The Western Front: a history of the First World War

This is the first of a planned three-part history of the First World War organised by theatre. The second volume will deal with the Eastern Front (including Italy and the Balkans), the third with the wider war (mainly the Middle East and Africa).

It is, first and foremost, a narrative military history ‘from above’ – that is, from the perspective of commanders operating at a strategic and higher-tactical level. It is not much concerned with the politics of the war, except in so far as they impinge on strategic matters, nor with the experiences of the common soldier, which have been the focus of so much military history since the 1970s. It is an unashamedly traditional military history.

This, however, is no criticism, for it is an outstanding example of how such history should be done. Crucially, it is a revisionist account that draws on the latest research and thinking. This is not a matter of startling new insights. It is, after all, so difficult to say anything about the First World War that has not been said before, usually repeatedly. What Lloyd does, with consummate skill, is to sift out the myths and misconceptions to leave us with a fast narrative, driven by an intelligent understanding of what actually happened and why. And he writes with a lucidity and panache that makes the book, for me anyway, a page-turner.

Some reviews of this book – not to mention the publisher’s puff – have tended to set up a straw man and made overblown claims for Lloyd’s novelty in casting him down. It is no longer true, and has not been for a very long time, that the First World War is typically portrayed as a matter of static, stale attrition, overseen by a class of stupid, Blimpish generals, resulting in futile slaughter in a sea of mud and blood.

This may still be a widespread popular view, but I am not aware of any serious military historians arguing this, certainly not in the recent past. Lloyd’s ‘revisionism’ is no longer revisionism: it is the new conventional wisdom. The Western Front was a cauldron of war in which the enduring deadlock resulted in a constant churn of innovation and experiment. Of course it did. How could it be otherwise? What professional military would not have been driven to excessive efforts to find a way out of the excruciating circumstances of battle on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918?

Incremental change

The importance of Lloyd’s book is not that he busts the myths: it is that he synthesises the latest thinking with such exceptional skill and subtlety. I was particularly struck by his emphasis on the successive stages of development – in technology, logistics, tactics, doctrine, and so on – in contrast to the view that there was a more unitary shift, a key moment of qualitative change, pivoting on events in 1917. This has been the view of many commentators – essentially, that there was a ‘revolution in war’, a relatively sudden shift from linear tactics to defence in depth and infiltration in attack, with the Germans – Ludendorff in particular – driving the process.

Lloyd displays a better feel for the changing texture of the war as a whole. He sees defence in depth developing during 1915/16. He shows the French – well behind the curve in 1914 – pulling ahead in terms of offensive tactics during 1916. He presents the infiltration tactics of early 1918 as something distinct from the earlier shift to defence in depth.

Consider this appreciation of the French recapture of Douaumont during the Battle of Verdun in 1916:

The French Army’s method of attack was becoming ever more sophisticated. As well as pounding the German trenches and lines of approach, it systematically targeted enemy batteries in the weeks before the attack, while French fighter squadrons photographed the front and engaged in perilous missions to bomb headquarters and billets, road junctions and railway yards behind the line. Three divisions had prepared meticulously for the attack, rehearsing their advance over specially constructed replicas of the battlefield after being given the latest intelligence on the state of the enemy and the layout of the fort.

Lloyd goes on to stress the uniqueness of what happened in late 1918, where, despite all the preceding tactical innovations, what was finally decisive was the Allies’ growing superiority in manpower and materiel. Yes, the combination of hurricane bombardment to neutralise defences, of massed tank attack, of airpower in tactical support, of infiltration tactics by infantry – all this, the culmination of four years’ experience, mattered. But the breakthrough depended above all on mass. Here is Lloyd’s summary:

Against them [the Germans] was a grand coalition, battered but still capable, and now able to draw on the inexhaustible strength of America. It was in those final months that the long struggle for advantage on the battlefield, for a tactical edge that would somehow break the deadlock, became irresistible – sweeping away what remained of the Westheer and ushering in a new age of combined-arms warfare: aircraft, tanks, infantry, and artillery, brought together in ever more sophisticated ways.

The slow development of expertise in a new way of war was thus combined with a growing Allied superiority in weight of metal, in the sheer mass of firepower so essential to victory in an industrialised war of attrition.

What Lloyd’s study also makes clear, however, is that the revolution in war remained incomplete in November 1918. Here was a curious reversal. In the war of manoeuvre in 1914, there had been a tragic lag of tactical doctrine behind technological advance: the mid-19th-century infantry line was employed against early 20th-century magazine-rifles, machine-guns, and quick-firing cannon. In the war of manoeuvre in 1918, there was the opposite problem: the fast tanks, mobile artillery, lorried infantry, and radio communications that would make true Blitzkrieg possible were yet to come – commanders had grasped the essence of the new way of war, but still lacked the means to accomplish it.

As Lloyd realises, in a wider sense, it was all futile. I cannot help quoting his final couple of sentences here:

By then [1941], the Great War had become a byword for slaughter and futility, a meaningless exercise that accomplished nothing but the murder of an entire generation; and the peace that it produced sowed the seeds for the Second World War. The victory that the remarkable fellowship of Joffre, Foch, Pétain, Haig, and Pershing had won on the Western Front was overshadowed: merely the first act of a great tragedy.

The German Kaiser in January 1917, flanked by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the two generalissimos – defeated by the growing weight of Allied manpower and materiel in the last year of a long war of attrition.

Quite so; but the implications are not sufficiently regarded. Lloyd is a sharp-eyed military historian, but a less keen social one. His treatment of the revolutions that ended the war – surely one of the greatest waves of popular revolt in history – fails to rise above the level of conservative polemic. But one can no more explain the overthrow of a modern state in terms of a coup d’état than one can explain the destruction of a modern army in terms of a coup de main.

The breaking of armies in 1917 and 1918 was also a breaking of nations. The military struggle at the front was paralleled by a class struggle at home. Lloyd is not a historian of revolution, but this cannot excuse lapses like the absurd idea that Lenin returned to Russia in 1917 ‘his pockets bulging with German gold’. To repeat a baseless fabrication like this – it was perpetrated by Lenin’s political enemies during the revolution – is thoroughly discreditable.

It reflects a wider problem: the masses – the workers, peasants, and conscript soldiers of the First World War – tend to be regarded as so much human raw material to be worked upon by their respective ruling elites. The idea that they might become historical actors in their own right – makers and shakers of history – does not arise. Yet, without question, the First World War was ended by a wave of revolution from below that shook the entire European social order to its foundations between 1917 and 1923.

The French Army mutinies of spring 1917, for example, are treated as nothing more than a temporary disciplinary problem – not as a potential revolutionary anti-war movement that might have opened a ‘second front’ of popular revolt at the same time as the convulsions in Russia.

Nor is enough made of the crippling fear of the German High Command that their army might disintegrate completely and leave them with no instrument of repression in the face of Russian-style revolution at home. The Armistice was the result of an overwhelming Allied preponderance of manpower and materiel on the Western Front, for sure; but it was also a political imperative for the beleaguered German militarists as the red flags sprouted across the Fatherland in autumn 1918.

Nonetheless, without question, this book is an outstanding achievement, a brilliant one-volume military history of the war on the Western Front that combines narrative drive, acute pen-portraits, and penetrating analysis of military developments and command decisions. Highly recommended.

Review by Neil Faulkner.
The Western Front: a history of the First World War, Nick Lloyd, Viking/Penguin, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-0241347164.