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Revisiting World War I

The Generals’ War: Operational Level Command on the Western Front in 1918 by David T. Zabecki, Indiana University Press, US $45.00, Pp 430, September 2018, ISBN 978-0253037015

Although World War I is known as the War to End all Wars, it was followed by a more brutal war known as World War II as well as many other wars. When Russia withdrew from the war in late 1917, the Germans concentrated all their efforts on the Western Front in the hope to win the war in 1918. They could have won it if the Americans had not entered the European theatre of war. As new war technologies were introduced in the war, it changed the way all subsequent wars were fought. In The Generals’ War, David T. Zabecki explores the military strategies of six generals who shaped World War I during the last year of the war on the battlefields of the Western Front. These six included Germany’s Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff; France’s Marshals Ferdinand Foch and Philippe Pétain; Great Britain’s Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig; and the United States’ General John Pershing.

Zabecki says that even one hundred years after the end of World War I, there is still much to learn from studying it, especially the last year of the war. The Great War changed the way that wars have been fought ever since. The basic outlines of the wars fighting mechanics it introduced are still with us today. Zabecki says that by the start of 1918, many of the most important lessons had been learned and internalized, albeit at a terrible price. However, none of the separate national armies — German, French, British, American — learned exactly the same lessons at the same pace. Seventy-eight British, seventy-one German, and fifty-five French generals were killed in action or died of wounds during the Great War. Some three hundred British generals were killed in action or died of wounds during the Great War.

Zabecki says that the art of generalship involves far more than the command of large formations of troops. It also has to do with forming, organizing, equipping, and training an army, transporting forces to a theater of operations and sustaining them logistically throughout their deployment; collecting processing, and analyzing intelligence on the enemy, planning operations and committing the forces to battle; and directing and coordinating their actions once committed. Zabecki focuses on the operational level of war, that level between the tactical and the strategic. Zabecki says that World War I today is seen quite differently by the peoples of the four nations this study concerns itself with. The Great War exists only dimly in the American consciousness, even though the United States emerged from that war as one of the great powers of the twentieth century. Germans today also pay little attention to World War I, although the war does have somewhat greater resonance in France. In all three countries, there is far more interest in World War II or earlier conflicts. For the British, the Great War is still the war.

Zabecki says that the study of last year of the Great War starts in November 1917, when two meetings, one on the German side and one on the Allied side, set the stage for the final twelve months of the Great War. The Allied Rapallo conference of 5-7 November resulted from the Italian disaster at the Battle of Caporetto two weeks earlier. The problems encountered in the redeployment of British and French troops from the Western Front to shore up the Italians exposed a clear need for some sort of inter-Allied coordinating body, which the Allied still did not have after three years of war. The resulting Allied Supreme War Council was a political body rather than a combined military command structure, but it was the first step that ultimately led to the establishment of such a command and the appointment of Foch as the Allied generalissimo in the spring of 1918. Meanwhile, the Germans on 11 November convened a planning conference at Mons, Belgium, chaired by Ludendorff as first quartermaster general. Zabecki says that time was not on Germany’s side. The Allied naval blockade had pushed Germany’s civilian population to the brink of mass starvation. The United States had entered the war on the Allied side that April. If the Germans could gather their forces at the right time and places and hit the Allies fast and hard enough, they just might win the war on the battlefield before the Americans could make a difference. But, they could not — and they lost.

This meticulously-researched study provides new knowledge and new perspectives about — and gives new insights into — what is known as the war to end all wars. If you ever thought you knew everything or enough about World War I, The Generals’ War will prove you wrong. With his impeccable scholarly and military credentials, David T. Zabecki explains Germany’s military strategy and tactics it employed in the 1918 Ludendorff offensive on the Western Front. He also looks into how the Allies and Germans conducted their operations and how they used the technology to conduct the war and explains how the tide of the war was turned. It is a required reading to understand World War I.

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