Title: Too Important for the Generals – How Britain Nearly Lost the First World War; Author: Allan Mallinson; Publisher: Bantam Press/Penguin Random House; Pages: 400; Price: Rs 599
At a time when it seems necessary to exalt the armed forces and embody in them — and their equipment — the spirit of nationalism, seek to insulate them from any “criticism” and consider them a solution for all problems, are we doing ourselves — or even them — any good? The First World War’s case would suggest otherwise.
This war’s impact extended beyond its massive butcher’s bill, the break-up of large multi-ethnic empires, the rise of fascism and communism, and the Second World War to effects still reverberating today: An unstable Middle East, toxic nationalism, bigger governments and tax liabilities, among others. And this was when the Allies had won.
They managed to achieve this feat but it could have been a close-run thing, as soldier-turned-military historian and author Allan Mallinson argues in the book — and in any case, the costs were prohibitive. And the worst is that the reason for these has been forgotten again — despite being remedied during World War II — as well as about why wars are fought and how to go about them.
These reasons, Mallinson shows through his overarching account of World War I grand strategy (with forays into strategy and tactics wherever necessary) — mostly from the Allied side — was in the military’s strategic culture, the politicians’ failure to exert control or influence, and personal and institutional failures among both.
These were exacerbated by the belief — not among only soldiers — that military matters were best left to them and others could not appreciate it enough to advise, leave alone criticise.
And in such a mindset, any questioning or apprehensions of a military or strategic course becomes a heresy, inviting fierce condemnation. Lord Lansdowne, a former Viceroy of India and War and Foreign Secretary, came under fierce attack for defeatism and even “cowardice” for pondering “the inherent illogicality of a war for civilisation in which civilisation was itself being destroyed, a war of survival in fighting which the nation’s strength does not survive”.
Mallinson, whose previous book “1914: Fight the Good Fight” was about the British Expeditionary Force’s initial campaigns and a tantalising glimpse of how the long stalemate of trench warfare might have been avoided with some more intelligent politico-military decisions, extends his argument in this extensive, thoroughly-researched but most absorbing book.
Its trigger, he says, was a set of events for junior British and French army officers, mostly veterans of the ongoing Afghan and Iraq wars, where “the professional sympathy for the magnitude of the generals’ tasks, with much talk about the ‘learning curve’ (in truth, a flat line for far too long) made for a sort of fatalism among the officers taking part, which was not unlike that prevailing in the army of 1916-18”.
Nor does Mallinson agree with the prevailing historical consensus that the reckless series of attacks and their massive casualty lists were inevitable and the only way to win, and points out some ways where the conflict could have been shortened and the losses reduced.
Beginning with French statesman Georges Clemenceau’s much-adapted statement (“War is too important to be left to the generals” — as usually rendered), he goes on to Prussian strategist von Clausewitz’s dictum (“War is the continuation of politics by other means”) about what war is meant to achieve — and why this key fact was not understood. He then sketches the course of the war over its four-and-half years.
Showcasing major battles of the Western Front, and all the jealousy, personality clashes, and abandoning of less glamorous but necessary rear-echelon operations, Mallinson contends the real fault was in the failure of the generals to adapt to new circumstances or admit they could be wrong, coupled with the hesitation or inability of politicians to enforce their will.
And all this happens when the armed forces begin to seen as something sacrosanct and more than an instrument of policy, something beyond people whose interests they are meant to serve, something whose sacrifices are used to partisan ends for power — that are abiding lessons of World War I that we should never forget. This is why this book should be read beyond military history fans.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])