In the spring and summer of 1918, Allied forces came under dangerously sustained attack from the Germans. Commanders were not confident of their ability to defend against this assault but the line did hold. In July, the Allies counter-attacked and for the first time in the conflict began to push the Germans back. On 8 August they won a significant victory at Amiens and the Germans were forced to retreat to the Hindenberg Line, a well-defended trench system established in 1917. By 3 October the German High Command were requesting an armistice and this famously came into effect at 11am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918.
Historians agree that the major victories in the last ‘hundred days’ were mainly won by Field Marshall Haig and the British Army. But Haig’s final victory presents the historian with a problem. The British High Command during the First World War is traditionally seen as totally incompetent. But if Haig and his generals were so inadequate, how did they manage to win the war?
The whiteboard resources below will examine this question.
The caricatures of British generals during the First World War as incompetent and unfeeling are very familiar. From Oh What a Lovely War to Blackadder Goes Forth, popular culture has alternately attacked and ridiculed their lack of tactical imagination and consistently over-optimistic view of the conflict.
The emphasis on British commanders eclipses the bizarre statements frequently made by the Kaiser during the conflict and overlooks the fact that strategy on the Western Front was heavily influenced by the French. But in the popular imagination the grim statistics of the First World War (on average around 5,000 soldiers were killed for every single day of the war) and the perceived pointlessness of many of the assaults combined to produce a picture of a British High Command, presided over by Douglas Haig, almost more dangerous than the enemy. This was not necessarily the view during and immediately after the war.
The most obvious signs of this are Haig’s treatment after the Armistice. He was made an Earl in 1919 and a Baron in 1921, the year of his retirement as Commander in Chief of the British Home Forces. It was not until years later that voices began to be raised against the tactics employed during the conflict. Some of the most vigorous statements were made by David Lloyd George.
Writing in 1938 the former Prime Minister aggressively planted the blame for the destructiveness of the conflict on his General’s ‘narrow, selfish and unimaginative strategy and…the ghastly butchery of vain and insane offensives’. However, in blaming his own High Command, Lloyd George neatly shifted the responsibility for the conflict from Britain’s political class who had brought Britain into the war and overseen it.
And yet the manner of the 1918 victory clearly demonstrates the military mistakes of the earlier years of the war. The historian David Stephenson has written of a ‘new willingness to terminate attacks in good time’, emphasising the old tendency to press assaults long after the position had become hopeless. The rise of new generals such as Henry Rawlinson and John Monash came at the expense of old, ‘bad’ generals such as Hubert Gough, sacked in March 1918.
A serious problem that Haig had to contend with was the poor quality of ammunition supplied for much of the war by British factories. Shells would either not explode with sufficient force or not explode at all. And yet, even when this became clear, Haig continued to put far too much faith into the power of aerial bombardment and he consistently underestimated German defences. It took years for the British High Command to learn these lessons and to develop effective ways to use the new forms of military equipment available to them – aircraft, tanks and gas weapons.
The final German assault, which culminated in the Spring of 1918, very nearly succeeded. American forces were vital in holding the line but it was the British who took the lion’s share of territory and prisoners, no doubt in part thanks to Haig’s still inspiring leadership. But in the end the collapse of the Central Powers was unexpected. In October 1918, Haig told the War Cabinet that Germany would fight on into 1919. He was wrong again.
This lesson could be useful for a popular coursework unit on interpretations of Haig at GCSE examined by AQA. Students should have some knowledge of the Battle of the Somme and this lesson can be used alongside the topic website on The Great War.
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