Liveblogging World War I: March 24, 1927: John Maynard Keynes in 1927 Looking Back at Winston Churchill on "The Great War"
John Maynard Keynes: Mr. Churchill on the War: The World Crisis, 1916-1918. By Winston Churchill (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Two vols. 625 pages. $10): "This brilliant book is not a history....
...It is a series of episodes, a succession of bird’s-eye views, designed to illuminate certain facets of the great contest and to confirm the author’s thesis about the conduct, in its broadest strategic aspects, of modern warfare. There are great advantages in this procedure. Mr. Churchill tells us many details of extraordinary interest, which most of us did not know before, but he does not lose himself in detail. He deals in the big with the essential problems of the higher thought of the conduct of the War.
The book is written, like most books of any value, with a purpose. It does not pretend to the empty impartiality of those dull writers before whose minds the greatest and most stirring events of history can pass without producing any distinct impression one way or the other. Mr. Churchill’s was, perhaps, the most acute and concentrated intelligence which saw the War at close quarters from beginning to end, with knowledge of the inside facts and of the inner thoughts of the prime movers of events. He formed clear conclusions as to where lay truth and error—not only in the light of after events. And he here tells them to us in rhetorical, but not too rhetorical, language.
This naturally means telling us most where he was nearest, and criticizing chiefly where he deemed himself the wisest. But he contrives to do this without undue egotism. He pursues no vendettas, discloses no malice. Even the admirals and generals, who arc the victims of his analysis, are not pursued too far. Mr. Asquith, Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Balfour, Mr. Bonar Law, Sir Edward Carson—-he speaks them all fair and friendly in recognition of their several qualities, not striking down those who did service because they have joints in their annor. Mr. Churchill writes better than any politician since Disraeli. The book, whether its bias is right or wrong, will increase his reputation.
Mr. Churchill’s principal thesis amounts to the contention that, broadly speaking, in each country the professional soldiers, the "brass hats," were, on the great questions of military policy, generally wrong—wrong on the weight of the argument beforehand and wrong on the weight of the evidence afterward—whilst the professional politicians, the "frocks," as Sir Henry Wilson called them (a bit of a "frock" himself), were generally right. This is a question upon which at the time it was impossible for an outside observer to form a judgment, since, whilst it appeared to be the case that both sides committed cardinal errors at each turning point of the War, no one could divide the responsibility between the Cabinets and the General Staffs. In England, popular opinion rallied on the whole to the generals—-more picturesque, much more glorious figures than our old knock-about friends the "frocks," and enjoying the enormous advantage of never having to explain themselves in public. Mr. Churchill sets himself to redress this balance, to convince us in the light of the full disclosures, now available from every side, that wisdom lay on the whole with Asquith, Lloyd George and himself, with Briand, Painlevé and Clemenceau, with Bethmann-Hollweg and even the Crown Prince, and that it was Haig and Robertson, Joffre and Nivelle, Falkenhayn and Ludendorff who jeopardized or lost the War.
Let me try to summarize Mr. Churchill's indictment of the General Staffs. Each side signally lacked a Cunctator Maximus. No Fabius arose to wait, to withdraw, to entice. The "brass hats" were always in a hurry, hurrying to disclose their possession of new weapons of offense--the German poison-gas, the German U-boats, the British tanks--before they had accumulated enough of them to produce a decisive effect; hurrying to the useless slaughter of their dreaded "pushes." The strategic surrender, the deliberate withdrawal, the attempt to lure the enemy into a pocket where he could be taken in flank, all such expedients of the higher imagination of warfare were scarcely attempted. Mangin’s counter-stroke under the direction of Foch in July, 1918, which both the French and British staffs were inclined to deprecate and distrust, was one of the few such efforts.
The ideas of the staffs were from beginning to end elementary in the extreme--in attack, to find out the enemy in his strongest place and hurl yourself on him; in defense, to die heroically in the first ditch. Yet the extreme difficulty of restoring and extending communications over the battle zone gave an extraordinary advantage, in the conditions of modern warfare, to the retreat as against the advance. There were only two important exceptions to this rule--the withdrawal of the Germans to the Hindenburg line in 1917, and the unchanging demeanor of Sir John Jellicoe.
Mr. Churchill's fascinating analysis of the Battle of Jutland seems to the layman to show that Jellicoe missed his chances--chances which he ought to have taken. But Jellicoe, carrying a greater burden of risk and responsibility than any other single individual, the only man on either side, as Mr. Churchill admits, who could have lost the War in an afternoon, does stand out as the one triumphant Cunctator, who, though he may have missed chances, carried through from start to finish without a single disastrous mistake. I do not think, even in the light of some incisive criticisms which Mr. Churchill is able to make, that one would have wished to see any other personality which the War threw up in any country, in charge of the North Sea.
Mr. Churchill’s next point concerns the narrow geographical vision of the General Staffs, their inability on both sides to throw out wide-ranging glances of strategic and political imagination over the whole potential field of hostilities. The armies were drawn to one another like magnets. The soldiers were always busy discerning where the enemy was strongest and then demanding equal or greater forces to counter him, never testing where he was weakest and thrusting there. This is an old controversy, upon which we have long known where Mr. Churchill stood, and Mr. Lloyd George also. I do not know that this book adds much directly to their case, but Mr. Churchill’s third point, which I come to in a moment, does confirm, I think, the potential value of the restless visions of the politicians, as hints toward victory, as against the dogged dullness of the staffs. Mr. Churchill holds that the Germans, especially Falkenhayn, were at least as much at fault in this respect as we were. The generals on both sides were equally confirmed "Westerners" and supported one another, by their dispositions, against their respective governments at home.
Akin to this narrow geographical and political outlook was the narrow scientific vision of the professional soldiers, their extraordinary slowness to take up with new mechanical ideas, as illustrated by the history of the tanks, which our staff deprecated in their inception and never demanded from the Ministry of Munitions in adequate quantity, even after they had become enthusiastic of their results, and which Ludendorff never imitated on a serious scale, even after their existence had been prematurely discovered to him. The overdoing of the artillery and the maintenance of cavalry, which even in 1918 occupied nearly the same numbers of British personnel as the machine guns and nearly twice those of the tanks, are further examples of inelasticity of mind, as compared with the alternative policy, never adopted, except by Mr. Churchill himself in 1918 with a view to the unfought campaign of 1919, of an immense concentration of man-power on aeroplanes, machine guns, tanks and gas.
The third point, which probably constitutes the most novel and interesting part of Mr. Churchill's book, concerns the actual value, as judged by the results now fully known from the records of both sides, of the great offensives on the Western Front. It is here that there was the sharpest and most continuing divergence of opinion between the professional politicians and the professional soldiers. Apart from a temporary conversion of Mr. Lloyd George to the staff view in 1917, the former were ever of the opinion that the soldiers were underestimating the opportunities of defenses and overestimating the potential gains of an offensive, and that no decision would ever be reached by assaulting the enemy in his fortified positions on the Western Front. The influence of the War Cabinet was almost invariably cast against the "pushes" of 1915, 1916 and 1917. Since the successive Cabinets expected little from these appalling offensives, there was nothing to mitigate the effect on their minds of the cruel and useless losses.
By the end of 1917, a situation was actually reached in which Mr. Lloyd George was preventing available troops from being sent across the Channel which were certainly required in reserve there, because he could not trust his power to prevent Sir Douglas Haig from sending them to the massacre, once they were in France. "But for the horror which Paschandaele inspired in the minds of the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet," Mr. Churchill writes, "Haig would no doubt have been supplied with very much larger reinforcements." Beginning with Mr. Asquith’s prolonged and tenacious opposition to conscription down to this episode in the winter of 1917, Mr. Churchill’s evidence goes to show that it was the politicians who had the soft hearts, but also that it was they on the whole who, on military grounds, were right.
The General Staffs were ready to admit after each offensive that the results were disappointing, but they were apt to console themselves with the consideration of the great losses inflicted on the enemy and on some satisfactory progress toward the objective of attrition. Mr. Churchill claims that he distrusted these conclusions at the time, and that the figures of casualties now available from both sides show that the result of almost every offensive was to leave the attacking side relatively weaker in man-power than it was before. Sir Frederick Maurice, in a letter to the Times, has disputed this interpretation of the statistics. But even if Mr. Churchill has pushed his case too far, he seems on the whole to have established it. In particular, it was Ludendorff's apparently successful offensive of 1918 which really prepared the way for, and indeed rendered inevitable, the final German collapse. A large part of the book is occupied by a series of accounts of the successive offensives on either side and of the inability to estimate the reasonable probabilities of success by the High Commands, which their launchings indicated. The following passage may be quoted as an illustration of Mr. Churchill’s style and matter:
The anatomy of the battles of Verdun and the Somme was the same. A battlefield had been selected. Around this battlefield walls were built—double, triple, quadruple—of enormous cannon. Behind these railways were constructed to feed them, and mountains of shells were built up. All this was the work of months. Thus the battlefield was completely encircled by thousands of guns of all sizes, and a wide oval space prepared in their midst. Through this awful arena all the divisions of each army, battered ceaselessly by the enveloping artillery, were made to pass in succession, as if they were the teeth of interlocking cogwheels grinding each other. For month after month the ceaseless cannonade continued at its utmost intensity, and month after month the gallant divisions of heroic human beings were torn to pieces in this terrible rotation. Then came the winter, pouring down rain from the sky to clog the feet of men, and drawing veils of mist before the hawk-eyes of their artillery. The arena, as used to happen in the Coliseum in those miniature Roman days, was flooded with water. A vast sea of ensanguined mud, churned by thousands of vehicles, by hundreds of thousands of men and millions of shells, replaced the blasted dust. Still the struggle continued. Still the remorseless wheels revolved. Still the auditorium of artillery roared. At last the legs of men could no longer move; they wallowed and floundered helplessly in the slime. Their food, their ammunition lagged behind them along the smashed and choked roadways.
Nothing is more interesting in Mr. Churchill’s book than his impressions of the prevailing types of the High Command on each side. "There was altogether lacking," he says, "that supreme combination of the King-Warrior—Statesman which is apparent in the persons of the great conquerors of history." Most of the great commanders, with the possible exception of Joffre, were undoubtedly men of outstanding ability in their profession, but they were prevailingly of the heavy block-bead type, men whose nerves were much stronger than their imaginations. Hindenburg was not the only wooden image. Joffre, Kitchener, Haig, Robertson, Ludendorff—-they also might be commemorated in the same medium. They slept well, they ate well—- nothing could upset them. As they could seldom explain themselves and preferred to depend on their "instincts," they could never be refuted.
Mr. Churchill, quoting a letter from Robertson to Haig in which the former proposes to stick to offensives in the West "more because my instinct prompts me to stick to it, than because of any good argument by which I can support it," comments--"These are terrible words when used to sustain the sacrifice of nearly four hundred thousand men." The type reached its furthest limit in Mr. Churchill’s semi-comic portrait of Pere Joffre. No doubt more highly strung men could not stand the wear and tear of high command in modern warfare. They were necessarily eliminated in favor of those who, in Mr. Churchill’s words, could preserve their sangfroid amid disastrous surprises "to an extent almost indistinguishable from insensibility." Moreover, the Commander-in-Chief may be almost the last person ever to bear the truth. "The whole habit of mind of a military staff is based upon subordination of opinion." This meant that the lighter mind of the politician, surrounded by candid friends and watchful opponents, was indispensable to the right conclusions.
The final defeat of Germany was in fact due to the supreme strength of her Great General Staff. If Germany’s politicians had had the same influence as ours or France's or America's, she could never have suffered a similar defeat. Her three cardinal errors, according to Mr. Churchill--the invasion of Belgium, the unrestricted use of U-boats, the offensive of Marcb, 1918--were all the peculiar and exclusive responsibility of the General Staff. Ludendorff was the final embodiment both of the influence of the General Staff and of its highest qualities--of that General Staff whose members:
were bound together by the closest ties of professional comradeship and common doctrine. They were to the rest of the Army what the Jesuits in their greatest period had been to the Church of Rome. Their representatives at the side of every commander and at Headquarters spoke a language and preserved confidences of their own. The German Generals of Corps and Armies, Army-Group Commanders, nay, Hindenburg himself were treated by this confraternity, to an extent almost incredible, as figureheads, and frequently as nothing more.
It was this extraordinary confraternity which raised the German military might to monstrous dimensions, provoked and organized inhuman exertions, and yet, by the inevitable workings of its own essence, brought down upon itself the great defeat.
Mr. Churchill does not dissemble his own delight in the intense experiences of conducting warfare on the grand scale which those can enjoy who make the decisions. Nor, on the other hand, does he conceal its awfulness for those who provide the raw material of these delights. The bias of emphasis is on the grand decisions and high arguments. But, not the less for this reason, is his book, in its final impression on the reader, a tractate against war—more effective than the work of a pacifist could be, a demonstration from one who loves the game, not only of the imbecility of its aims and of its methods, but, more than this, that the imbecility is not an accidental quality of the particular players but is inherent in its spirit and its rules.