With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918, by David Stevenson, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 736 pages
Almost a century on, the first world war still haunts the collective European memory. Each year the British state and people commemorate Remembrance Day, November 11, with a solemnity accorded to few other national ceremonies. Plastic poppies are sold in extraordinary quantities – a record 46m last year, according to the British Legion. Secondary schools ship children across the Channel on trips to the Ypres and Somme battlefields, while readers swarm to buy novels set during the conflict by authors such as Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks and Jane Urquhart.
In the academic world, too, first world war studies continue to flourish. Over the past four years Haus Publishing has issued a superb 32-volume series, Makers of the Modern World: The Peace Conferences of 1919-23 and their Aftermath, under the editorial directorship of Professor Alan Sharp, a University of Ulster historian and expert on the Versailles treaty.
Now comes With Our Backs to the Wall, a magnificent and exhaustive account of the war’s final year by David Stevenson, professor of international history at the London School of Economics. Stevenson has a deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading authorities on the war, having published extensively since the 1980s on various aspects of the conflict. Many consider his 2004 book, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War, to be the best single-volume work on the subject in the English language. In this latest book he explains how the war, which in January 1918 appeared to the participants to have no end in sight, culminated just 10 months later in an overwhelming victory for Britain, France, Italy and the US over their German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish enemies.
Two crucial factors were the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917, which destroyed the Russian empire and brought the Bolsheviks to power, and the US declaration of war in April 1917. These events prompted the German high command to launch several ferocious offensives from March to July 1918, in an attempt to exploit Russia’s defeat and win the war in the west before the arrival of millions of US soldiers tipped the balance in favour of the Allies.
The offensives were, at first, startlingly successful. The Germans overran Allied trenches with an ease unseen since the outbreak of war in 1914. On April 11 Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British armies in France, issued the famous order of the day from which Stevenson draws his title: “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”
Did Haig’s words inspire his men? Up to a point. Stevenson observes that British soldiers put up determined resistance, but not to the last man – surrender at times seemed the sensible option.
Nonetheless, appearances were deceptive. The territory captured by the Germans was large but strategically insignificant. German forces lacked mobility: they did not have enough tanks, lorries or even horses. For their part, the British and French armies had learnt the bitter lessons of their carnage-filled offensives at the Somme and the Chemin des Dames in 1916 and 1917. Their tactics were more sophisticated, and their infantry were equipped with more automatic rifles, mortars, and hand and rifle grenades.
Above all, the German attacks accelerated the US war effort. “To this extent the Germans committed suicide for fear of death, and by attacking they brought closer the very threat they feared while weakening their capacity to confront it,” Stevenson writes.
After a prologue describing the stalemate of 1914 to 1917, he narrates the events of March to November 1918 in two chapters, showing how Germany’s spring offensives ran out of steam and gave way with unexpected rapidity to retreat and surrender.
The next five chapters are arranged on thematic lines: intelligence, technology, manpower, morale, the contest to control the seas, war economies and the home fronts. Domestic political and economic stability was an important Allied strength. As David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, wrote in his memoirs: “The contentment and co-operation of the wage-earners was our vital concern, and industrial unrest spelt a graver menace to our endurance and ultimate victory than even the military strength of Germany.”
The government recognised that to buy off striking miners and aircraft industry workers with wage increases was a price worth paying to keep production going. Even more important were reliable food supplies. Germany, strangled by the British naval blockade, and Austria-Hungary were experiencing difficulties in the winter of 1916-17. But Britain, uniquely among the European belligerents, did not need to ration bread. Its food ministry estimated the population was better fed than in peacetime. According to Prof Stevenson, civilian life expectancy and infant mortality rates improved during the war.
The Allies had greater financial resources, raw materials and technological expertise at their disposal, but what also mattered was the quality of their political systems and leaders. The Central Powers were semi-autocratic monarchies with over-powerful militaries and mediocre civilian politicians. Britain, France and the US were democracies led by men of the calibre of Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson – “compelling spokesmen for their respective countries”.
Drawing on numerous original sources in French, German, Italian and English, Stevenson displays masterly scholarship and his prose is crisp and vivid throughout. In his assessment of tank warfare, where the British were innovators and the Germans laggards, he describes the harrowing conditions in these clumsy, slow-moving vehicles: “Not only was visibility inside and outside restricted, but the sweltering cabin was filled with petrol and carbon monoxide fumes, and the noise so loud that the occupants could neither hear each other nor the battle outside. Bullets hitting the tank’s shell produced a ‘splash’ of red-hot shavings against which men had to wear chain mail masks (sometimes on top of gas masks), while the machine pitched up and down in imitation of a rough sea crossing.”
For a book of such quality, a slip or two is forgivable. I noticed just one: the day on which a German U-boat sank the Leinster, a British passenger liner, causing the loss of hundreds of lives, was October 10, 1918, not October 12. But in no way does this lessen the achievement of a book that promises to be the outstanding military history published in 2011.
Tony Barber is the FT’s special projects writer
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