Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I — Reviewed by Clark Shilling

Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I
by Nick Lloyd
Basic Books, 2014

The centennial of the start of the Great War has been marked with a number of excellent new histories of the origins of the war. Professor Nick Lloyd, senior lecturer in Defense Studies at Kings College London, has avoided convention by instead providing an outstanding account of the end of the war.

The Hundred Days is a term used by historians of the Great War, primarily British, to bookmark the 95-day period beginning with the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918 and ending with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November.

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The author contends that this very critical period of the war has been overlooked by historians and is overshadowed by interest in other events of the war such as its origins and its signature battles. Even studies devoted to battles taking place within the Hundred Days often focus on only one of the combatant nations, or only the battles that they fought. For example, there are many accounts of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive written by American authors, and likewise there are many British accounts of the breaking of the Hindenburg Line. There are few compelling studies that tell the complete story of those last campaigns that secured the Allied victory. In Hundred Days, The Campaign that Ended World War I, Professor Lloyd has provided just that study.

The book is brief, at less than 300 pages of text, but is packed with detail and is expertly balanced on several levels. It looks at the strategy and major figures on both the Allied and German side. It documents the contribution of each of the Allied armies, and it examines those final battles of the war not only through the eyes of the generals, but also through the eyes of the men fighting those battles through their diaries and memoirs. The author has a personal connection in this regard, as his great uncle, Private George Thomas Cotterill, a member of the B.E.F. was killed on 27 September 1918, during the Hundred Days. The book is dedicated to Private Cotterill.

In this account, on the Allied side, the central figure is Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who developed the strategy of continuous pressure using coordinated attacks by all of the Allied armies. Foch had the authority to coordinate and direct the Allied effort, but he had no operational control over any of the armies. Through the strength of his personality, he was able to push and prod his allies, but at times he had to compromise even with his fellow French generals.

There is no doubt that the B.E.F. did most of the heavy lifting, providing the "Black Day of the German Army" with the tank attack at Amiens on 8 August, and with the subsequent attacks that broke through the Hindenburg Line. But as Professor Lloyd points out, many of the shock troops of the B.E.F by 1918 consisted of Canadian and Australian units, led by Canadian and Australian generals. The French Army, still feeling the effects of the 1917 mutiny, is also credited with pushing the German forces back, not in the spectacular way of the B.E.F., but with cautious, steady pressure and close follow-up. The American effort is shown to have been enthusiastic but inexperienced, lacking the skill of either the B.E.F. or French armies. The A.E.F. contributed by keeping strong pressure on the German lines in the Meuse-Argonne, tying down German units that could have otherwise been used in other areas. Only in the last few weeks of the war were the Americans able to break through German defenses and advance significantly.

Canadian Troops on the Move, 8 August 1918

On the German side, the leading figure was Eric Ludendorff, the hyper-active first quartermaster-general who by 1918 was directing the strategy and operations of the German Army. In Hundred Days, we see Ludendorff go from overweening confidence in July to near panic in August to near physical breakdown in September as he and the rest of the German high command slowly came to the realization that they could no longer win the war and that both in terms of material and morale, their military forces were disintegrating as their support at home was collapsing.

Professor Lloyd explores the technical improvements to the tank, artillery, and gas that allowed the Allies to regain surprise and movement on the battlefield. He examines many of the factors that affected the fighting on both sides, including such things as the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which struck the German Army just as its morale was fading.

I found this to be an excellent book, providing an outstanding perspective on the last months on the Western Front. I only had one issue with it. The maps are grouped in the front of the book rather than in the chapters that deal with the battles the maps illustrate. I read the Kindle edition, which made going back and forth between the text and the maps very difficult. This was compounded by the added complication of having to resize the maps to see any kind of detail. If you like to follow maps, buy the print version of the book.

Clark Shilling

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