IN TIME of war, strategy provides the means for implementing policy. Unified strategy between allies, then, is dependent for its effectiveness upon unified policy. This was overlooked in the Allied preparations before the war of 1914-1918. The nature of the Entente Cordiale between Great Britain and France precluded political preparation. It was not an offensive or defensive alliance but merely, as its name implied, a friendly understanding concerning matters in spheres where the interests of the two countries met. The British Government had permitted what were called "military conversations" between the British and French General Staffs, but on the strict condition that they should be secret and that they should not in any way commit the Government to action before the event. So while there were military understandings there were no political engagements. The full preparations which modern war requires could not be made.

I think it is true to say that the British did not realize that this was any handicap. Allied policy in the event of a war with Germany would be clear and simple -- defeat her as soon as possible. Since the casus belli would be an aggression by Germany upon France or Belgium, or both, the war would take place on the Continent of Europe. Meanwhile, British naval superiority would make the mopping up of the German colonies a simple business requiring no great effort. In this view, there was no need for a special organization to deal with such political problems as the war might present. The ramifications of a great war were not foreseen. The French undoubtedly desired a definite alliance, precise commitments and detailed preparation, political as well as military; but they were far too anxious to obtain British help to do anything which might endanger its arrival when the crisis came, and they were well aware of the reluctance of British governments to commit themselves in advance. The upshot was that no preparations for the direction and control of Allied policy were made.

Even the military preparations, which were spread over several years, were perforce incomplete. This was true not merely as regards the size of the military force which would be needed to oppose Germany successfully, and which was underestimated. There was general agreement that if Germany attacked in the west she would invade Belgium, though there were differences of opinion as to the size of the forces which Germany would allocate to this task. It therefore was obviously desirable to obtain Belgian participation in the preparation of Anglo-French plans to meet a German attack. But Belgium hoped that if she observed the strictest neutrality she would be able to escape that attack, the more so as Germany was one of the guarantors of her independence. She therefore refused invitations to concert plans with Great Britain and France. Not until after Germany had sent her ultimatum to Belgium and King Albert had appealed to the British and French Governments for help did they know whether Belgium would resist German aggression or not. So it was necessary to improvise military plans to meet what had been long recognized as at least a very probable form of attack -- an experience which was to be repeated with even more disastrous results 25 years later.[i]

In 1914, then, there were no definite arrangements for Allied political coöperation. When specific problems which affected both countries arose, conferences were held, usually either in Paris or in London. The Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and War Ministers attended, accompanied by their experts, and after they had reached agreement on the problem which had brought them together they went back to their offices and were quickly absorbed again in their own many and difficult questions. There was no permanent Allied organization to survey the war as a whole, no Allied secretariat to prepare well-considered agenda for these conferences or to watch over the execution of the decisions which they took. I do not think that anyone who reads the story carefully can doubt that, if there had been an effective permanent organization for the direction of Allied policy and strategy in 1915, the Dardanelles campaign would have succeeded, the road would have been opened for help to Russia and the length of the war materially shortened. Nor is there doubt that the many and often acrimonious disputes over the campaign in Macedonia and the long controversy between "Easterners" and "Westerners" would have been more speedily and more amicably settled.

As the war spread and the number of Allies increased it became more and more apparent that the arrangements for the higher direction of the war were incomplete. When Joffre was Commander-in-Chief of the French armies he had endeavored to fill the gap by holding periodic conferences of the Allied Commanders-in-Chief and of the Chiefs of Staff or their representatives to make recommendations on strategy to the Allied Governments, and he had created a small staff to survey the war as a whole and prepare the way for their conferences. But this staff was purely military and entirely French. Moreover, these military conferences suffered from the same defect as the political conferences, namely that they were held at long and irregular intervals and there was no general Allied supervision between the meetings. By the summer of 1917 the number of the nations which were making direct contributions on varying scales to the conduct of the war had grown to eleven -- the British Empire, the United States, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Greece, Rumania, Japan, Portugal and Brazil. Both the political and the military conferences had become unwieldy and less and less capable of taking prompt and effective action.

In consequence, the leading generals meeting in conference in Paris on July 25 of that year, recommended that a permanent Allied military organization should be set up to unify the military operations. Since any such military organization would clearly need unified political direction, this proposal gave impetus to ideas which had already begun to form in the minds of the statesmen. Mr. Lloyd George and M. Painlevé, the British and French Premiers, had in particular begun to discuss means of improving the political direction of the war; and when in October the defeat of the Italians at Caporetto appeared to indicate serious defects in Allied coöperation, they seized the opportunity to obtain agreement to the creation of a Supreme War Council.

The Supreme War Council, with its seat at Versailles, was composed of the Prime Minister and one other Minister of each of the principal Allied Powers. It was advised on strategy by a committee composed of one military representative of each of those Powers. The military representatives had such staff officers as they required to help them, and so constituted an Allied General Staff capable of surveying the war as a whole and of advising the Council as to its military conduct. M. Painlevé wished Marshal Foch, then Chief of the French General Staff, to be the chairman of the military representatives. Mr. Lloyd George, however, insisted that they should be entirely independent of the Chiefs of Staff. The French got over the difficulty by appointing General Weygand to be their Military Representative, and Weygand spoke only as Marshal Foch's voice. Eventually Mr. Lloyd George's plan was found to be impracticable and was amended.

The Supreme War Council began, then, as an organization for the direction of Allied military plans. The military representatives presented their advice to the Council in the form of joint notes. These the Council could approve, amend or reject. Later the Council was supplemented by the creation of an Allied Naval Staff of the principal naval Powers, with its seat in London, while that of the Supreme War Council remained at Versailles. Experience showed that it would have been better if the two Councils had been brought together from the first. The lack of authoritative naval advice was felt by the Supreme War Council, especially as military plans became more and more dependent upon naval coöperation, above all as regards the supply and protection of shipping. True, a Naval Liaison Committee was established at Versailles to act as a link between the Supreme War Council and the Naval Council, but this could not speak with the full knowledge and authority possessed by the naval Chiefs of Staff. The preparation of Allied strategical plans further required full and authoritative information as to the supplies of war material available and the schedule on which they could be delivered. The Inter-Allied Technical Committees on Aviation and Tanks and the Inter-Allied Transportation Council were therefore brought into direct touch with the military representatives at Versailles.

The greater part of a year passed before the Supreme War Council was complete. The Government of the United States had at once been consulted when the decision to form it was taken in November 1917. President Wilson approved the proposal in principle and appointed General Tasker H. Bliss as the military representative of the United States. General Bliss rendered very valuable service; but for a long time he was alone, as no American members of the Supreme War Council itself were appointed. As has been stated, moreover, the functions of the military representatives were purely advisory. Until late in 1918 the Government of the United States was content to be represented by General Bliss on the committee of military representatives and by an observer, usually supplied by the American Embassy in Paris, to report on the proceedings of the Council. When the German Chancellor approached President Wilson in October with a request for an armistice, an awkward triangular correspondence started between Prince Max of Baden in Berlin, President Wilson in Washington and the Supreme War Council in Versailles. The delays and uncertainties which this involved caused the Supreme War Council to press President Wilson to appoint a political representative with full powers. Perhaps President Wilson had been loath to delegate political authority, as would have been necessary in view of the fact that although the other Allies were represented by their Prime Ministers it was clearly impossible that he should attend the meetings in person. However that may be, he now agreed to name a delegate, and appointed Colonel House. This ended a situation which had to some degree weakened the authority and influence of the Supreme War Council.

Looking back, we see that the value of the Supreme War Council was to some extent obscured by the fact that, as I have pointed out, some initial mistakes were made in the machinery, in consequence of which some decisions were taken which were open to severe criticism; but beyond that it was handicapped by the appointment of Marshal Foch to be Generalissimo on the Western Front. When the great German attack in the spring of 1918 created a highly critical situation in France, Allied operations in other theaters of war necessarily became defensive in order to release the largest possible reinforcements for the point of greatest danger. When, helped by these reinforcements and his own genius, Foch restored the situation, it was natural to conclude that the Allied victory had been due to the decision to create a unified command and place it in Foch's hand. The fact is, however, that Foch's control was limited to the Allied armies in Belgium, France and Italy and that he had no authority over naval operations or in the other theaters of war and no voice in deciding the problems of Allied supply and transportation. Therefore after his appointment the Supreme War Council still continued to exercise functions of the highest importance in directing and controlling the Allied effort. I do not think that anyone who examines its work carefully can fail to agree that it constituted a great improvement on all previous efforts to secure effective Allied action.

That this was the general conclusion reached by the governments of Great Britain and France is shown by the fact that on the outbreak of the present war a Supreme War Council was set up at once. It held a number of meetings in the comparatively short period which intervened before the collapse of France. In accordance with the principle of unity of command which had been accepted before the outbreak of war, General Gamelin became Generalissimo on the Western Front and the British Expeditionary Force was placed under General Georges, who commanded the group of armies in Northern France. But, as had been the case with Foch, Gamelin's authority did not extend to the Middle East, nor did he have any control over naval operations. We have no authoritative information as yet regarding the working of the Supreme War Council in 1939-40, but it has been announced that, as in the last war, the meetings were usually attended by the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and France, with one other Minister from each country, and that they were accompanied by the Chiefs of Staff and that General Gamelin was also in attendance. As the number of nations concerned was so small, and as the problems to be dealt with were far less numerous and complicated than those which had confronted the Supreme War Council of 1917-18, the organization of the Council of 1939-40 naturally was simpler.

After the collapse of France the direction of the war against the Axis naturally centered in London, where the British War Cabinet was in direct political touch with the governments of the Dominions. As the smaller states of Europe were overrun, one after another, their governments took refuge in Great Britain, as did the political and military leaders of the Free French. The military contribution which all these could make at first was comparatively small, however, and their influence upon Allied strategy was proportionate to the size of their contribution. Today the situation is different, the war has spread into distant theaters, great and powerful allies have joined in. As a result, as in 1917, there again is a general feeling that the machinery for the direction of the Allied effort is incomplete. How is it to be made more effective?

Hitler's strategical method is quite clear and typically Prussian. By bluff, lying and unscrupulous breach of pledges he divides his enemies, isolates the one he has decided to attack from the others, concentrates the greatest possible strength against it, often running great risks to do so. In this procedure his central position in the European and Mediterranean theaters of war stands him in good stead: he has interior lines. The correct answer to this strategy is a similar concentration of power at the right time and place. When I speak of concentration of power, I mean the concentration of naval, military and air power in combination. I do not believe that any one of these can of itself produce the desired result. To apply the stock receipt for victory, we should concentrate against one of our enemies, while containing the others with the minimum of force. Dispersion of effort invariably adds to the length of the struggle and may lead to defeat. However, the political and geographical conditions of the Allies have made it peculiarly difficult for them to apply this strategy. Against which enemy are we to concentrate? Australia clearly cannot be left to defend her shores alone against Japanese attack, nor does it seem very probable that even if that were wise military American public opinion would tolerate a passive defense in the Pacific. On the other hand, distance and the lack of suitable bases make it impossible for Great Britain to concentrate her power in that ocean. Is she to drive the Japanese out of Burma, to reopen the road to China and help her to secure air bases from which Japan can be attacked? That seems an attractive program until one examines the length of the lines of communication involved and the shipping which would be required. Is Italy to be the main Allied target following the auspicious turn of events in North Africa? That would of course require control of the Mediterranean, which may involve political complications of which the position of Admiral Darlan is a sample. If Germany is to be the main enemy, then the landing and maintenance of armies of sufficient size on the continent of Europe will make demands on shipping which will affect every other theater of war. Even this bare and cautious outline of the strategical problems facing the Allies suffices to show their variety and complexity.

Clearly the prompt and effective solution of such far-reaching yet interrelated problems requires that there be some body capable of keeping the war as a whole under systematic survey. We have in the Pacific Council such a body to deal with the war with Japan; and indeed that war is so distinct and separate from the wars in Europe and the Middle East that I see no disadvantage in having a separate organization to direct it. But who decides the allocation of power between the Pacific and other theaters of war? Mr. Churchill has courageously and adventurously tried to fill the gap by his journeys to confer with President Roosevelt and Premier Stalin. Valuable as these conferences have been, they involve dangerous risks to an indispensable personality. Moreover, as the experience of the last war showed, intermittent conference cannot be as effective as a continuing and systematic survey.

It has been suggested that the Allies should solve the problem by appointing a Generalissimo with an adequate Allied staff to direct the whole of their operations. I do not believe that this is a possible solution. By all means let us have complete unity of command in each theater of war, just as General MacArthur is in Supreme Command in the Southwest Pacific and General Wavell was for a brief period in control of the Western Pacific. The record of 1939, I think, shows that whatever may have been the case in 1914, British amour propre will not stand in the way of our forces serving under the best man, from whatever country he may come, as is shown by the welcome given to General Eisenhower's appointment in North Africa. But it is not within the capacity of any human, even if endowed with Samuel Johnson's "extensive view," to command forces engaged in theaters of war which, whichever way one travels, extend literally "from China to Peru." Local conditions always affect military operations and no one can estimate these accurately from a distance. The Commander-in-Chief in each theater of war must be free to decide when, where and how to strike. All that a central Generalissimo could do would be to give the Commanders-in-Chief general instructions. In these he would require guidance as to Allied policy. He would therefore not be an effective substitute for a Supreme War Council.

There is, in fact, no effective substitute for a Supreme War Council when a grand alliance is conducting operations over the greater part of the globe. Is it not possible to create such an agency now? It is difficult, certainly, but it is not impossible. The fact that a team of Allied experts is able to advise on the coördination of naval, military and air plans for the Pacific theater of war, which in itself is very vast, shows that there is no insuperable difficulty in the way of bringing together a similar team which would be capable of surveying the war as a whole and advising as to its general conduct. The difficulty arises in the unification of political control. Clearly it is impracticable for President Roosevelt, Premier Stalin and General Chiang Kaishek to join Prime Minister Churchill in regular meetings of a Supreme War Council in London; and the leaders involved would find it equally difficult to attend meetings if the spot chosen were in the United States. A solution would be for the chief political authorities of each of the chief Allies to agree to be represented on the Supreme War Council by plenipotentiaries. The advances made in means of communication since 1917 should make it possible for these plenipotentiaries to be in permanent touch with their political chiefs, to pass on information to them, and to receive instructions. A meeting of plenipotentiaries would not be so effective as one composed of the political chiefs themselves, but since the best seems impracticable, we must look for the next best. At any rate, it would much more nearly approach unified direction of the war than anything which we have at present. The success of Anglo-American coöperation in North Africa does not affect this view. That experience represents the easiest form of Allied coöperation and deals with only one part of a larger and more complicated problem.

[i] The blame for this does not rest wholly, or even chiefly, with Belgium. Her confidence naturally had been rudely shaken in 1936 when Great Britain and France allowed Hitler to march into the demilitarized Rhine provinces. Seeing Germany once more established in force on the Rhine, she denounced the Locarno Pact and returned to neutrality as at least a possible way of escape. Here policy had a very vital effect upon strategy.

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  • MAJOR-GENERAL SIR FREDERICK MAURICE, Director of Military Operations of the British General Staff, 1915-18; author of "Lord Wolseley," "Robert E. Lee, the Soldier," "Lessons of Allied Co-operation: Naval, Military and Air, 1914-1918" and other works
  • More By Frederick Maurice