Peter E Wright.

At the Supreme War Council online

. (page 3 of 10)
Online LibraryPeter E WrightAt the Supreme War Council → online text (page 3 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of Roumania in 19 16 might have been decisive.

"If the war had been directed by a central and
supreme body, co-ordinating political with military
effort, and army with army, instead of these being
connected by temporary arrangements, missions,
liaisons, the Central Powers would have succumbed
long ago. But the absence of unity, for want of
which we have failed to attain victory, is now going
to give it to them. They have now one instead of
two fronts, and free on the East, they are going
to throw their whole weight on the West. That
front, which, from the North Sea to the Adriatic,
forms a single front, has never been treated as such.



It is just possible for the British, French, and Italian
armies to act separately when on the offensive, as
they have been most of the time. But now they
will have, till the Americans arrive in force, to
stand on the defensive. The armies of the Central
Powers will crush each separately, unless there is a
single central command to give the whole strength
of the other two Allied armies, at once, and with no
delay, to the third."

These prognostics were too soon justified. As
Major Grasset says, "the thunderbolt fell without
so much as the warning of the lightning flash."

On October 25, 191 7, the Germans broke through
the Italian front at Caporetto, and in the ensuing
retreat General Cadoma lost a quarter of a million
men in casualties and a qiiarter of a million men in
prisoners. His army almost entirely dissolved. So
the first German offensive in the West had almost
destroyed the Italian army.

Foch was then Chief of the French General
Staff, having been called back in the spring of
19 1 7 — after Nivelle's failure — from his retirement.
For retired in 19 16, he had been given, as Major
Grasset tells us, the special task of planning the
defence of Switzerland. As soon as the Russian
Revolution had taken place, and a prospect of a



German offensive in the West therefore appeared,
the Swiss Government (so small was their faith in
German professions) had anticipated that the Cen-
tral Powers would violate its neutrality in order to
turn the Allied right in France. Foch had produced
a plan, exquisite in its subtle simplicity, by which
the troops of the Swiss confederation, after acting
as covering troops, would have retired to the cen-
tral, inexpugnable massif of their country, while
fifty French divisions would have caught in flank
the German armies pouring through the flat cor-
ridor of the Aar Valley, too narrow for them either
to deploy or retreat, while the Swiss army hung on
the other flank. This famous plan is known as
"Le plan H.'" An apprehension about Switzer-
land, sharpened perhaps by the memory of the
French mistake about Belgium in 19 14, never left
the minds of Foch and Petain and affected all their
dispositions in the winter 1917-1918, as those dis-
positions themselves show.

But the blow fell in Italy, not Switzerland.
Within twenty-four hours of hearing the news of the
break through, Foch had begun entraining French
troops to go to Cadoma's help ; six French followed

' The historian can find an abstract of it in the Registry
at Versailles.



by five English divisions had hurried there. Even
with this assistance Cadoma intended abandoning
the line of the Piave, fearing the position could be
turned from the Alps, and retreating to the line of
the Mincio. Foch hastened to his headquarters
and, as Major Grasset politely puts it, "persuaded
Cadoma that he had not suffered definite defeat,
and that the enemy could be checked on the Piave."
Foch really bulUed him so that he thought it prefer-
able to stand and face the Austrians than retreat
and face Foch. Had Foch's decision not been so
rapid, for he had given orders for the French di-
visions to be moved towards Italy before Cadoma
asked for help, the line of the Piave would cer-
tainly not have been retained. But the next line,
that of the Mincio, gave a very long front to the
Italians, instead of the short line of the Piave from
the Alps to the sea. As Cadoma was never tired of
repeating when he went to Versailles, not eleven,
but twenty or thirty Anglo-French divisions would
have been required to hold the line of the Mincio.
This would have been so serious a diminution of
the Anglo-French forces in France, that it might
have seemed preferable to abandon the Italians
altogether. Only Foch's promptitude prevented
Caporetto from being a blow fatal to Italy.



Foch insists in his Principles of War that a battle
is a "crisis," a "swift and bloody drama." But in
his ordinary language and unconsciously, he always
uses a word that is even more expressive of his con-
ception of the pace at which the events of a battle
proceed and the consequent necessity of quick de-
cision. He never says a battle "begins," he always
says, rather strangely, "a battle is off," using the
word properly applicable to horses starting in a
race ("une fois la bataille partie").

But it is some of the subsequent discussions that
took place between Foch and Cadoma that show
the faults of the Allied system more than the battle
itself. The eleven Anglo-French divisions in Italy
were a definite diminution of the Allied forces in
France, but they were a definite loss only because
of the insufficient railroad commimication between
France and Italy.

So defective were these that some of the French
divisions coming to the help of Cadorna had had to
cross the Alps on foot, or else they would have
arrived too late. When the whole Western front
was treated as one, this defect was evident at once ;
an indefinite number of Italian divisions could have
come to France, or Anglo-French divisions to Italy,
if the railroad communication had been improved



sufficiently to shift them back again shuttle-wise
whenever and wherever they were wanted. A few
weeks before the 191 8 campaign began it was too
late to start construction. Whenever Weygand,
Foch's Chief of the Staff, and Cadoma at Versailles,
discussed the subject at the meetings of the Mili-
tary Representatives, they used to lament and
shrug and sigh over its being too late.' But if a
central military organ of command for the whole
front between the North Sea and the Adriatic had
existed before, the necessity for the improvement
would have appeared as soon as they started dis-
cussing, and it could easily have been carried out
in the early part of the war.

Caporetto decided Mr. Lloyd George; at a Con-
ference held at Rapallo in the beginning of Novem-
ber, the Supreme War Council was founded as a
central directing political body for the whole alli-
ance; it was a monthly meeting of the principal
ministers of each country at Versailles. There was
a permanent staff of Military Representatives at
that place to act as their military advisers, and to

^ I speak from personal knowledge: it gradually became
my duty to act as sole interpreter to the Military Repre-
sentatives at their formal meetings, as well as being a mem-
ber of the joint inter-Allied Secretariat.



co-ordinate the action of all the Allied forces.
These military advisers were Sir Henry Wilson;
Weygand, Chief of the Staff to Foch in Paris;
General Cadoma; and later General Bliss, Amer-
ican Chief of the Staff. "This," as Major Grasset
says, "was a hesitating but not less decisive step
towards \mity in command."






The Plan of Campaign for 191 8

The Supreme War Council, at their December
Session, directed all commanders of all Allied ar-
mies and staffs to give the Military Representatives
all possible information. A constant liaison be-
tween all the main centres of the war and Versailles
was established; for example, a permanent tele-
phonic communication with the War Cabinet and
with G.H.Q. From all these quarters information
came pouring into Versailles without cessation.'
During December and January a number of inter-
Allied questions of great importance were referred
to it which the Military Representatives decided
by means of joint notes, signed by all of them, and
presented to their respective Governments. They

' Again I speak from personal knowledge. I was the
first Allied officer — after the French Camp Commandant —
to get into the building assigned to the Supreme War Coun-
cil and, owing to my dual position of secretary and inter-
preter, was busily employed in this organization.



tiimed out these joint notes at the rate of two or
three a week. But the main plans elaborated be-
tween Foch and Sir Henry Wilson at Versailles can
be better understood if the forces in opposition, as
they were to be between the middle and the end of
February, 191 8, when the fighting was expected to
begin, are known.

By the flow of divisions from the East, the Ger-
mans in France then had 178 divisions, estimated
at 1630 battalions, 1,232,000 rifles, and 24,000
sabres; 8800 field rvms and 5500 heavy guns. The
AUies had available 97 French, 57 British, 10 Bel-
gian, I American, and 2 Portuguese; altogether 167
divisions, estimated at 1585 battalions, 1,480,000
rifles, 74,000 sabres ; 8900 field gims and 6800 heavy
guns. So the Allied totals were still superior to the
German, the German imits, divisions, and battalions
being smaller than the Alhed. The rate at which
their divisions could be brought from the East,
where they still had 58, of rather inferior quality,
was about 10 a month. Of those perhaps 40 at the
most could be expected to appear in France, and
so their maximum strength, between 200 and 210
divisions, would be reached in May. But the
American divisions (of which one only was now in
the line and coimted) were beginning to come in;



so that at no time would the German superiority in
number over the AlHes be near so great as the Allied
superiority over the Germans had been for at least
one and a half years. There ought, therefore, to
have been no cause for anxiety.

On the Italian front there were still the 1 1 Anglo-
French divisions sent there after Caporetto, and 50
Italian divisions; 764 battalions, 633,000 rifles,
6400 sabres; 3700 field guns and 2100 heavy guns.
The enemy had only 43>^ Austrian and 3 German,
a total of 46>^ divisions ; 439,000 rifles, 3400 sabres ;
3000 field gims and 1500 heavy guns. On the Ital-
ian front, therefore, we are still 6 to 4 in spite of

In the East the Austrians had 34 divisions, some
of which might be expected to come to Italy; but
on the other hand, the Italians had not yet put into
the line all the divisions they had reconstructed out
of their defeated troops during the winter, out of
which they were ultimately to form the Sixth Army.

In the Balkans there were 23 Bulgarian, 2 Ger-
man, and 2 Austrian divisions, a total of 27; 294
battalions, 228,000 rifles, 3000 sabres; 972 field
gims and 353 heavy guns. On our side 8 French,
4}/^ British, ij4 Itahan, 3 Greek, 6 Serbian, i Ital-
ian in Albania, 23 divisions in all; 271 battalions,



219,000 rifles, 7000 sabres; iioo field guns and 380
heavy guns. Here the enemy was slightly superior,
but the Greek mobilisation was not finished; later
in the spring the size of their contingent would be
doubled or trebled ; this would leave the advantage
to the Allies again.

In Palestine and Mesopotamia the Allies were
overwhelmingly larger than the Turks, whose bat-
talions, by the time they reached the front, were
all reduced to 200 or 300 by desertion. General
Allenby in Palestine had 7 British and i Indian
divisions; 117 battalions, 100,000 rifles, 16,000
sabres; 410 field guns and 93 heavy gims. Facing
him were 1 1 Turkish divisions and i second-class
German division at and south of Damascus; 107
battalions, but only 29,000 rifles and 3000 sabres
and perhaps 200 or 300 gims. We were 3 to i .

In Mesopotamia, i British and 5 Indian divi-
sions; loi battalions, 125,000 rifles, 9000 sabres;
300 field guns and 50 heavy guns. Against these
the Turks had nominally 5 divisions and 47 battal-
ions; but these only amounted to 18,000 rifles, 1000
sabres, and no more than 100 gims. Here we were
6 to I.

This survey wotild not be complete without a
mention of Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa, with



his 250 Europeans and 1500 Africans. A British
and native force of 12,000 rifles, with a ration (not
a combatant) strength of 55,000, were kept busy-
chasing him.

All military information from all Allied sources
was concentrated by the Inter-Allied Staffs at
Versailles; each week, for the convenience of the
Military Representatives, tables were prepared in
the British section showing the forces on each side
in every theatre ; the historian will find these figures
in these tables.

So the Allies, in spite of losing the Russians and
Roumanians, kingdoms of millions of men, who had
thrown into the balance more than 190 divisions,
in spite of not having more than one American
division at their side from a country which had
actually registered 25 million men as capable of
military service, in spite of these deductions, at the
beginning of 191 8, still had the advantage.

War abstracts the world into a chess-board where
each piece is measured in divisions. At the first
meeting of the Supreme War Council, M. Venizelos
harangued it for an hour on the past, present, and
future glories of Hellas; but when he stopped
drenching his audience with his eloquence, the only
voice raised was that of General Robertson, who



just asked, "How many divisions can you give us
in the spring?" From the height of the Supreme
War Council the number of divisions Greece could
supply was all Greece stood for.

The plan of campaign for 191 8 was the work of
Foch, Sir Henry Wilson, and Mr. Lloyd George, in
the sense that while some of the leaders of the Alli-
ance favoured some parts of it, and others others,
they were in favoiu* of all of it and imposed it on
all the other leaders. They, in effect, said to the
Supreme War Council —

"We will stand on the defensive on the Western
front till the Americans arrive ; on the defensive, if
we give the Allied armies on the front from the
North Sea to the Adriatic a single organ of com-
mand, we should be able to resist the enemy, if they
were able to resist us. But let us take the offensive
in Palestine; Turkey is exhausted, and a defeat in
Palestine will knock Turkey out. Such a result will
have further consequences which we cannot foresee*
but which might be decisive."

There were thus two parts to this plan, a central
command in the West and an offensive in Palestine.

A central command seems easy to create. The
French solution was that it should be given to a
French general, a natural claim on a front where


Press Illustrating Service, Inc.



they had 103 divisions to 62 British and 50 ItaHan;
but, as Sir Henry Wilson always insisted, the right
to command, when complete and entire, involves
the right to dismiss, and therefore it was a right
which in simple entirety could not be given to any
general of any single nation, for no army of any
nation would bear having its leaders dismissed by
a foreigner.

In effect, the function of a generalissimo would
have been to fix the quantity and use of the Allied
Reserve, if this whole front was treated as a single
front. This would have been his work in a defen-
sive campaign, such as was anticipated. Assum-
ing that any point or points were threatened by the
enemy, such a generalissimo would have decided
the number, place, and movement of units from the
rest of the front that were to go to the defence of
that point.

Foch and Sir Henry Wilson put forward a simple
and ingenious proposal, with the object of giving
the three Allied armies all the advantages of a gen-
eralissimo without the objections; the three Com-
manders-in-Chief were to remain Commanders-in-
Chief, but at Versailles there was to be formed an
Executive War Board, with Foch as Chairman,
General Cadoma as the Italian, and General Bliss



as the American, members, and a British General
as British member. This Board was to have the
right to demand from each Commander-in-Chief
a certain number of divisions which it could control.
Divisions placed in the General Reserve would
be ear-marked, and not to be used by any Com-
mander-in-Chief without permission of the Execu-
tive War Board, which had authority to fix their
number, place, movement, and use.

The Executive War Board, brought into exist-
ence to handle the General Reserve, gave each
Commander-in-Chief the advantages of a generalis-
simo; the General Reserve was a banking accoimt
on which each could draw if he was attacked; his
drafts would be fixed by the War Board, according
to their judgment. On the other hand, he had none
of the disadvantages of a generalissimo. No Com-
mander-in-Chief could suspect his forces were being
exploited for the benefit of an ally's forces, which
had always been the real obstacle to imity of com-
mand ; for each nation had its representative on the
War Board. Sir Henry Wilson and Foch in effect
argued —

"The system by which each Commander-in-
Chief attacks separately is possible when on the
offensive. But we must now stand on the defen-



sive. Ludendorff will have about 200 divisions;
he will leave 100 in the line, and attack one of the
three Commanders-in-Chief, French, British, or
Italian, with a mass of manoeuvre of 100 divisions;
no single Commander-in-Chief parts with his re-
serves willingly. There will be discussions and
consequent loss of time that may be disastrous.
There must be some superior authority to decide
at once how much each of the others must con-
tribute to help the one attacked. The Executive
War Board, by means of the General Reserve, will
do this."

The French and British members of the Execu-
tive War Board were, in fact, joint generalissimos
of the Allied armies, and its membership became
the greatest of military positions, the precious
apple of gold the possessor of which might reap all
the glory of the war, and it therefore at once be-
came an apple of discord as well as an apple of gold.
But Sir Henry's first proposal was that Foch and
Robertson, the French and British Chiefs of Staff,
should be the French and British members. Of
course, Robertson eagerly welcomed and adopted
the scheme.

Linked to this creation of a central command was
the extension of the British front. After a very



close consideration, it had been decided by the
Military Representatives subject to the creation
of a General Reserve, to extend that front as far as
the Ailette, though the French wanted it carried as
far as Berry au Bac. Taking all the factors, and
there were many, into consideration, they decided
this was a point to which the British armies ought
to go. Proceeding on entirely different methods of
calculation, both General Cadoma and Sir Henry
Wilson's staffs, working independently, fixed on
the point as giving them their just extension.

But Haig and Petain decided together on Barisis
as the point, and this compromise was adopted by
the Supreme War Council. Haig did not cover the
new space he thus had to fill by widening the front
held by each division in the line, and so stretching
out the front held by each of his armies. The front
of every British division was narrower than the
space covered, under similar conditions, by a
French or German division. When the question of
the extension of the line was being discussed this
was a great argument in the mouths of the French.
But Haig filled in the new space down to Barisis by
drawing on his reserves, thus depleting them, and
yet leaving the Fifth Army imder Gough, that went
into this new space, imduly extended and weak.



The Military Representatives at Versailles ar-
gued —

"If the Allied line in France was treated as one
front, it could not be equally strong at every point.
Some portion must be thiner than others. But the
creation of the General Reserve made this particu-
lar point a matter of indifference. For if the weak
point was attacked, the General Reserve could be
drawn there at once, and the War Board had the
authority to make the General Reserve as large as
it liked, drawing from all armies. So the weakest
point could at once be made the strongest."

Besides, Gough's army was at the point of junc-
tion of the Franco-British lines. They considered
it rather an advantage that this point should be the
weakest. It was evident — and the papers demon-
strating this are in existence at Versailles — that if
the German attack was met (in the only way it
could be met) by both British and French troops
fighting shoulder to shoulder at whatever point the
attack came, then the most convenient point for us,
and the worst for Ludendorff, was the point of
jimction of the French and British lines, just where
Gough was, and for this reason: French and Eng-
lish, having each their own type of arms and supply,
had each to have lines of communication of their



own. It would be very inconvenient for us to es-
tablish these, say, to Switzerland, or for the French
to do so, say, to Ypres. But this difficulty did not
arise if the fighting took place at the point of junc-
tion; to that point they already existed for both

The other part of the plan of campaign was the
Palestine offensive; Allenby already had an over-
whelming preponderance over the Turks. That
preponderance was to be further increased : he was
to be reinforced from Mesopotamia with forces
originally fixed at a higher figure, but ultimately
amoimting to one Indian division. An Indian
cavalry division in France was to be sent to him.
His forces were so large that the real difficulty was
supplying him, and his capacity for hitting hard
depended much more upon the rate at which the
railroad from Egypt could be pushed forward. But
with a little time, and a great deal of railroad ma-
terial, it was reckoned he ought to be able to annihi-
late the very inferior Turkish forces in front of him.

At a Session held at the end of January, the
French members of the Supreme War Coimcil at
first presented some opposition to this Eastern
project, but assented on condition that no white
troops were removed from France for this attempt.



There was also opposition to it from General
Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
General Robertson was also proposed as the British
member of the Executive War Board at this Ses-
sion, but was excluded by Mr. Lloyd George, who
placed General Sir Henry Wilson there instead.
So the golden prize which had hung before Robert-
son was neatly made to fall into Sir Henry's mouth;
Robertson, not unnatvirally, was furious. This was
quite visible. Long after the Supreme War Coun-
cil had risen, after passing this resolution, and only
a few secretaries being left in the room, Robertson
still remained sitting alone in his place, motionless,
his head resting on his hand, glaring silently in
front of him.

This plan of campaign, in its two parts, a central
command in France, and an offensive in Palestine,
was in effect the plan that carried the Allies to vic-
tory in the autumn; Allenby's annihilation of the
Turkish army in front of him knocked out the
comer stone of the edifice of the enemy's power, and
Foch's conduct of the operations in France led to
a result that no one had anticipated. But the first
winter edition of the plan was better both in means
and conception than its autimm successor. Allen-
by's British troops were taken from him after the
« 65


disaster of the spring, and Indian divisions sub-
stituted. Foch's authority as Chairman of the
Executive War Board was better conceived and
clearer than his authority as Generalissimo, which
was never exactly defined. If the second edition
of this plan of campaign finished the war, the first
edition would have done it even more surely. So
great in war is the importance of a good plan, that
as soon as it was foimd and carried out, the war

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10

Online LibraryPeter E WrightAt the Supreme War Council → online text (page 3 of 10)