Hart is one of the historians believing what is now very much the mainstream view, namely that by 1918 the British Army (including the soldiers from around the empire, especially Australia and Canada) was a very effective fighting machine, skilfully-led, with smart new tactics and the latest technology. The balance of military power at the time meant that even such an impressive fighting force could only win battles with huge losses of life. But by the end of the war the British Army had repeatedly beaten their German opponents, and pushed them back a long way.
What Hart doesn’t answer is how the army got to that high standard by 1918 – and hence whether we should view its achievements as impressive (the army learnt the lessons of earlier in the war and adapted well) or as tragically slow (why did the army only reach this standard in 1918 and not earlier)? Or, to personalise it, should Haig be praised for commanding what became such an effective army or be criticised for it having taken so long to reach that standard?
Peter Hart’s book does not really provide the answers to these questions, although it is a great account of the background to them, and also sheds much light on the German military performance. Hart is particularly critical of the German commander, Luddendorff, arguing that during the German army’s make or break 1918 offensive he kept on switching the direction of the offensive, seeking to exploit tactical opportunities rather than having a clear strategic objective.
Hart also criticises David Lloyd George and his fellow politicians, arguing that the initial great successes of the German offensive were down to the British army being short of troops. That shortage came from the decision by the British government not to provide all the men Haig had demanded. In their defence, the politicians had become jaded and disturbed by the huge levels of casualties, and were doubtful that Haig would use the men well. Which gets back to the question, unanswered in the book, about how good nor not Haig’s leadership really was. Were the politicians right to doubt Haig?
That makes 1918: A Very British Victory a book that is great to read – as long as you don’t mind finishing it wanting to read more elsewhere in order to work out your answer on whether the British army’s progress in 1918 was a triumph or a horribly delayed result.
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