The Last Battle: endgame on the Western Front, 1918
Peter Hart Profile Books, £25 (hbk)
The General commanding the Bollockyboos
Has strictly revised all his previous views…
He keeps his battalion, untiring, approving,
All moving and firing and firing and moving;
They know about guns,
they know about tanks,
They’ll take any risk you like with their flanks…
They are all at one that training is fun
And there’s nought they don’t know about killing the Hun.
Peter Hart’s new book looks at the final Hundred Days of campaigning from August to November 1918. Like all his books, it is packed with stirring and often moving passages written in the front line, either at the time of battle or very soon after.
The ditty above not only captures the Tommy’s enduring sense of humour, but also reveals how the British Army had changed by 1918 from the tiny professional force that went to France in August 1914.
The skilled soldiers from then could fire their rifles at aimed targets 15 times per minute, but they were led by officers who had only ever experienced skirmishes in the distant corners of empire and had no tactical understanding beyond the limits of their own battalion. Four years of bitter fighting and immense losses had changed all that.
By the summer of 1918, the British Army in France was the largest ever sent to the Continent. Every infantry section was armed with a Lewis gun and bags of Mills grenades, and could generate more firepower than even well-trained riflemen ever could. Men advanced in small groups and were taught to be fluid, avoiding areas of heavy defence and moving forward instead where resistance was at its weakest, sometimes taking the risk of exposing their flanks.
Tanks were used in large numbers, and their advance across barbed wire and enemy trenches was coordinated with the following infantry. Both men and tanks moved forward behind a creeping artillery barrage that sometimes was barely 50 yards ahead of them. And aircraft roamed the skies providing reconnaissance, spotting enemy guns, and strafing ground positions.
The troops were led by officers who had by now several years’ experience of trench warfare and were often from a different class from their predecessors – many were from grammar schools, while others had risen from the ranks.
They were fitter and more responsive to the ebb and flow of attritional war. Even staff officers – who have a dreadful reputation as aloof and distant – worked long hours to tabulate the mass logistics of detailed attack plans, and then to formulate new plans when things went wrong.
The changes that Hart describes go some way to answering one of the key questions of the last campaigns of the First World War. How was it that the British and French armies (supported by huge numbers of Americans) were able to inflict a total and utter defeat on the German armies in the field during autumn 1918, when they had failed to do this in the long and ghastly campaigns of the previous years?
It is an irony that, while the bloody and fruitless battles of 1915, then those at Verdun and the Somme in 1916, and at Passchendaele in 1917 are well known and extensively studied, the engagements that brought final Allied victory on the Western Front – the Battles of the Sambre, the Selle, and of Meuse-Argonne – are far less familiar.
Hart provides, as always in his books, harrowing tales from the heart of the combat. He reveals how the Americans were so inexperienced and unused to the weapons they fought with that one sergeant under fire did not realise the detonators for his grenades came in a separate box, and another Doughboy had been taught how to load his machine-gun but not how to fire it.
The author also tells of stunning British advances against the strongly fortified defences of the Hindenburg Line that show the enormous tactical improvements since the tragedies on the Somme. Equally remarkable was the fact that, on 28 September, the entire battleground of Third Ypres that had been fought over for four months was recaptured in a single day.
The unremitting battles of October and early November frequently took a similar course. Successful allied advances were made against formidable defences. But German troops everywhere, overwhelmed and disillusioned, surrendered by the thousand.
As commander-in-chief, Foch drove his generals on, and one attack resolutely followed another. Soon it became clear that the fighting would not continue into 1919, as most had expected. German resistance was crumbling rapidly. No one at the front knew of the political machinations, but with Austria-Hungary out of the war, a mutiny in the navy, and plummeting German morale at home, an Armistice was agreed.
The Armistice effectively meant the unconditional surrender of Germany. Later Nazi claims that the German army was stabbed in the back by traitors (and Jews) at home have always been nothing more than nationalist propaganda. The Armistice was a huge victory brought about by superiority of numbers, greater military resources and manufacturing might, and increasing tactical flexibility. The German Army was completely routed in the field, as Hart makes very clear.
The book does not end with Hart’s often very moving accounts of soldiers who, at 11am on 11 November, realise that they have survived the war and start to wonder what they will do with their lives. It goes on to cover the process of demobilisation and, most interestingly, the story of those troops from Plumer’s Second Army who became the Army of the Rhine, occupying a section of the east bank of the great river.
Many soldiers had boasted they would give the wicked Germans what they deserved when they got to Germany. Instead, they quickly developed a deep respect for Germans – and especially for German girls. They were not treated as conquerors but welcomed as deliverers from a war the German people had grown to hate.
The powerful quotations come from a variety of sources. Many are from the private papers and sound recordings at the Imperial War Museum, where Hart is oral historian, but a huge number come from published sources, some from the 1920s, many more from books devoted to the stories of individuals or of specific units published in the last ten years or so. This is a tribute to how the WWI centenary has shone a spotlight on individual accounts and previously hidden histories of the Great War.
Overall, the book feels a little imbalanced, concentrating as it does on the battles of September and October. That is partly because, ten years ago, Hart published 1918: a very British victory, covering all of that year’s fighting from the German assault in March-April to the Armistice. The new book enables Hart to dig deeper into the final battles than his previous work.
I have a few quibbles with The Last Battle. In his desire to explain how combat in 1918 was different, Hart picks out some features of the fighting that were by no means new. Aerial photography and photo intelligence, for example, used so profitably in 1918, were well established by 1916.
Sound-ranging, a system of identifying the location of the enemy’s guns by recording and triangulating the sound of them firing, was in widespread use by 1917. (It was developed by William Lawrence Bragg, the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize for his pre-war work on X-rays.)
The maps in the book are also rather disappointing and difficult to follow in the accompanying narrative.
But overall this is a great and compelling read, and an immensely important corrective to the normal obsession with the Somme and Passchendaele. In the autumn of 1918, the reformed British Army played a major role in the total defeat of the German Army. Read The Last Battle and you will never forget this.