- - Monday, February 24, 2014


By Nick Lloyd
Basic Books, $29.99, 384 pages

By the spring of 1918, both sides in World War I were reeling, with a “final chance” German offensive only adding to the hundreds of thousands of casualties already suffered on the battlefield. The defeat started serious discussions among German officials that perhaps it was time to sue for an end to the deadlocked war.

The allied armies, similarly battered, managed to muster enough strength to launch their own attempt to win the war, in what historians now call the Hundred Days Offensive. However, unlike the Germans, whose manpower pool for replacements had essentially gone dry, the Allies could rely upon the resources of a late entrant to the war, the United States military.

Given that the burden of the first years of the war fell chiefly on the British and French, the American role in the final victory has been downplayed by Eurocentric historians. (A notable exception was John Mosier, whose 2001 book, “Myth of the Great War,” bore the telling subtitle, “How the Germans Won the Battles and How the Americans Saved the Allies.”) Now we have an esteemed British historian, Nick Lloyd, of King’s College in London, giving America’s soon-famed “doughboys” their just due. (The term dated to the Mexican-American War of 1836-38, when U.S. soldiers were so caked with dust that they looked as if they were covered with uncooked dough.)

That the United States entered the war was in large part due to German bungling, both in diplomacy and in intelligence. President Woodrow Wilson repeatedly warned if the Germans continued unrestricted submarine attacks against U.S. ships, he might intervene. Kaiser Wilhelm II scornfully scrawled on a memo about the warning, “I do not care.” Submarine warfare continued.

The second failing was about the prowess of the U.S. Army, less than 140,00 “strong” in 1917, ill-trained and ill-equipped. German intelligence reported that it would take years to convert untrained recruits into units fit for European battlefields. The estimate was shockingly wrong. The number of doughboys in France soared to more than half a million by mid-1918. A German commander was moved to conclude, “The Americans are multiplying in a way we never dreamt of.” (Intelligence, of course, should be based on something other than dreams.)

Allied commanders sought to funnel the American arrivals, dubbed the First Army, into their existing units, essentially as replacements, but the U.S. commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, refused, declaring, “I was decidedly against our becoming a recruiting agency for either the British or the French.” He insisted on the Americans having their own sector of battle, and under American leadership.

Thus, the Americans joined the Allied push in the Hundred Days Offensive, designed to drive across the north of France and cut the main body of Germans from supply links. The offensive opened with a horrific artillery barrage, with Allied guns raining some 750,00 shells onto German positions in three days, plus 30,000 rounds of mustard gas. The feared Hindenburg Line, with its miles of bunkers and acres of concrete, far from being an unbreakable bastion, was “fast becoming an anvil on which the remaining German armies would be broken.”

There was also an intelligence coup of inestimable value. A British unit overran a German corps headquarters. An officer found a complete plan of the German defenses — the position of every artillery and infantry headquarters, locations of supply dumps, maps of trenches and barbed wire emplacements — a made-to-order targeting guide for artillery.

Rounding out the intelligence coups was a deception operation crafted to convince the Germans that a Canadian contingent was to attack far to the north of the true objective. Extensive wireless traffic suggested the Canadians were moving “in hopeless confusion,” hither and yon across the country. When they finally struck, a startled German captive exclaimed to a Canadian, “we just got word that you were up in Belgium.”

Pershing challenged the British-French tactic of tedious trench warfare, supported by artillery barrages. As he wrote in his memoir, “victory would not be won by the costly process of attrition, but it must be won by driving the enemy out into the open and engaging in a war of movement. So Pershing stuck to his edict, “If the Americans were to be involved, then they would do so as a whole army.”

Be forewarned that Mr. Lloyd writes of grim events that do not make for pleasant reading. He draws heavily upon wartime diaries of men in all armies. The most barbaric weapon was mustard gas, first employed by the Germans — and later by their adversaries. An American officer, Frank Holden, described the horrors inflicted on one soldier: “He had to sit up on the stretcher. His back, chest, and face were a solid, burning blister where the horrible mustard gas has spattered on him. Not only that, but the awful gas fumes had gotten into his lungs and he was breathing heavily.” Recovery from such exposure took years; indeed, some victims “were never really healthy again.”

Mr. Lloyd convincingly argues that many Allied commanders were correct in wanting to drive into Germany, ravishing the countryside as had happened in France and Belgium. However, any such action was mooted when the collapsing Germans sued for peace — giving rise to the accusation years later to the “stab in the back” lie that helped Hitler gain power.

This is a sobering but essential read on the last days of a horrific conflict.

Washington writer Joe Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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