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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Last Battle...
Reviewed by David F. Beer

The Last Battle: Victory, Defeat, and the End of World War I

by Peter Hart
Oxford University Press, 2018

Canadian Wounded, Battle of Amiens, 8 August 1918

If you're familiar with any of Peter Hart's previous books you'll have an idea of what to expect in this one: solid historical information punctuated by relevant quotations from the soldiers who were there. The author is oral historian at the Imperial War Museum in London and has access to large archives of original testimonies from those who fought in the Great War. He has put these materials to impressive use in previous publications such as The Great War, The Somme, and Gallipoli. His latest book, The Last Battle: Victory, Defeat, and the End of World War I, now does a similar job by describing and enlivening the final battles of 1918.

Don't be misled by the book's singular title word "battle". There were several battles in the closing months of the war and Hart devotes ample space to them. Described at length are the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the Battle of Canal du Nord, the Fifth Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Courtrai. Later chapters cover the Battles of St Quentin Canal and Beaurevoir, plus the Battles of the Selle and Sambre. Another chapter focuses on the Americans on the Meuse. Two final chapters deal with the "Day of Days," 11 November 1918, and the aftermath of the war. The author does admit that his "emphasis as a British historian is on the British Army with an appreciative reflection on the massive contributions of victory made by the French, American and Belgian forces" (p. x). Descriptions of some of the fighting also reveal considerable admiration for the combat skills of the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.

Many of us are more familiar with the opening moves of the war and the tragedies of Gallipoli, the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele than we are with the endgame of the conflict. I'm one of these people and am thankful for this book—it enabled me to see more completely the total movement and costs of the war. For example, the Germans lost over 40,000 officers and 1,181,577 other ranks between the launching of their spring offensives on 21 March and 1 October 1918. (p. 243)

Advancing New Zealanders Passing Through Bapaume, 14 September 1918

These and other statistics are made all the more hard-hitting by the numerous interspersed quotations from soldiers involved in the conflict. These first-person accounts give us considerable empathy for the attitudes and feelings of those who fought in the last days, those who were there at the end—and especially for those who didn't quite make it. Up to the end (and even beyond) stray shells and other quirks of fortune obliterated the lives of many who were looking forward to peace, going home, and putting their civilian clothes back on. Much is made of other concerns looming behind the fighting in these last months. I found the analysis of President Wilson's Fourteen Points and the hope they inspired in the Germans (but not the Allies) to be interesting. The author sees them thus:

The Fourteen Points were a somewhat idealistic attempt to set a course for global harmony between nations. Given the often pernicious nature of America's relationship with Central American countries, there was more than a whiff of hypocrisy about this assumed position of moral superiority. (p. 247)

Politics and personalities involved in the cease-fire agreements were complex and often cantankerous. Trust was in short supply. Typical of British idiom and attitude was General Henry Rawlinson's memo, which opened with the observation that "The Bosche [sp.] is really squealing now, but I am not sure that he will not wiggle out of the hole we have got him into, unless we Allies, and especially the Americans and ourselves, keep a stiff upper lip". (p. 252) Relationships between leading figures, military and civilian, were touchy and even petty, and as Hart states, "All this political wrangling leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth when one considers that men were being maimed and dying in huge numbers with every day that passed. By this time, most soldiers and civilians wanted as early an end to the war as possible." (p.263)

The book's final chapter, "Aftermath", is in some ways the most interesting and moving. Other studies have described the soldier's experience once the war ended, and in many ways it was the same whether the soldier was British, American, or French. The big question—What are we going to do now? (p. 355) The author brings this into perspective in several ways. Many did not leave the army as soon as they wanted to and were to become part of the occupation forces, where a variety of experiences, good and bad, awaited them. Others were assigned to help clean up the battlefields, a job that "was both gruesome and dangerous at times." (p. 378) As one British corporal wrote: We were then employed on a task which I thought was disgusting. I had to take working parties out to clear up all sorts of rubbish, dud bombs, dud shells, which were still killing men long after the war was over. The whole countryside was littered with lethal weapons which might go up at any time We lost one or two men through these shells…(p. 379)

Ironically, however, it didn't take long before the business of "battlefield tourism" began to flourish. Meanwhile, the British army began its colossal job of demobilizing over three million men, the process of which proved to involve far more administrative paperwork than enlistment had. And these new civilians, like so many of their French and American counterparts, were to find that their last battle was not fought in 1918. They now "had to fight to retain their self-respect in a society that did not seem to care one iota for their welfare. For some these would be the greatest battles of all." (p. 395)

Near the End: German Prisoners and American Wounded Being Evacuated

This is a rich and comprehensive book, one I can certainly recommend. If, like me, you have tended to study the earlier and middle parts of the Great War more than its tumultuous final moves, then Peter Hart's The Last Battle will give you a solid view of what happened as the war drew painfully to its end.

David F. Beer


  1. That sounds very, very useful.
    Thank you for the rich review, David.

  2. I look forward to reading. Sounds very comprehensive.

  3. Fine review enhanced by great pictures.

    The last chapter, about the veterans’ battles after the war, is the subject of “Heroes or Traitors” that I reviewed on April 11, 2017.