Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt all sat together at Yalta. Why do many see this as the iconic photograph of World War II? Possibly because it encapsulates the key reason for the Axis defeat in 1945.
We traditionally see alliances as a source of strength in times of trouble – even today we cling to the idea of the ‘special relationship’ with theUSAwhen international waters get choppy.
But alliances do not always offer a safe port in a storm. On some occasions they can be a millstone round the neck.
Military partnerships have come in many guises since 1792. Nevertheless, every successful alliance or coalition usually has an economic element to it – a sugar daddy able and willing to provide the necessary finance.
The monarchies of mainland Europe looked beyond their borders for handouts in the war against revolutionaryFrancein the late 18th and early 19th centuries – withBritainkeen to buy allies and supply cash in return for foreign blood shed. His Majesty’s Treasury, for example, shelled out £200,000 per year to the King of Savoy in return for an army of 50,000 men.
The Crimean War demonstrated the extent to which combined economic muscle could prove decisive. Look beyond the incompetence of Raglan and one finds a war of attrition that culminated in the successful Siege of Sevastopol. A huge and expensive expenditure of shells (for the time) was necessary to sustain the siege that eventually broke Russian resistance.
Despite the obvious ideological differences and difficult political wrangling, the Allied relationship during World War II reaped remarkable benefits for all parties. Before December 1941, American financial and material support keptBritainafloat. After the entry of theUSAinto the war, her huge economic might was brought fully to bear. A prime example is the supply of no less than 200,000 US trucks to the Red Army – a vital contribution to mechanising Soviet forces during Operation Bagration, the huge offensive on the Eastern Front of June 1944 that dwarfed D-Day in all but Western memory.
Grand alliances should result in decisive military success on the battlefield. The ability to join the offensive from different points of attack and to mass manpower should be unstoppable. In the long run, that has often proved to be the case, but glaring examples of failure also litter military history from 1792 onwards.
One would have thought that the threat of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic regime to the monarchies ofEuropewould have stung them into effective collective action. Indeed, we readily recall the multinational nature ofWellington’s army and the decisive part played by the Prussians atWaterloo. Similarly, the Battle of Leipzig, the so-called ‘Battleof the Nations’, is a clear example of a ‘coalition of the willing’ bringing huge reserves of manpower to bear.
The entry of theUSAinto World War I on the side of the Entente certainly threatened the Central Powers with an avalanche of manpower and matériel that would eventually grow to be irresistible. This prospect forcedGermany’s final gamble – the March or Ludendorff Offensive of spring 1918. The gamble failed, and the haemorrhaging of strength ensured the German Army’s defeat in the Hundred Days Offensive of autumn 1918.
Similarly, the sheer weight of numbers that the Red Army was able to field in World War II enabled the Western Allies to advance rapidly once their second front was opened.
Fighting alongside allies has not always been a recipe for success. At the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars, the powers of the day were more interested in their own rivalry than throwing the sansculottes out of the Tuileries. Indeed, the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians detested each other in the early 1790s with almost as much vigour as they did the revolutionaries.
A decade later, the tale that the Austrian and Russian forces, supposedly acting in concert, failed to meet and then combine against Napoleon on the allotted day in 1805 because they used different calendars may be apocryphal, but it hints at a dysfunctional relationship that allowed Bonaparte to divide and conquer time after time.
Nevertheless, Napoleon too had problems with less than wholehearted allies. He invadedRussiain 1812 with a multinational army drawn from countries forced into alliances built on battlefield defeat. Troops fromAustria,Prussia, and evenSpainwere effectively press-ganged into the invasion force. It is little wonder that the Grande Armée disintegrated under the pressure of the Russian winter and the march back westwards.
While relations between the British and French improved significantly in the years betweenWaterlooandAlma, the joint enterprise in theCrimeawas an uneasy affair. Besides Raglan’s glaring incompetence on the battlefield, he was also an unco-operative and almost mutinous ally – as French commander Canrobert found out to his cost. In addition, the racist attitude of British and French commanders towards their Turkish allies was a costly hindrance.
The Germans suffered from similar problems in both the First and Second World Wars. Their unreliable allies proved to be a drain on their resources in both conflicts. Austro-Hungarian weakness ensured that the Kaiser had to divert troops to shore up his ally throughout the war. Likewise, the problems created by the politically inspired move to have Italian and Romanian troops along for the ride on the Eastern Front in World War II were brought into stark relief atStalingrad. It was no coincidence that the initial Russian counterattacks of Operation Uranus were aimed at weak areas in the Axis lines manned by Italians, Hungarians, and Romanians.
The recent history of military alliances is one of war-winning partnerships alongside draining disasters. Successful collaborations can provide economic resources crucial to waging war and the additional manpower necessary to secure victory on the battlefield. On the other hand, a lack of meaningful co-operation can result in distractions that weaken the war effort and prepare the ground for defeat.
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