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THE WESTERN FRONT
BY H. SIDEBOTHAM
SIR DOUGLAS HAIG's long dispatch, published in the first week of January, covered the whole of the fighting on the British front in France and Belgium between the battle of the Ancre and the battle of Cambrai.
Sir Douglas Haig is not a born dispatch-writer. He has neither the power of resolving by an epigram the tangles of a complicated strategic situation, nor the faculty of graphic description and the quick Irish sympathy which made the dispatches of Sir Ian Hamilton from Gallipoli such fascinating reading. He is a diplomat, too, and one would search his dispatches in vain for the indiscreet or hasty phrase which reveals more of the truth than it is intended to do. He eschews generalities and is sparing of the obiter dicta on military affairs beloved by the layman. Still, his dispatches are instructive reading. Collate this long one with the famous speech of Mr. Lloyd George in Paris in November, and we have, if not all the facts about the British offensive in 1917, enough to enable us to form a fair and reasonable judgment. The critics, in England certainly, and perhaps in America too, have done less than injustice both to Sir Douglas Haig and to Mr. George, but a careful reader can now correct his misapprehensions and form a surer judgment about our future military policy.
At Paris, it will be remembered, Mr. Lloyd George laid all the blame for our failures in the war on the fact that the Allied strategy had not been an organic unity, but merely had tacked and
stitched together the military plans of each of the Allies. It is no secret that from the early years of the war he was an 'Easterner' in his views. He very early began to doubt the feasibility of a break-through on the Western front, and preferred the chances of an offensive in the East. With the Dardanelles expedition he did not identify himself so completely as Mr. Churchill, and his prejudice was in favor of an attempt to attack Austria from the side of Serbia. To this view the French General Staff also inclined; and thus, before the overrunning of Serbia, there was formed a somewhat unusual degree of sympathy between him and the French command.
Begun too late to save Serbia, the Macedonian campaign degenerated into an extravagant insurance premium on the safety of Saloniki and on the neutrality of Greece; but just as the advocates of the Dardanelles campaign argued that it was the execution of the business, not its strategy, that was at fault, so the Franco-Serbian school insisted that the idea of assisting Serbia and attacking Austria from the southwest was quite sound, and that the cause of its failure was the tardiness and vacillation of its execution.
The views of this school were confirmed by the fate of Roumania. It was easy to put the blame for her breakdown on Russia, who was primarily responsible; but had the Allied forces at Saloniki been in a position seriously to coöperate with Roumania on the south, Roumania would never have made the mistake of invading Transylvania
mistake which was in fact her undoing. And the fall of Roumania was the real, though not the avowed, cause of the fate of the Asquith government. Logically, having come into power owing to the failure of its predecessor's policy in the East, the present government should have begun by correcting the obsession of our strategy with the West, which was responsible for the slow weakening of Russia, our disastrous failure in the Balkans, and our middling success in the war with Turkey.
There were, however, great and, as it turned out, insuperable difficulties in effecting a new orientation of our policy. In the first place, our best chances of exercising a decisive effect on the war in the East had disappeared with the abandonment of the Gallipoli expedition and the overrunning of Serbia and Roumania. All that we could do now in the East was to put fresh vigor into our campaigns against Turkey on the Mesopotamian and Egyptian front; and this the new government did, and it had its reward in the capture of Bagdad. But the capture of Jerusalem, which should have taken place at the same time, was delayed nine months, partly by mistakes in the leading of the British army of Palestine, but still more by the failure to give Sir A. Murray the necessary support. The Palestine campaign was, in fact, like all our eastern campaigns, starved for men and material; and not until General Allenby had taken command and been given heavy reinforcements of both men and material, did Jerusalem fall.
Thus, even under a government which was convinced of the importance of the East in our military strategy, the same mistakes-in kind though not in degree were made as under the Asquith government, and our advance against the Turkish Asiatic empire was in consequence many months in rear of
scheduled time. It would have made
all the difference to our prospects if Jerusalem had fallen, as doubtless was intended, at the same time as Bagdad. By now there would probably not be a Turkish division south of the Taurus.
The reason for this modified success was that, at the beginning of 1917, the General Staffs of both England and France were fairly confident of breaking through on the West. Their plans had already been prepared in concert, and after the British victories on the Somme and the Ancre, their hopes of a break-through seemed not unreasonable. It must be remembered further that the progress of the U-boat campaign had greatly strengthened the arguments for making our main offensive on the West. The shortage of mercantile tonnage was a serious and valid objection to the beginning of a new and ambitious over-seas campaign in the eastern Mediterranean. The longer the sea voyage, the more tonnage required; and the war in France had this great advantage, that the sea passage for supplies was very short.
Sir Douglas Haig's plans for 1917 had been arranged with General Joffre. Their idea was to continue the offensive on the Somme which had been begun on July 1, 1916, the French operating as before in the direction of Péronne, and the English, on their left, attacking both sides of the marked salient which had been formed in the German lines as a result of our successes in the autumn of 1916. On one side of this salient an attack was to be delivered on the Vimy Ridge, on the other side the attack was to press the advantages we had already won on the Ancre. That done, the British were then suddenly to transfer their offensive to Flanders, where, in Sir Douglas Haig's opinion, the chief British military interests lay. It was a rational plan, and, difficult as the campaign in Flanders promised to be, there was good rea
son to hope that, begun early enough, it would recover the whole of the Belgian coast before the winter set in.
This plan seems to have been arranged in November, 1916. It is not certain that the War Cabinet of the new government was greatly enamored of it, and the criticism was early made that it would be very costly in men. Mr. Lloyd George would have preferred an offensive, not against Germany, or in Flanders, where the enemy's positions were strongest, but against Austria, and in conjunction with the Italian offensive. At the beginning of 1917, there was some reason to fear that Germany might effect a concentration against Italy (which she in fact did at the end of the year), and there was a school of strategy in England which favored meeting and, if possible, anticipating it by a bold offensive by the Napoleonic route to Vienna over the Carnic Alps and through Laibach. This view, however, was not shared by the General Staff, which now as always insisted that the war must be won in the West; and its opinion was accepted, though not without demur from some of its members, by the War Cabinet.
But now an unfortunate thing happened: General Nivelle succeeded General Joffre in the command of the French armies and had different views about the offensive. General Nivelle thought that his best chances of success were against the hills behind the Aisne; instead of attacking immediately on the British right, as in the Somme battle, he proposed to deliver the main French attack from the south, and this plan, as General Haig puts it, entailed 'a considerable extension of my defensive front, a modification of a rôle previously allotted to the British armies, and an acceleration of the date of my opening attack.' It is clear that these alterations were not to his liking. He wanted to get busy in Flanders as soon
as he could, and the shifting of the main French attack to the south and east threatened to impair his chances in Flanders, or at any rate to postpone the beginning of the attack there.
Now, as in the autumn of 1914, the British and French commands saw the problem from a slightly different angle. If General French had been perfectly free, he might never have fought the battle of the Aisne, but would have transferred his troops into Flanders, perhaps a month before he actually did. General Haig's views were on this matter identical with those of General French, and he preferred the original plans because they promised to release his armies earlier for the campaign in Flanders which he had most at heart. He had, however, to give way. 'I received instructions,' he writes, 'from His Majesty's Government to readjust our previous plans to meet the wishes of our Allies.' There is no trace of feeling, still less of bitterness, in this sentence; but there is no doubt that a great deal of history is concealed behind it.
In the agitation which arose in the British press over Mr. George's speech in Paris, it was stated freely that Mr. George had been anxious for a united command. A united command in France could mean only French command; so that, if this proposition was ever made, it was one for putting General Nivelle in supreme command of the British and French armies on the West. Had it been carried out, General Haig would presumably have gone to Italy to conduct an offensive against Austria. The plan actually adopted, therefore, was in the nature of a compromise. It neither put General Nivelle in supreme command, nor left General Haig free to carry out his original plan.
For a variety of reasons the new plans were not successful. General Nivelle is accused of having made his attacks without sufficient artillery pre
paration, and his losses were certainly much heavier than they should have been. His calculation, perhaps, was that the most important factor of success was surprise, and that prolonged artillery bombardment, by giving notice of the attack, did more harm than good. Be that as it may, the French offensive was too costly to be kept up, and General Nivelle made way for General Pétain, whose principles, as we shall see, were entirely different.
In the meantime the French offensive on the Aisne had a very disturbing effect on the British plans. General Haig's idea had been to waste no time in pressing his attack near Arras after he had captured the Vimy Ridge. 'I did not consider,' he writes, 'that any great strategical results were likely to be gained by following up on the front about Arras and to the south of it.' The British attack on the Vimy Ridge was made on April 9, and the French attack on the Aisne began a week later. Under the original plans, General Haig, after capturing the Vimy Ridge, would have transferred his armies to Flanders; but the battle of Arras was prolonged in order to assist the French offensive. The later stages of the Arras battle were much more obstinately contested than its beginning on the Vimy Ridge, and except that it brought us up to the Hindenburg Line, and familiarized us with the new defense tactics of the Germans, it is hard to see what all this hard fighting contributed to the business in hand. Doubtless it relieved the pressure on the French, but apart from that our troops would have been more usefully employed in Flanders.
The first attack in Flanders, that on the Messines Ridge, was delivered on June 9, but the attack on the ridge east of Ypres was not begun until July 31, seven weeks later, and by that time the best weather of the year had all been used up. The disappointments of
General Haig came very thick about that time. He had counted on the Russians, and it was now clear that the Russians were, for all practical purposes, out of the war. He had counted also on the active coöperation of the French in this offensive, but the new commander-in-chief, General Pétain, was a convinced believer in the strategic defensive. Not that General Pétain had abandoned all hopes of breaking through the German lines; but he held that at present France could not afford the losses necessary to force the pace. Later, perhaps, when the American reinforcements had reached their maximum, the attempt to break through might be resumed, but for the present his policy was purely Fabian. His great anxiety was to conserve the man-power of France. Where an opportunity for attack presented itself, no one knew better than he how to make full use of it, but there is all the difference between brilliant but isolated successes and the steady pressure of a long-continued offensive such as the British were engaged in,
The French army on the British left did excellent work in the operations east of Ypres; but, when all is said, the bulk of the work was thrown on the British army. What wonderful work it was, all the world knows, but it was costly in men, and it failed to give the results for which we had been hoping. At one time, indeed, it looked as if we should break the German lines completely, and compel an extensive evacuation of the Belgian coast; a fortnight's fine weather and we should have done so. Even as it was, there is some reason to think that the Germans were preparing to evacuate the Belgian coast. Not for nothing did Von Kühlmann renounce German political ambitions in Belgium, for the enemy's politicians speak only after consultation with the soldiers, and in the light of
their interpretation of the military situation. As it was put by a writer in the Manchester Guardian, the speeches made by the government in the Reichstag were only the shadows on the blinds that concealed the conferences of the General Staff.
It was at this time too that Germany is believed to have made an offer to France, through an agent in Switzerland, to evacuate Belgium, and even to make concessions to France in AlsaceLorraine, if only she were given a free hand in the East an offer that was promptly rejected. It is clear how her mind was working. She was genuinely alarmed at the progress made by the British in Flanders. Under pressure from Austria she had committed herself to a campaign against Italy, but she could not be certain what measure of success she would have, and if the worst came to the worst, it might be that she would have to evacuate the Belgian coast for the sake of this Italian campaign, which she had delayed until as late in the year as she dared, so that she might first take the full measure of the British offensive. She was face to face with a military crisis comparable with that of the autumn of 1916, when Roumania entered the war. She was about to venture a great military gamble, and before risking it she paused and made a bid for peace with the Western Powers. But the gamble came off beyond all her expectations. Not only was Italy driven from Austrian territory, but she was forced to retire, after suffering very heavy losses, to a line far in the rear of that from which she started when she first entered the war. To protect even that line, troops had to be withdrawn from both Belgium and France, and the offensive in the West was now definitely over. Better still (from Germany's point of view), Russia entered into negotiations for a formal peace.
Napoleon required his generals not only to be good but to be lucky, thereby recognizing luck as one of the factors in war. Sir Douglas Haig in 1917 was abominably unlucky. He had had his original plan spoiled by a general who was almost immediately superseded, and whose supersession brought yet another change in the military policy of our ally which was even less advantageous. Forced by circumstances beyond his control to postpone his offensive in Flanders, he thereby lost all the fine weather of the year; but, thanks to the incredible exertions of his troops, he gained enough success to show what he could have done if the weather had been reasonable. At the end events occurred in Italy and Russia which clouded over achievements as remarkable as any in the history of the British army, and made a long offensive of nearly eighteen months spell something like defeat. Sir Douglas Haig and his army deserve congratulation on their achievements, and condolence on the sheer bad luck that blighted them.
It was under these circumstances that Mr. Lloyd George made his speech at Paris, explaining his reasons for setting up the new Inter-Allied Council. His instances of the failures which had resulted in the lack of a single united strategy were most of them drawn from the early history of the war, not from the events of 1917. The English Premier, being a man of imagination, doubtless felt that at such a moment the British army in the West was in need of sympathy rather than of criticism, however kindly and sincere. But looking back on the past from the vantage-ground of Sir Douglas Haig's dispatch, we must recognize that the whole campaign in Flanders was a mistake after General Pétain's appointment. The two armies in the West, after the failure of the offensive on the