The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
WAR MEMOIRS OF DAVID LLOYD GEORGE. VOL. V. 1917-1918. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1936, 464 p. $3.00.
POLITICS and military strategy are like oil and water. They do not mix well. In a war between merely two nations, such as the Franco-German War of 1870-71, politics should and in fact must govern: that is, the commander must lay his plans and policies before his political chief for approval or, if there are possible alternative courses, with the arguments pro and con for each. But once a course of action has been adopted the military commander should be unhampered in its execution. The relations between Bismarck and Moltke, and between Lincoln and Grant, are ideal examples of how a war can be conducted with the minimum of friction and the maximum of effect.
In a coalition war the friction at best becomes intensified and at worst makes any satisfactory achievement almost impossible. In this respect the Central Powers in the World War were much better off than the Allies. The Austrian Emperor was old and feeble and made no claim to any voice in the military decisions; Turkey and Bulgaria were distinctly minor Powers dependent upon Germany both for help and for ultimate success and could not demand to be consulted in the planning. None the less, the friction between the armies and general staffs became bitter, especially between the German and the Austro-Hungarian. The contempt of the German General Staff for the Hapsburg military establishment was expressed in the common saying, "Germany entered the war tied to a corpse."
Nor were the relations between the Allies to be described as amicable. True, they were engaged in mortal combat against a common enemy; but while the troops and commanders near the front were usually content to coöperate, the respective war departments in the rear were seldom in accord or willing to waive their special interests. And as for the political cabinets in control of the various governments, they were constantly at loggerheads. The basic difficulty was not quarrelsome tendencies on the part of individuals. The opposing national interests were fundamental; throughout the war the nations were concerned with the problem of what each was going to get out of it and how to get it at the lowest individual cost. Thus, while all the Allies wanted to defeat Germany, the English were naturally much more willing to sacrifice the last French soldier to attain that objective than to drain the dregs of British man power. The French heartily reciprocated and were prepared to shed only crocodile tears over damage to the British navy or to British financial supremacy.
The fact that the Allied Governments were working at cross purposes was brought home to us by the advent in Washington of two diplomatic and military missions, sent by Great Britain and France respectively, each having as its purpose to inform the American Government what it must do to save the war from being lost.
It was learned afterwards that the French Government had taken the initiative in proposing to the British the sending of a joint Anglo-French mission to coach the United States as to the imperative necessities dictated by the real situation as distinguished from that assumed in Allied propaganda. But the British had replied to the French suggestion that, while approving in principle, they felt the time for such a mission was scarcely ripe, and that it was better to wait and see what the American Government proposed doing in the war, and then to draft the joint and necessary counter-proposals. The result was that both governments sent their own missions, each apparently hoping to forestall the other.
The missions of the two principal Allied Powers were alike in giving the President and his advisers a gloomy outlook on the situation as contrasted with the propaganda view commonly accepted, in this country at least. Both demanded immediate assistance in money, supplies of every kind, and man power. Marshal Joffre, moreover, wanted an American military unit, a division if possible, sent to France at once to hearten the French army and people; and after that as many men as possible to build up the French forces.
The chiefs of mission, naturally, were discreet in pressing their respective desires, though each wanted men to incorporate in his own army. Their subordinates, however, were more frank in talking with our General Staff officers. The French Army, according to members of the French mission, was the greatest in Europe. It had the best trained and most experienced officers, who would soon learn our language. The English officers, they implied, were an ill-assorted lot who, moreover, handled their men in an autocratic way that Americans would never stand. The French argued further that our common republican institutions would form a basis for good fellowship between their men and ours.
The British members, meanwhile, presented the view that their army was now the chief bulwark of the Allies. All it needed was man power, and that we alone could supply. It had the finest officer corps in the world, ready and waiting to train and lead our men, while the French officers, on the contrary, were hopelessly undependable. Further, the language difficulty would be an insuperable obstacle to a mutual understanding between our men and the French. If there were more time, we might of course raise our own army; but, they said, the desperate situation did not permit of delay, and consequently the only solution was to send over our men to be incorporated in the British Army, as a preliminary measure at least.
President Wilson was duly impressed with the gravity of the situation as presented to him, but did not accept either of the two solutions offered. He would send a division at once if they considered it necessary, and later would send an army; but it would have to be an American Army, fighting as such under its own commanders, in coöperation with the Allies.
This was the first of the series of great decisions made by President Wilson which paved the way for the victory in 1918. It was incorporated in the orders under which General Pershing was sent to France. These read, in part:
The President designates you to command all the land forces of the United States operating [in Europe]. . . . In military operations against the Imperial German Government you are directed to coöperate with the forces of the other countries employed against that enemy; but in so doing the underlying idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved. This fundamental rule is subject to such minor exceptions in particular circumstances as your judgment may approve. The action is confided to you, and you will exercise full discretion in determining the manner of cooperation. . . .[i]
Let us rapidly review the war up to the time of our participation. In 1914 the greatest military machine the world had ever seen was turned loose against the combined armies of France, Great Britain and Belgium. Minor forces were detached to hold back the Russians in the east. But the German military colossus had a fatal weakness; unlike the Biblical image of Babylon with feet of clay it proved to have a head of clay in that it lacked, for the first three years at least, a competent commander-in-chief.
The years of preparatory staff planning enabled the German Army to gain a complete initial success in the west; but at the crucial moment it incredibly surrendered its advantage by turning to a defensive rôle and neglecting to occupy Paris, which would have compromised the rail communications of the French army, or the Pas de Calais, which would have cut the channel communications of the British Army.[ii]
It is true that the French Army had the necessary numbers to cope with the German advance, but a faulty initial strategic deployment operated in combination with deficiencies in training, equipment, staff work and tactical leadership to paralyze its effectiveness. As to the British Army, it was "contemptible" only in size. In training, leadership and morale it proved itself superior to the German throughout the war.
Owing to events in the east, the Germans remained on the defensive in the west until 1916. Then the high command continued its blunders by attacking the wrong army, the French, at Verdun, failing to realize that "Kitchener's Army" was not its most formidable opponent. The Somme battle soon neutralized the minor advantages gained by the Germans at Verdun.
By the autumn of 1916 the Germans at last secured a good commander in Hindenburg, the first one able to dominate the imperial busybody. However, he was handicapped by the lack of military intelligence, not in respect to the spy service -- the Germans had that and knew what was going on in every cabinet on the continent of Europe -- but of ordinary everyday military information. Thus when it came to the fateful question of resorting to unrestricted submarine warfare, despite President Wilson's having plainly indicated that this act would bring America into the war, the German Staff displayed its dense ignorance of economic and military facts by asserting that the United States had no army and could not organize one (it organized one of 4 millions); that even if it had one it could not be transported to France (it transported 2 million in one year and a half); and that even if it got organized and reached the battlefield it would lack the trained commanders and staffs necessary for it to be effective.
Like the French, the Germans knew little of our military history and nothing of our system of intensive staff and higher command training prior to the war. Happily, British officers were better informed; but, regrettably, British politicians were not -- those in the War Cabinet at least. As an interesting side-issue it may be noted that, in general, the French naval officer appeared better acquainted with our military history than did his brother in the land forces.
Until the winter of 1916-1917 the French commander, Joffre, had taken the bit in his teeth and been in supreme control of the front zone, to which members of the cabinet and deputies were alike refused admittance. His position was that the business of the government was to furnish men and munitions and that the fighting was the job of the army commander and his staff. How the latter chose to conduct the fighting was their business. Not only should the government not control, but in order to prevent leaks it should not even be informed of war plans and policies. The deputies grew irked at this state of affairs and sought a more pliable commander. Nivelle promised the moon, and displaced Joffre. His belief was that the German Army "has ceased to exist." The Chemin des Dames, April 1917, proved otherwise and was the end alike of Nivelle and of the offensive capacity of the French Army. A wise choice was Petain's assignment to the French command.
In the British system, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces in France was the subordinate of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The latter was the military adviser of the War Cabinet. In effect, General Sir William Robertson, while he held office as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, acted as a useful buffer between Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and the prime minister.
The friction between the Allied Governments was not the only source of difficulty in the conduct of the war. The tenure of office of the prime ministers of both Great Britain and France was dependent upon their parliaments. There were frequent changes in the French ministry until, in November 1917, Clemenceau was called to the highest office; and while during the war Great Britain had only two prime ministers, Asquith and Lloyd George, the position of the latter was felt to be far from secure. From his "War Memoirs," we learn that he was by no means satisfied with the plans of either the Imperial General Staff or the Commander-in-Chief of the British armies in France for the prosecution of the war in the summer of 1917; but as he was not sustained in his views by the War Cabinet he did not dare either to change commanders and chiefs or insist upon the adoption of his own views for fear of a parliamentary upset for himself and his cabinet. After a perusal of the Lloyd George volumes one feels that in his conflicts of judgment with Field Marshal Haig and General Robertson it was Haig's force of character which prevailed over the volatile prime minister rather than that the latter had any real appreciation of the strategical principles involved.[iii] However that may be, there can be no doubt that Haig's Third Ypres Battle, or "Passchendaele" as Lloyd George calls it, not only saved the situation in 1917 for the Allies but was the only course that, by eating up the German reserves, could have saved France from being overrun by the enemy as surely as was Northern Italy after Caporetto. Colonel Repington, in his "First World War" (v. II, p. 58), under date of September 25, 1917, reports the following conversation between General Maurice and himself:
M. thought that we ought to have a chair at some University to teach budding statesmen the rudiments of war. . . . "A sort of Senior Officers' Staff College Course," I said. "Yes," said M., "to make them understand all the things that the War Cabinet has not been able to grasp throughout the war and cannot grasp now." I told M. that I had said to the Frenchmen that after the war it would be found that 50 percent of the time and energy of soldiers had been expended in fighting their own politicians. M. thought that my percentage was much too low.
Such was the rather gloomy outlook which confronted the American commander and staff upon their arrival in Europe in June of 1917. Not that the British and French Governments were not cordial; both in London and Paris we were greeted as the saviors of the Allied cause. But behind the scenes were unmistakable evidences of inter-Allied and governmental friction which boded ill for a successful outcome to our enterprise.
The fog cleared, however, when we went to Haig's headquarters. There we were informed of the underlying realities of the past and present, of the new developments of staff organization and control, and of his appreciation of the situation. His conclusions and plans may be tersely summarized as follows:
The French Army is finished; it cannot undertake another serious offensive. (It never did!)
Our (British) man power reserve is down to the last eight hundred thousand. After that we are finished. That reserve will be used here for the rest of this year to keep the Germans engaged at a spot they have to defend, thus preventing their having any surplus with which to break through the French lines elsewhere.
This year it will be a British war. But this year will not end it.
Next year it will become America's war. Of course we know you have to have your own army and fight it your way. All our resources, knowledge and skill are at your disposal to help you organize for the tremendous task which confronts you, because we recognize that a successful outcome will be possible only if you are ready to take over the conduct of the war in 1918.
This statement was something for us to tie up to amid the confusion prevailing in the rear areas. Stubborn adherence by Sir Douglas to his plan, despite all interference from the rear, and loyal coöperation between the French and ourselves, was what saved the situation in the fall of 1917 and the spring of 1918 and made possible the victorious end in November 1918.
The fifth volume of Lloyd George's "War Memoirs" has now appeared. In it he presents the point of view of the British Cabinet regarding the events that led up to the spring campaign of 1918. He points out the dearth of information about the real situation behind the enemy's lines and stresses what slender hopes were felt by British and French Headquarters that any effective military aid would be received in time from America. Chapter IV emphasizes correctly enough the fact that British maritime requirements ate heavily into British man power, and also points out the extent to which modern demands for munitions and transport reduced materially the number of men available for technical military service. Foch, he says, "could never understand how essential sea power was to the very existence of the alliance." He gives statistics on this point which will be very important for future Staff College students. But he is unable to understand why Haig and Robertson were continually harping on "rifle strength," seeming not to know that this is the basic element in determining frontages of units.
The volume also gives many important documents concerning the organization of the Supreme War Council, the inter-Allied reserve, the alleged attempt by Robertson to overthrow the British Cabinet, and the final appointment of Foch as Generalissimo. It is hard to believe that in the absence of an inter-Allied Commander-in-Chief the organization of an inter-Allied Reserve was a sound military measure.[iv] To the writer it seems fortunate for the favorable outcome of the defense against the German offensive in March that there should have been friction only between the individual headquarters on the Allied side, without the further complication of another headquarters handling a "General Reserve." Concerning the appointment of Foch as coördinator of "the action of the Allied Armies on the Western Front" on March 26, and the entrusting to him of "the strategic direction of military operations" -- with reservations -- on April 3, the Memoirs shed little new light. They do reveal, however, the great confidence which Foch inspired in Lloyd George.
On the question of whether or not it was necessary to extend the British Front early in 1918, Lloyd George justifies his belief that this was the case and gives good reasons for having ordered it over the objections of Haig. It was fortunate that he did so, for had the first brunt of the March offensive fallen on a French instead of on a British army the results would have been more serious and recovery more difficult.
It was the general opinion in Paris in the winter of 1917-18 that the war would be over before the end of the calendar year of 1918. Neither the French Army nor the French people, it used to be said, would endure another winter of war; this year's campaign was to decide merely whether France of Germany was to dictate the terms of peace. No competent unbiassed observer will now challenge the correctness of that view.
Both the British and the French armies were at a low ebb for replacements; the French had no more men to give; the British dallied with theirs in the illusory hope of filling their units with American replacements. They were faced by the prospect of a reinforcement to the German armies on the Western Front of forty additional German divisions released from the Eastern Front by Germany's peace with Russia. To meet this situation there was only one solution: ten American divisions would reëstablish the equilibrium; twenty American divisions would give the Allies a winning superiority.
The United States had the divisions but lacked the shipping which only England could supply, and then only by temporarily suspending her "business as usual" policy. But Lloyd George temporized and sought through intrigue to induce Wilson to change his initial decision that if necessary he would send, not men, but an army. He now tells the story, at any rate in part. As early as December 15 (v. V, p. 411) he sought to influence the President through Colonel House by cabling him pressing for "the inclusion with the British units of regiments or companies of American troops, an idea which was discussed with you at Paris." He had already stressed (v. V, p. 401) to the American Mission then in London the importance of man power and shipping, making it clear that by "man power" he did not mean an army but "as many men as you can spare, to enable us to withstand any possible German attack."
Lloyd George admits (v. V, p. 414): "Yet if it became a life and death issue, where extra American troops promptly thrown in would turn the scale between victory and defeat, we came to the conclusion that it would be worth while to take the risk of even letting our own and Allied stocks of food and raw materials run down while we diverted tonnage to bring those extra troops to France. But it would not be worth our while to take that gravely hazardous step unless the tonnage so spared were utilised to its utmost capacity to bring over fighting troops. If it were merely going to carry across numbers of divisional H.Q. details and noncombatant personnel and equipment in order to minister to the pride and enhance the consequence of a single General, we could find a far more urgent use for it. Pershing demanded the ships, but would only bring over intact divisions in them."
Lloyd George apparently did not understand then, and evidently does not realize yet, that had he succeeded in his attempt to impose on the President's better judgment he would have had in 1918 instead of three armies to stop the Germans only two psychologically unsound mobs, which would have been incapable of effective defensive action and even more incapable of offensive action, and that the final Allied success in the war would have been hopelessly compromised. Only a new and separate American Army could have become the new propelling force which in the intensive drive of September 12-November 11, 1918, finally broke the morale of the German Army. The same officers and men scattered through British or French units could not have accomplished anything decisive. The result would have been a stalemate, or possibly even a German-dictated peace, instead of the Allied victory actually achieved. Such considerations as these are a closed book to Lloyd George. From his own testimony it seems evident that he conceives of strategy as a matter of places and positions rather than the interplay of forces. Thus he harps on Haig's failure to capture the Belgian coast in 1917, not realizing that the German desire to defend that coast caused the German high command to concentrate there all the reserves it could muster and so saved the French from being overwhelmed elsewhere during that year. Similarly, in 1918, the northward thrust of the American Army against the German line of communications through Metz-Sedan compelled the Germans to use up the last of their reserves and directly brought about their collapse.
During the spring months of 1918 Lloyd George tried by every possible means to win over General Pershing, Secretary Baker (then in Europe), and General Bliss, our representative on the Versailles Supreme War Council, to the theory he held regarding the manner in which American participation in the war would be most effective. His arguments were of no avail. In March and April he played his trump card. He appealed to Lord Reading, then in Washington, to try in a series of personal conferences to break down the President's "sales resistance" to the Lloyd George idea (v. V, p. 426-437). Finally Reading cabled that the President had acquiesced in his demands. Pershing was called to London and, at the end of a conference which lasted hours, was confronted with Reading's cable. It was said at the time that Pershing's reply was simply: "The President does not understand the case. I will not comply until I have communicated with him." The result showed that his faith in the President was justified.
Lloyd George recognizes that "the ultimate formation of intact American divisions was facilitated" as a result of General Pershing's stand, but ungenerously accuses him, in the passage quoted above, of having been influenced by the desire to enhance his own consequence. He is oblivious to the fact that in the American Army, as in the British Army, all ranks, from Pershing and Haig down, were imbued with the spirit of "anything to beat the Germans no matter what happens to any individual," and further blind to the fact, obvious today, that Pershing's stand at that time and later saved the war for the Allies.
[i] "Newton D. Baker: America at War," by Frederick Palmer. New York: 1931, v. I, p. 173.
[ii] Some may question this statement and ask about the Battle of the Marne. Germans not only did not fight on the Marne, save with their advance guards, but the main bodies of their columns did not even deploy.
[iii] Lloyd George, in his memoirs (v. IV, p. 530) quotes Robertson as stating: "The first rule of all wars is to concentrate in the main theatre all forces that can be supplied. Any departure from this rule has invariably proved to be disastrous." Lloyd George then comments: "I wonder what Grant would have said to this rule when Sherman was sent marching through Georgia in order to turn the Confederate flank!" We wonder what Grant would have said had Lloyd George in 1864 proposed to him to abandon his campaign in the east against Lee in favor of western "sideshows." His Virginia campaign of 1864-65 gives the answer.
[iv] See "The Evolution of the Unified Command," by General Tasker H. Bliss, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, v. I, no. 2, p. 18.