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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

To the Last Man: Spring 1918
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

To the Last Man: Spring 1918

by Lyn Macdonald
Carroll and Graf, 1998

German Assault Troops Assembling in St. Quentin

One hundred years ago the German Army launched its spring offensive on the Western Front. The Kaiserschlacht nearly broke the Allied armies but ultimately failed, ending German hopes for victory against France and leading to the Second Reich's collapse later that year. In To the Last Man Lyn MacDonald chronicles the British experience of surviving the onslaught, following events chronologically. After a good introductory chapter surveying the state of forces on either side of No Man's Land, the rest of the book tracks events day by day, from 21 March through 5 April.

A great deal of the book consists of participants' voices. Interviews, letters, diary accounts, and other primary sources appear extensively, giving readers eyewitness accounts of events in great detail. This documentary approach gives To the Last Man a deep sense of humanity, while grounding larger questions of strategy. It also allows a wide range of experiences, including the full range of military ranks and some variety within the British empire (for example, a story about a Scots unit growing to like South African troops, 121–2).

One private reports in all candor:
That was the first moment that I was frightened, really frightened, because the orders came along, 'This position must be held at all costs until the last man.' Well, you've got to be in that situation to understand what it means. I was only nineteen, I'd only been a France a little over a month, and I thought I was going to be killed. I had a sinking feeling in my tummy. Everybody was thinking, 'How on earth can we hold this position? It's impossible!' That was on the night of the 22nd (197).

Amidst the horrors there are many cheerful passages, however, like the story of a retreating British officer who pauses to set a gramophone to play a patriotic, German-mocking song (141), or this interesting bit of medical practice: "The next thing I hear is a lot of shells falling in the sunken road, and before very long I heard Major Adam saying 'Gas! Gas! Pass the whisky.' This was his antidote to gas" (133; emphasis in original).

MacDonald's style is powerful and accessible, with some fine phrases—"The German infantry advanced like a tidal bore on the heels of the devastating bombardment, and the posts disappeared beneath the onslaught like castles on a sandy beach." (89) Her overall tone is interesting, in that while she portrays serious defeats and epic horrors, the text is generally very positive. The subject is a British victory, of course, but the author also takes care to represent British optimism and energy. This is unusual in my reading of WWI literature.

The book is well equipped with maps, some of which are very clear, and which helps the reader navigate some of the complex geographical details. There are also black-and-white photographs of some quoted participants and battlefields.

The focus of the book is largely on the British experience, especially the hard fighting of the Fifth Army. A key theme is understanding and ultimately approving of general Gough's decisions on the ground. On the positive side, this allows us to immerse ourselves in that population and its responses to events. However, we see much less of the French, beyond some brief notes about their strategic reaction to the German attacks.

British Troops Form a Temporary Defensive Line, March 1918

Inter-Allied national discussions do appear, but with a strong bias toward London rather than Paris. We do read some German accounts, which nicely illuminate that side's experience, from initial success to too much pillaging, but I would have preferred more, in order to balance the British. The Portuguese units, who bore the brunt of one major attack and whose collapse led to a major crisis, barely appear at all. (159) Ultimately this is a book best understood as being about the British experience of the Ludendorff Offensive. I think To the Last Man is the first Lyn Macdonald book I've read. It won't be the last.

Bryan Alexander

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review of a critical time in the war. Anything by Lyn Macdonald is going to be good reading!