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

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Defeat of Imperial Germany: 1917–1918
Reviewed by James M. Gallen


The Defeat of Imperial Germany: 1917–1918

by Rod Paschall
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1989

For many, their image of the Great War is one of water and rat filled trenches, denuded no-man's-land, futile over the top charges into machine gun fire in which nothing moves but the death toll. However, we know that something changed because the war did end. That is the story of The Defeat Of Imperial Germany: 1917–1918.

One of the Most Famous Photos of the 1918 Campaign
Gas Victims of the British 55th Division, April 1918

What I like best about this tome is the way it chronicles the shift from the stalemate that existed on 1 January 1917 to the Armistice of 11 November 1918. The first chapter sets the stage by describing the state of each contending army. British General Haig was commanding the greatly expanded New Army, which replaced the small professional force that had been destroyed in 1915. The French Army had carried the bulk of the fighting in 1916 while the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) rebuilt and was showing wear by 1917. The strength of the German Army was its Army Staff organization and its ability to adapt to changing challenges and opportunities. Ironically it was the autocratic Germany nation that spawned a more merit-based staff system than did the democratic French and British. While the Europeans were stalemated "Over There," the U.S. Army was stalemated in Mexico in its search for Pancho Villa. Despite its small size, the U. S. Army had improved its officer corps since the Spanish-American War and had a tradition of rapid expansion through volunteer units. It also had the advantage of a commander-in-chief, Woodrow Wilson, who knew his limitations and was not inclined to micro-manage.

Three of the key events of 1917 were Germany's implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare, the release of the Zimmerman Telegram, and the American declaration of war that followed. The author brings out the fact that the Zimmerman Telegram not only offered Mexico support in retaking Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but also suggested an outreach to Japan. Interestingly, California was not mentioned, perhaps with the thought of dangling that before the Japanese.

Although perhaps the most significant events of 1917, the Russian Revolutions in March when the tsar was overthrown and in October when the Communists came to power, are given little ink. In fact this book does not say much about the revolutions. Lenin and Trotsky make the index once each and Nicholas II, Kerensky, and Kornilov not at all. The authors seem to play down the significance of the revolutions as factors in the defeat of Germany.

Nineteen-seventeen was a year of glory and degradation. The British seized the initiative with renewed vigor in their Flanders campaign while French effectiveness was impaired by widespread mutinies that were closely kept secrets. Canada is said to have won its nationhood on Vimy Ridge, where its corps first operated as a unit. The British offensive, while impressive in scope, sunk into a sea of mud and blood that made Passchendaele the name for the worst of the war.

The dawn of 1918 brought both danger and opportunity to both sides. The Russians were withdrawing and the Yanks were coming, but what difference would it make? German troops were moved from the Eastern to Western Fronts, but the instability of the new Soviet Union and breakaway republics required the retention of a substantial guard. When the Yanks got here what help would they be? In European minds, they were untrained, poorly equipped, and weakly led. Then there was the problem of the Italian Front on which both Italy and Austria-Hungary called on their stronger allies for aid.

The British introduced a new style of warfare at Cambrai where trucks, tanks, and airplanes transformed combat forever. The British used their new equipment to break the German defensive system but had not learned to exploit their advantage to rout the foe. In a deviation from Pershing's insistence that Americans fight as units under their own command, two battalions were placed in the French line. Their performance provided support for claims that the Americans were unprepared and poor fighters.

The American Expeditionary Force was expected to be huge, but its impact remained to be proven. The German offensives from 20 March through 4 June 1918, first against the French along the Somme and then against the British in the Lys Offensive, were attempts to win the war before the Americans could make their power felt. The German failure to break the Allied lines set up the American First Infantry's limited, but successful, attack at Cantigny. The Marines' victory at Belleau Wood, to which they were ironically transported by Vietnamese troops, was followed by the reduction of the St. Mihiel Salient.

U.S. 18th Infantry, 1st Division, Advancing
 Second Day of the St. Mihiel Offensive

The final American drive through the Meuse-Argonne region was the largest American military operation to that time and continued up to the Armistice. On these pages I found aspects of the war that I had not picked up in other reading. I have read about the Allies maneuvering for postwar advantage during World War II but do not recall the suggestion that Haig and Foch tried to minimize American success to diminish Wilson's stature at the peace conference. Clemenceau's recommendation that Pershing be removed may have been aimed at Wilson's prestige. The American preference for rifles over machine guns came as a surprise as did the objections to strategic bombing when it was first introduced during this war. The influence of the Spanish Flu on the competing armies is a topic I had not seen raised elsewhere.

Readers will also enjoy the appearance of well-known names such as Eddie Rickenbacker, Alvin York, Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, and George S. Patton. The genius of The Defeat Of Imperial Germany: 1917–1918 is its ability to organize the bullet points of why the Allies won into a narrative that aids the understanding of the road to victory and the challenges, within and outside the Allied ranks, that were overcome to achieve it.

James M. Gallen

5 comments:

  1. It sounds like a good intro to the western front's last two years.

    I'm unsurprised, if still sad, that it disappears the eastern front. (Readers probably know this is an obsession with me)

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  2. Does it even mention the impact of the US II Corps: 27th and 30th Divisions, in support of the BEF in breaking the Hindenburg Line at the St. Quentin Canal and Tunnel? Not as big of an operation as St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, but no less significant. That may have been part of the attempt to downplay the value of US troops. Same goes for the predominantly black 93rd Div loaned to the French.

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  3. It sounds interesting, but I am not sure that most British people agree that the French carried the bulk of the fighting in 1916, given our losses on the Somme!

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  4. I read the book when it first came out - it was a Mil History book club selection, and I also heard Rod Paschall talk on the subject one time. It is a very readable book, and served as my introduction to the final 2 years of the war on the Western Front. It is a relatively high level book, and other authors are more detailed and intimate with the subject material. All said, I highly recommend it for people interested in the war but not willing to read a 1000pg tome on the topic.

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