printed word dressed in the guise of history. Even Macaulay, trained in the historical method and an expert in historical research, was tempted into rounding off a period at the expense of calm criticism and of cold fact. The amateur historian with a case to maintain should think twice before daring to assume the mantle of Macaulay. Mr. Churchill has a very definite case to maintain. It is that the Great War could have been won far more quickly and more cheaply in the East than it was won in the West. Here is an appeal ad hominem admirably suited to the rhetorician. A public still appalled by the sacrifices of war is only too ready to listen to attacks upon those who called for those sacrifices. Mr. Churchill supplies them with a full measure of those attacks. Almost every general, British, French and German, concerned in the war in the West is exhibited to us as a slow-witted, unimaginative blunderer who sent his men to useless slaughter.
Mr. Churchill's main thesis is that the soldiers' doctrine of attack as the best form of defence was, as far as war in the West was concerned, out of date and entirely inapplicable to the circumstances of the time, so it is of interest to observe that his method of defending himself against the attacks which have been made upon him for his share in the débâcle of the Dardanelles is to assume the offensive vigorously and to assault all who opposed that unfortunate enterprise. Now bold assertion and vigorous declamation are not sufficient to support attacks upon persons, unless they have behind them a reserve of fact. Here is where Mr. Churchill's tactics in his latest two volumes fail. The failure is regrettable. During the period which Mr. Churchill describes he had, owing to the collapse of the Dardanelles campaign, ceased to be a member of the British Government, and for the first part he was occupied in commanding a battalion on the Western front and in defending himself before the Dardanelles Commission, while during the second he had rejoined the administration in the minor ministerial post of Minister of Munitions. "Not allowed to make plans I was set to make weapons." He can therefore no longer speak with the authority which he possessed in the first two volumes of the series, when he wrote as First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the inner council of the Government. But in these last volumes Mr. Churchill's misstatements of fact are so many and so grave that no historian will in future be able to accept any of his assertions about the war without the most careful checking of references.
Mr. Churchill begins his last book with a fierce attack upon Joffre. "This bull-headed, broad-shouldered, slow-thinking, phlegmatic, bucolic personage" was, as it appears, nothing but an impassive, useless figurehead, with no ideas but to send brave men to their deaths against barbed-wire and machine guns. This portrait is based upon a book called "G. H. Q." by M. Jean de Pierrefeu, a clever French journalist, described by Mr. Churchill as "a writer of extraordinary force and distinction" who was employed at French headquarters to draft the official communiqués. His book has had a succès de scandale and his caricature of Joffre is as true as are the caricatures of most scandalmongers. Now the writer of history should of course use all sources of information, and I make no complaint that Mr. Churchill has drawn upon M. de Pierrefeu's biting description of life at Chantilly. But I do charge Mr. Churchill with gross negligence in relying upon this so-called authority and upon a number of others of equal value and in neglecting altogether the part of the French Official History dealing with the prelude to the battle of the Marne, which was published more than a year before his own book.
Here is Mr. Churchill's description of the battle of the Marne:
"Joffre and the French head-quarters were withdrawing their armies with the avowed intention of turning on their pursuers and fighting a decisive battle at an early date. Exactly when or where they would fight they had not determined. All the armies were in constant contact and everything was in flux. But certainly they contemplated making their supreme effort at some moment, when the five pursuing German armies were between the horns of Paris and Verdun.
"Gallièni's intervention decided this moment and decided it gloriously. He it was who had insisted on the defence of the capital when Joffre had advocated declaring it an open town. He had inspired the Government to order Joffre to place a field army at his disposal for its defence. When the endless columns of the righthand German army skirting Paris turned south-east he decided instantly to strike at their exposed flank with his whole force. He set all his troops in motion towards the east, he convinced Joffre that the moment had come to strike, and he persuaded him that the flanking thrust should be made to the north rather than to the south of the Marne, as Joffre had proposed. Finally he struck his blow with all the sureness and spontaneity of military genius, and the blow heralded the battle whose results saved Europe!"
Almost the whole of this last paragraph is pure fable.
General Galliéni was appointed Military Governor of Paris on August 26th, 1914, and he at once set himself energetically to prepare for the defence of the French capital. He wrote during the war an account of his doings, which was published after his death by his pious relatives under the title "Mémoires du Général Galliéni. Défense de Paris." This book is an honest description of what General Galliéni conceived to be his part in the great whole. But he was able to view events from one angle only, that of the extreme left of the Allied line. He, like the other French commanders, knew just as much and no more of the Commander-in-Chief's ideas and plans as was necessary for him to know in order to play his part. It is clear that he did not understand the whole plan and I think that had he lived he would have considerably revised his memoirs before publication. But his children, as is the way with pious relatives, wishing to gain credit for their distinguished father, rushed the memoirs into print and in so doing have done him poor service. The appearance of this book was the signal for a series of attacks upon Joffre. The French public wanted a scapegoat for the failure of the Battles of the Frontiers and for the invasion of France and here was the opportunity. Mr. Churchill has swallowed these attacks whole, perhaps with less reluctance because Joffre was a convinced Westerner.
Now a full year before the publication of Mr. Churchill's book there appeared Tome I, volume II, of the French Official History of the War,[i] with two large volumes of Annexes, containing every official French military document relating to the events leading up to the battle of the Marne. The account is coldly impartial. There is no comment, no criticism, there are no sonorous periods, there is no brilliant description. All the evidence is given in extenso. From this account the following facts appear: On August 25th, the day after the breakdown of the original French plan of campaign had become apparent, Joffre issued General Instruction No. II, of which the first paragraph runs: "The projected offensive manoeuvre being impossible of execution, the future operations will be regulated with a view to the reconstitution on our left, by the junction of the IVth and Vth Armies, the British Army and new forces drawn from the region of the east, of a mass capable of resuming the offensive, while the other armies contain for the necessary time the efforts of the enemy."
Here is the genesis of the battle of the Marne, for this plan formed on August 25th was adhered to resolutely in circumstances of great adversity and brought to final and triumphant execution on September 9th. It is a plan drawn by a large mind on a large scale. No piece-meal counter-attack is envisaged; the Vth and IVth French Armies, the British Army and the new army to be created (Maunoury's VIth Army, later to be known to fame as the taxi-cab army) are to attack together.
Joffre had hoped to bring off this counter-offensive on the Somme about the end of August, but the German pursuit was too rapid. Von Kluck catches up the British 2nd Corps and forces it to fight on August 26th at Le Cateau. Thereafter the British Army retreats rapidly. In order to relieve the pressure on the British, Joffre orders his Vth Army to attack the Germans, which it does on August 29th. While the Vth Army is fighting von Bülow's IInd Army, those on its right and left are retreating. On the 30th von Kluck, responding to an appeal from von Bülow, begins from the neighborhood of Amiens a swerve southeastwards against the left flank of the bold Vth Army. Simultaneously the right of that army is threatened by the advance of von Hausens' IIIrd German Army, and it is in a very tight place. But this Vth Army is to play a vital part in Joffre's counteroffensive, and this it cannot do until it has been disengaged. So for the next few days Joffre's mind is concentrated on calculating how and when he can free the Vth Army from the clutches of the enemy, and on this he bases his plans and calculations for the great battle which he has projected.
On September 1st Joffre orders Maunoury with his VIth Army to cover Paris on its northern and north-eastern fronts, and directs Sarrail commanding the IIIrd French Army around Verdun to send his IVth Corps to Paris to reinforce Maunoury. It was a part of this corps which was eventually sent forward by Galliéni in taxi cabs. On the same day he puts Maunoury under the command of Galliéni and requests the War Minister to place the fortress of Paris under his command, "in order that, if opportunity arises, he might be able to combine the operations of the mobile garrison of the fortress with those of the field armies." This is the first definite hint of a movement from Paris against the enemy's flank, though it is the natural sequence to the order of August 25th, to which Joffre adheres. Galliéni is at this time, quite naturally, entirely occupied with the defence of Paris and has made no suggestion that the garrison should be employed in attack.
On the evening of September 1st, Joffre, having made his calculations as to how long it will take to free the Vth Army, issues General Instruction No. IV, in which, after explaining that circumstances have made it necessary to continue the retreat, he goes on: "As soon as the Vth Army shall have escaped from the menace of envelopment against its left, the IIIrd, IVth and Vth Armies together will resume the offensive. The limit of the retreat, without any implication that this limit must necessarily be reached, may be taken to be, for the Vth Army, behind the Seine."
The next evening he amplifies this instruction in a note to his army commanders and to Galliéni, in which after specifying the limit of the retreat he says that as soon as it is completed the offensive will be resumed on the whole front. "The British Army will be asked to participate in this offensive by passing to the attack on this front as soon as the Vth Army passes to the attack. The garrison of Paris will attack simultaneously in the direction of Meaux (i.e. eastwards against the German flank)."
On the morning of September 3rd Joffre details his plans in a long memorandum to the Minister of War, which concludes with the statement that his intention is "to prepare an early offensive, in coöperation with the British Army and with the mobile troops of the garrison of Paris."
Thus on three several occasions Joffre has indicated, in terms which grow in precision as the situation develops, his intention of using the garrison of Paris to attack the German flank as part of a great plan of combined offence, and he suggests the possibility, but no more, of having to retreat to the Seine in order to free the Vth Army for attack. No hint of any kind has yet come from Galliéni that his troops could be used to attack the Germans. These orders Mr. Churchill describes in the following terms: "He (Joffre) issued orders for a general retreat of the French Armies, which contemplated withdrawal not merely behind the Marne but behind the Seine and comprised the isolation both of Paris and Verdun." How far that is a fair and complete summary of Joffre's plan the reader may judge.
Now let us turn for a moment to the Germans. As we have seen, von Kluck on August 30th began to prepare for his wheel southeastwards. This movement, accentuated on the 31st, was known to Joffre on September 1st mainly as the result of British air reconnaissances. On September 2nd further confirmation of von Kluck's movement was received, but that night and on the morning of the 3rd there was some doubt. A portion of von Kluck's army was again marching southwards, apparently towards Paris. The reason was that on September 1st part of von Kluck's cavalry and advanced guards had bumped incautiously into the British Army and had been roughly handled. So on the 2nd von Kluck had turned again southwards hoping to catch and outflank again the British Army. Failing in this, on September 3rd he resumed his march south-eastwards, and again the British airmen informed Joffre, who that afternoon was satisfied that Paris was in no immediate danger, many hours before he received confirmatory information from Galliéni. If he is relieved of anxiety about Paris, the confirmation of von Kluck's movements increases his anxiety for the safe withdrawal of his Vth Army, which remains the pivot of his plan. Von Kluck is obviously aiming at the left flank of that army and even its right flank is not secure. To meet this latter danger Joffre had formed the left wing of his IVth Army into a separate command and placed it under Foch.
On the evening of September 3rd Galliéni receives his first indication that the Germans are not advancing upon Paris but marching past its north-eastern front. He at once sees the possibility of striking a blow at the German left flank, which he knows to be part of his Commander-in-Chief's plan. But he has not in his possession the complete information which Joffre enjoys and therefore before making up his mind he orders cavalry and air reconnaissances to be sent out early on September 4th, to obtain confirmation of the direction of von Kluck's march. That night Joffre telegraphs to Galliéni: "Part of General Maunoury's forces should be pushed at once towards the east to menace the German right in order that the left of the British Army may feel that it is supported on this side. It would be well to inform Marshal French of this and to keep in constant relations with him."
Accordingly Galliéni, having received confirmatory reports from his reconnaissances, issues at 9 o'clock in the morning an order to Maunoury to be prepared to move east, saying that he will define the direction of the movement later, and he gets his chief of the staff to telephone to Joffre that he is ready to attack either on the north or on the south bank of the Marne. To this Joffre replies at mid-day that he prefers the south bank. The reason for this is obvious. On the morning of September 4th von Kluck's columns cross the Marne, but only the left of the Vth Army is over that river, its right is not yet disengaged. Joffre therefore considers that he will have still to wait a day or two for his complete battle, by which time von Kluck will have plunged still deeper into the country south of the Marne. It is still on the state and position of the French Vth Army that Joffre's plan depends. He has removed Lanrezac from the command of that army and placed it under Franchet d'Espérey, and at 12.45 p.m. he sends to the latter this message: "The circumstances are such that it may be advantageous to deliver battle to-morrow or the day after with the whole of the Vth Army in concert with the British Army and the mobile garrison of Paris against the 1st and 2nd German Armies. Inform me immediately you can attack with prospect of success." This message reaches Franchet d'Espérey when he is conferring with Sir Henry Wilson, then sub-chief of Sir John French's staff. D'Espérey immediately replies: "The Vth Army cannot be ready for battle till the 6th. On the 5th it will continue its retreat. The British Army will change front facing east on condition that its left flank is supported by the VIth Army, which should advance to the line of the Ourcq on September 5th." At 4.45 p.m. Franchet d'Espérey sends Joffre a further message: "The closest coöperation of the VIth Army on the left bank of the Ourcq to the north-east of Meaux on the morning of the 6th is essential. It must be on the Ourcq to-morrow September 5th."
It was on receipt of this message that Joffre said to his staff, "Very well gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne," and he gave instructions for the preparation of the order issued on the night of September 4th which contained the full plan for the battle of the Marne. Joffre's headquarters were at that time at Chatillon-sur-Seine in a house which had belonged to Marshal Marmont, and it was in a room called the Chambre de l'Empéreur that the scheme which defeated the Germans was completed. Meanwhile Galliéni, having issued the orders to Maunoury to be prepared to move eastwards, had soon after noon set out with that general to the British headquarters to see Sir John French and arrange for the coöperation of the British Army. Sir John French had gone off to see his troops, but the two French generals met General Murray, the British Chief of the Staff. The three concerted a plan, subject to confirmation by the British Commander-in-Chief, for an attack by Maunoury south of the Marne against von Kluck's flank, while the British Army attacked his left. While Joffre's orders were being prepared a staff officer arrived at his headquarters with this proposal. To this Joffre answered at once that he preferred Franchet d'Espérey's plan and he directed that the orders should not be changed. On the morning of September 5th he telegraphs to M. Millerand, then Minister for War: "The strategic situation is excellent and we cannot count on better conditions for our offensive. The struggle about to begin may have decisive results, but may also have for the country, in case of check, the gravest consequences. I have decided to engage our troops to the utmost and without reserve to obtain victory."
Well as we know, the victory was obtained. And when it was won a grateful and surprised country, suddenly relieved from a great menace, dubbed it the "miracle of the Marne." At first the credit for producing the miracle was given to Foch, whose counter-attack on September 9th was said to have driven the German Guard into the Marshes of St. Gond. In fact, as we now know, the German Guard had begun to retreat before Foch's counterattack reached them. Then the credit was given to Galliéni, who was said to have dragged an unwilling Commander-in-Chief on to the Marne. All the while the real engineer of victory remained silent, not a word of recrimination or of controversy has issued from him. Confident that the facts would come to light, he was silent. And the facts came to light a year before Mr. Churchill perverted his brilliant pen to give a last flicker to fiction.
"The bull-headed, broad-shouldered, slow-thinking, bucolic personage" had, when the original French plan of campaign, elaborated during years of peace, came tumbling about his ears, when the territory of one weak Ally was over-run and its army was shut up in a fortress, when the small army of another was on the exposed flank and in a position of dire peril, when five German armies confident of victory were sweeping forward into France, promptly formed a new plan of campaign, and, with an immense load of responsibility on his shoulders, had adhered to that plan through times of stress and friction, political and military, until he was able to execute it as originally conceived. The pages of military history record few finer examples of broad vision, of courageous and resolute generalship.
I have preferred for obvious reasons to deal at some length with that part of Mr. Churchill's book as to which the historical evidence is complete or very nearly complete, rather than with those parts which raise questions still in the realm of speculation. As to these we must wait with such patience as we can command the appearance of the material for a final judgment. But even in these matters it is already possible to convict Mr. Churchill of many errors. His thesis is that the theory of war of the generals who commanded on the western front, Allied and German, was radically wrong. "During the whole war," he says, "the Germans never lost in any phase of the fighting more than the French whom they fought, and frequently inflicted double casualties upon them." And again, "in all the British offensives the British casualties were never less than 3.2 and often nearly double the corresponding German losses." Lastly, turning to the Germans he says: "It was their own offensive, not ours, that consummated their ruin. They were worn down not by Joffre, Nivelle and Haig, but by Ludendorff."
These statements he supports with a mass of figures and tables admirably calculated to deceive the lay reader. Some of his tables are incomplete, his methods of handling his statistics are incorrect and his deductions from them therefore erroneous. Speaking of the immense losses of the French in the early days of the war he says: "In the mighty battle of the Frontiers the magnitude and losses of which is scarcely now known to British consciousness more than 300,000 Frenchmen were killed, wounded, and made prisoners." Elsewhere he defines the battles of the Frontiers as those which occurred in the four days from August 21st to August 24th. Now the French Official History gives us the complete French losses for the field armies for the 22 days from August 10th to August 31st; they were (exclusive of officers) 206,515 killed, wounded, missing and prisoners. Of the forces engaged in the battle of the Marne he writes: "In 1914, during the four days from August 21st to 24th inclusive 80 German divisions were engaged with 62 French, 4 British, and 6 Belgian divisions. The four decisive days of the Marne, September 6th to 9th, involved approximately the same numbers." Turning again to the French Official History we find that the actual forces engaged in the battle of the Marne were: German, 46 divisions and 7 cavalry divisions; French, 51 divisions and 8 cavalry divisions; British, 5 divisions and 1 cavalry division. Joffre by skilful generalship had brought superior forces to the decisive battlefield. Of the battle of the Somme of 1916 Mr. Churchill is highly critical and he makes the Allied losses in that battle to be 700,000. The actual returns of the French and British commanders-in-chief show them to be 486,162. In almost every case in which exact information is available Mr. Churchill's figures are proved to be erroneous. He supports his thesis by exaggerating the losses of the Allies and minimizing those of the Germans.
If errors in intricate military calculations may be expected from Mr. Churchill, we at least look to a statesman of his experience for good guidance in estimating the effect of the psychology of peoples upon events, and it is here that he is most grievously at fault. Having set out to prove that attack in the West was wrong he is compelled to advance an alternative policy. "And is there not also a virtue in 'saving up'? . . . Suppose that the British Army sacrificed upon the Somme, the finest we ever had, had been preserved, trained and developed to its full strength till the summer of 1917, till perhaps 3,000 tanks were ready, till an overwhelming artillery was prepared, till a scientific method of continuous advance had been devised, till the apparatus was complete, might not a decisive result have been achieved at one supreme stroke?"
The reader will recall that during the summer of 1916, while the French, fighting desperately, were being slowly pushed back on Verdun, while the British Army at Joffre's request was waiting and preparing, the question was loudly and persistently asked in France and in America too, "What is the British Army doing?" How could the Alliance have been kept together, if while Russia was being driven back across the plains of Poland, while Serbia and Rumania were being over-run, while the Germans were on the point of entering or had perhaps entered Verdun, a policy of "saving up" till 1917 had been the British policy? Be it remembered that before giving the word for the combined Franco-British assault on the Somme, Joffre had waited until the Germans had captured the forts of Vaux and Thiaumont. He could wait no longer.
Turning to the German offensive of 1918, Mr. Churchill says: "Had they not squandered their strength in Ludendorff's supreme offensive in 1918 there was no reason why they should not have maintained their front in France practically unaltered during the whole year, and retreated at their leisure during the winter no further than the Meuse." What should we be saying to-day of Ludendorff, if with Russia collapsed, with the power of assembling superior forces in the West, with America in the war and landing daily more and more troops in France, he had waited passively until the assembly of an immense American army had enabled the Allies to crush him? How could he, by "saving up" have kept his people, daily suffering greater and greater privations, in the war with the spectre of America's might looming more and more formidable in their eyes? Such suggestions are childish.
Mr. Churchill's alternative policy for the Western front will merely make soldiers laugh. "Suppose we, both French and British, have trained our armies behind the front line to a high standard of flexible manoeuvring efficiency, suppose we have permanently fortified with concrete and every modern device those parts of the front where we cannot retreat, suppose we have long selected and skilfully weakened those parts where we could afford to give 20 or 30 kilometres of ground, suppose we lure the enemy to attack them and make great pockets and bulges in a thin and yielding front, and then just as he thinks himself pressing on to final victory, strike with independent counter-offensive on the largest scale and with deeply planned railways not at his fortified trench line, but at the flank of a moving quivering line of battle."
To which we may answer, suppose that the Germans were not absolute fools, suppose that they had airmen equipped with good cameras, who photographed every line of trenches, every railway, every depot, every dump of ammunition. Suppose that the results of these photographs were plotted on to maps which showed in detail every defensive preparation of the Allies. In that case, which was the real case, we may refer Mr. Churchill to the Proverb -- "Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird."
[i] "Les Armées Françaises dans la Grande Guerre." Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1925.