The Western Front by John Terraine

Hutchinson, 1964. 231p.

This is a book I got at a library sale years ago and have only just got round to reading. Rather than an overview of the Western Front as a whole it turns out to be a series of essays Terraine wrote between 1957 and 1962 which were finally collected in book form in 1964.

In the introduction Terraine is at pains to emphasise that the casualty rate in World War 1 was by no means unprecedented. Starting with Waterloo and taking in the Crimea, The American Civil War and the Boer War he illustrates that, for those with eyes to see, in a time of increasingly industrialised warfare high casualties were inevitable once the fighting started. This was a theme he developed fully in his later book The Smoke And The Fire.

World War 1 was unique, though, in the prolonged timescale of the battles and the static nature of the Western Front. (Other fronts had movement but sustained equally high, or even higher, percentage casualties.) The carnage of the Second World War eclipsed even that of the First, but Britain escaped most of it.

The focus of the book is, however, more on the personalities on the British side than the battles themselves; in particular in the antipathy between Lloyd George and his top commanders. Now, Terraine is a military historian and it is not surprising that his sympathies should lie with the generals but the evidence he presents for Lloyd George’s unhelpfulness is convincing.

His assessment of Douglas Haig as being far from the stolid and hidebound figure of the popular imagination is well argued. His highest praise, though, is reserved for the all but forgotten British general Herbert Plumer.

There is also a discursion into the baneful effect the cult of Napoleon had on the French military mind – and on others. In Terraine’s view Napoleon was anything but the tactical and strategic genius he is usually taken for and, moreover, was exceedingly careless with the lives of his men. The yearning for “something else,” the strategic or tactical genius who might have been able to circumvent the Western Front’s defences was always a chimera. None of the generals, on either side, had a quick and easy solution. In the end, by applying the lessons learned throughout and the integration of new tactics and weapons like the tank, it should not be forgotten that the war was won, and it was won on the Western Front. And that within the three months of late summer and early autumn of 1918.

While Terraine mentions it briefly, the most important assessment of the implications of the war is outwith the scope of this book. Britain was unable to wield sea power effectively (with the launch of the first modern battleship, Dreadnought, and the subsequent naval arms race its dominance had in essence been lost.) The development of the mine and torpedo and the advent of the submarine made a surface fleet almost useless in any case. As a result Britain was sucked in by force of events to becoming a land power; from 1917 onwards – arguably from the Battle of the Somme a year earlier – the major contributor to the Allies; fighting strength and the instrument of final victory.

Had the navy been able to ensure safe passage across the North Sea (rather than keep secure the shorter distance to France) an amphibious landing might have been attempted in Northern Belgium and the Western Front’s flank turned. Whether that would actually have led to an earlier German defeat is another matter.

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