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

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

1918: Winning the War, Losing the War
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Winning the War, Losing the War

Edited by Matthias Strohn
Osprey Publishing, 1918

German Troops Attacking, Spring 1918

The year 1918 was the final one in a long, bitter, incredibly devastating war from which the world has yet to recover. The book 1918 has ten articles, each with a different author, that examine the war from a multitude of viewpoints beginning with a summary of the last year, analysis of the four major armies, underrepresented battle fronts on several continents, the air and sea wars, and finally the lessons learned. While most attention concentrates on 1918, there are occasional references to battles of earlier years and their effects upon the waging of the war in its final year. Three of the authors are English, three American, one Austrian, two German, and one possibly Irish. Four authors are retired or reserve military.

The German, French, British, and U.S. Armies each take their turn to be praised and criticized. Throughout this book, we learn how the various armies learned to fight a different war than what was expected at the beginning. The Germans developed a defense in depth which resulted in Allied shelling falling on empty trenches while German troops waited far behind the lines until the enemy attacked, at which point they would swarm forward, overwhelming the exhausted attackers. However, the German Army did not learn some lessons, such as having a Plan B when the Schlieffen plan failed. As the war dragged on, the Army ran short of soldiers, Ludendorff made mistakes during the 1918 spring offensives, missed opportunities, undermined the government, suffered a nervous collapse, and wore out a starved populace. Much finger pointing and denial of responsibility followed, contributing to WWII.

The French opened the war without unity of command and much distrust between civilian and military leaders. This was resolved somewhat as the war wore on, but there were continual arguments between Foch and Pétain, with the latter going his own way on some occasions. Other lessons were that the 75mm was inadequate because of shell size and a flat trajectory, so Pétain emphasized bigger weapons, such as 105mm, 120mm and 155mm guns along with mortars up to 150mm. There was also a tremendous buildup in telephones, wireless sets, tanks, and airplanes. While France declined as a source of manpower, its industry was vital to the U.S. as American industry played only a limited role in this conflict. Finally, Foch became Supreme Commander of all Allied forces and gradually pushed the Germans back until they surrendered.

1918: France Triumphant
Soldiers Parading with the Maids of Lorraine and Alsace

By 1918 Lloyd George had lost confidence in General Haig, purged many of his subordinates, and refused reinforcements for the Western Front. The Army also went through a reorganization and had not prepared for the foreseen German offensives in the spring, which cost it 367,000 casualties. The Germans were stopped with considerable French assistance. The Germans were now depleted—short of men, logistics and ideas. In late July, however, the British started applying several lessons: pre-register artillery on a firing range so it wouldn't disclose the point of attack by long preliminary bombardments; overwhelm the enemy with short artillery preparations; use aircraft and tanks, and (perhaps most important) when the initial attacking troops bog down, leapfrog them with fresh troops and stop the offensive when overall fatigue sets in. In 1918, the Army was much better equipped with machine guns, artillery shells, knowledge of how to fire those shells accurately, and an overall improvement in logistics. Command structures also loosened up, allowing the "men on the spot" to make command decisions.

The U.S. Army was under-everything—under-equipped, under-trained, and without trained leadership. Pershing had to fight to retain control of the American Army which could not field a division until a year after the U.S. declaration of war. This chapter continues with a recounting of the battles of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. The author does not state that Pershing ceded command of First Army because of his nervous breakdown. He does point out that while advice and training publications were offered by British and French commanders, American officers ignored this information. Numerous generals were sacked when their performance was inadequate. Unlike other Army discussions, no progress report is made of the U.S. force. However, one gets the feeling that the U.S. was more concerned about the politics of American control than training.

There is a very brief discussion of the forgotten fronts in Europe and elsewhere: the Russian Civil War (after the Russian surrender), the Austro-Italian conflict, Greece, and the Serbs. None of these influenced the outcome.

Another discussion concerns the Middle East, Palestine, Syria, and Africa. The British out-generaled the Ottomans and bulled their way into Baghdad. While this author deprecates Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa, tying up 70,000 BEF with 10,000 Africans in a meaningless theater of war was still good for the German cause.

Even the Great War at sea is discussed, which involved every major body of water except the Pacific. While German submarine warfare sank many Allied ships, the effort was not enough to keep up with Allied ship construction and was slowed by anti-submarine warfare. Germany did not have the resources to control the seas, and that contributed to its war loss.

"The Air Campaign of 1918" is the most informative chapter of the whole book. Previous chapters covered familiar ground. Here we learn about technical innovations, evolution of the air services, and their impact. The air services began the war doing reconnaissance, which necessitated fighter support to prevent recon planes from being shot down. Communications improved, and recon missions became artillery spotters, adjusting gunfire from the air. No longer were preliminary bombardments or ranging shots, which gave away the infantry attack, necessary. By 1918, every air service had developed extensive air doctrines to organize and direct air operations. Low-flying aircraft informed HQ about ground armies and attack troops. Emphasis was placed upon close cooperation between air and ground forces.

Doctrine was not enough to win air supremacy; superior airplanes were required. Technological advantage seesawed between the Germans, French, and English, but then the Germans developed a thick, internally supported wing and coupled it with a fuselage frame of welded steel tubes, yielding the Fokker D.VII, rated as the best all-around fighter of the war. The French easily won the race to produce more aircraft and engines than anyone else, but because of inadequate quality many planes and aircrew were lost due to structural or power failure.

The air services contributed significantly to the initial successes of the German spring offenses and later the Allied response pushing Germany out of France. The Allies had far more airplanes, but the Germans were better coordinated at the squadron level, inflicting a heavy toll on American fliers.

The last chapter, concerned with war lessons learned, has an extraordinary statement considering the author is a British MG; the war could not have been concluded without the French Army or the American Expeditionary Forces. The author continues with a discussion of battles during the summer and fall. He does not identify specific lessons but emphasizes interdependence, innovation, and initiative. He quotes from the British Kirke Report that WWI was full of surprises, as will be the next one. Leaders must be trained to be "…versatile, mentally robust and full of common sense and self-reliance."

1918: Winning the War, Losing the War gives considerable insight into the major armies of the Great War, particularly the European adversaries. Maps are too few, not indexed, and cover too much area. The chapter on the U.S. Army was more a recounting of battles than an analysis of decisions, as was the case with reviews of other armies. Also, a chapter on the Russian Army, although gone from the scene by 1918, would have been useful because its failure had an impact upon 1918. The various theaters of war were covered whether on land or at sea. The air chapter was most informative as the technology and doctrine had not received much attention previously. The Italians should have been noted as they developed a three-engine bomber, quite an accomplishment at the time. An example—Caproni Ca.36—is on display at the Wright Patterson Air Force Museum near Dayton, OH.

Read this book to also get into the minds and personalities of the major individuals. One topic rarely discussed is the number of casualties due to illness, particularly influenza, which killed 12 times as many American citizens as soldiers on the battlefield. The Spanish are unfairly tagged with the disease because they published information about it while everyone else censored the impact. There is a case for calling it the Kansas influenza, obviously a topic for another book.

Ron Drees


  1. Sounds really interesting! And I'm glad 1918 is being covered more and more as of late since so many books deal with battles in earlier years.

    ****Did Pershing really give up command of First Army because of a nervous breakdown though? I have seen others make the argument, but I'm not so sure. As one army became two (which was going to be divided into three if not for the Armistice) it only makes sense that he wouldn't personally command any individual army. Neither Haig nor Pétain personally commanded armies once they ascended to the top spot in their countries. The more armies that went online, the more necessary it was that Pershing HAD to kick himself upstairs.

  2. It sounds like a mixed bag. More about WWI as a whole, and not just 1918? And mostly on the western front?

  3. Excellent review. Cheers