Peter E Wright.

At the Supreme War Council online

. (page 5 of 10)
Online LibraryPeter E WrightAt the Supreme War Council → online text (page 5 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

by the Executive War Board, asking them to con-
tribute their quota to the General Reserve, were
dated February 6' ; by February 19 the French and
Italian answers were received, assenting.

On February 22 Sir Douglas Haig and Retain
met at the Grand Quartier-General and arranged
another scheme of defence on a completely different
principle to that of the General Reserve. It was
the principle that if one army was attacked the
other should assist by taking over part of its line.
Under the General Reserve Plan, an authority
higher than any of the Commanders-in-Chief de-
cided what assistance one of them could receive
from the other. Under the arrangement of Feb-
ruary 22 every Commander-in-Chief decided for

' I adjusted the French and English text of these letters
as the Executive War Board decided it.



himself what assistance he would give a colleague.
It was the principle upon which the offensives
against the Germans had been conducted in France,
and which the Military Representative at Ver-
sailles had considered was imsuited to a defensive

This new scheme certainly would not have been
initiated by Retain, as it was, without the assent of
M. Clemenceau. But it was unknown to Foch,
who waited patiently for the English answer the
whole of February.

The fighting was expected to begin the first week
in March, when the plan of campaign was adopted
during the session of the Supreme War Council.
"You will be attacked on March i," Clemenceau
had said to Haig during a dialogue, if this conver-
sation could be called a dialogue, where Clemen-
ceau never stopped even to take breath, and Haig
never uttered a single word.^

On March 3 (and it is the knowledge of this date
that shows how well informed Major Grasset is) a
letter from Sir Douglas, dated March 2, written in
answer to a letter dated February 6, and therefore

^ They were standing next to where I sat writing at a
table. The contrast between the whirling volubility of the
one, and the blank muteness of the other, was amusing.



evidently kept back, reached the Executive War
Board refusing to contribute any divisions to the
General Reserve, except British divisions in Italy,
which were not under his command.' The his-
torian is referred to this letter, and should observe
the style and thought of the British Commander-
in-Chief. The Italian Military Representative
immediately declared the Italian contribution to
the General Reserve must be considered as with-
drawn, if there was to be no English contribution.
The General Reserve thus vanished, and with it
the Executive War Board faded away, for it had
been brought into existence to handle the General
Reserve, and for no other purpose. Though for
some time it continued to discuss, it never was to
act. Major Grasset says, not quite accurately —
"Finally, in their Session of March 3, and in
spite of the energetic protests of General Foch,
the Coimcil went so far as to decide upon an im-
portant reduction of the Inter- Allied Reserve, and
to envisage nothing more than resisting, as well as

^ My accuracy as to this letter has been questioned: I
may mention I myself translated it into French, and com-
municated it to the French section on its arrival; and acted
as interpreter and secretary to the meeting of the Executive
War Board which discussed it, and drafted the minutes of
the meeting.



might be, the German effort, though this threat-
ened to be of the most formidable type."

The refusal of Haig, which was communicated
to Mr. Lloyd George from Versailles, came as a
surprise and a violent shock to him; but it cannot
altogether have come as a surprise to Sir Henry

The Supreme War Council had created the Exe-
cutive War Board, with the two Commanders-in-
Chief in attendance, and without even a protest
on their part. In any event, even if they had pro-
tested, it was an order. This order they determined
to disregard, and fight the battle according to the
method they preferred, as separate commanders of
separate armies, instead of as one army, because
one army meant an authority above their own.
But to evade it, each used a different manner.
Petain answered Foch's letter of February 6,
granted the number of divisions demanded of him,
and, I believe, identified and even allocated them.
They were the Third Army imder Himibert, and
the First under Debeney, between fourteen and
twenty divisions. He relied on his colleague, who
had had previous experience in evading these or-
ders, to make this obedience void. At the Calais
Conference on February 27, 191 7, Lloyd George



had established Nivelle as supreme authority over
Haig. When Nivelle issued orders to him, a few-
days later on March 4, Haig repudiated his author-
ity, causing a serious crisis between us and our
French ally.^ But he had then made his repudia-
tion immediate, and not waited for the attack,
which Nivelle had fixed for April, to begin. He
now improved on this method. He did not even
protest at the supreme authority placed above him
by the Supreme War Council, but kept back his
repudiation till March 3, that is to say, till the
fighting was about to begin, and it would be im-
possible to replace him. These were the coils in
which Mr. Lloyd George was constantly wrapped,
and against which he struggled so resolutely, amid
such a storm of obloquy.

The Protocol, the Minutes, as we say, of the
plan between him and General Petain as drawn up
at the Grand Quartier-General, are contained in
docimient No. 5476 of the Operations Branch of
the G. H. Q. (3ieme Bureau). This document has
only to be placed next to the Resolutions of the
Supreme War Coimcil, creating the Executive War

' For the full text of the French Prime Minister's protest
to Mr. Lloyd George, on March 6, see Appendix B, " Unity
of Command in 1917."



Board and the General Reserve, for the inconsist-
ency to appear. It was impossible to carry out
both plans.

This arrangement was made on February 22,
but this document, No. 5476 of the 3ieme Bureau,
Grand Quartier-General, was not drawn up till
March 5, and is dated March 5, and reached Ver-
sailles much later. There must be some reason for
this delay in making minutes, which should natur-
ally be made as soon as possible after the event
they record. It is easy to find the reason. Petain,
the Commander-in-Chief at the front, did not want
Foch, the Chief of the Staff, at the Boulevard des
Invalides in Paris, to know of this agreement,
which destroyed the scheme of the General Reserve,
till it was too late to protest. The fighting was
expected to begin in March, and the drafting of the
minute was delayed till then . So was Haig' s answer
to a letter dated February 6. So far as Foch was
concerned, the agreement was a secret agreement,
and he was therefore the victim of an intrigue, a
most himiiliating intrigue. Speaking of the catas-
trophe that was to follow, Major Grasset says:
"There was needed this extreme peril and the
crushing force of this blow to open men's eyes and
to silence certain vanities." Mr. Belloc has here


® Press Illustrating Service, Inc.


misunderstood and therefore mistranslated Major
Grasset's allusion.

The Supreme War Council, in a Session held in
London in the first half of March, assented in effect
to the rejection of the plan adopted at the previous
Session. For it gave only the eleven Anglo-French
divisions as General Reserve to the Executive War
Board, which faded away. Foch protested to the
Supreme War Council, demanded a supreme com-
mand with an Inter- Allied Staff, and was heavily
snubbed. Clemenceau forbade Foch to argue with
Haig about his refusal to contribute to the General
Reserve. But on March 15, before the Supreme
War Council separated, Foch, with his own terrible
and leonine vehemence of speech, warned the dis-
mayed leaders of the Alliance of the coming disaster,
if they persisted in divided command and scattered
reserves. This was six days before the battle.

The scheme of the General Reserve, which Sir
Douglas thus rejected, gave him the right to the
assistance of his two colleague Commanders-in-
Chief, and a delicately adjusted, almost automatic,
machine, the Executive War Board, for asserting
this right. With this machine he could extract
their reserves from these colleagues in the quantity
and in the way he required, with an impartial arbi-



trator, the Executive War Board, to fix the quan-
tity and method as soon as he appealed to it, and
which, before even he appealed to it, weeks before
the battle, had already contemplated putting assist-
ance that would probably have been equal to a
third or a half of his whole army in close proximity
to it. He rejected this plan, and with Petain
adopted another plan of operations. The Versailles
principle was to treat the three fronts, British,
French, and Italian, as one front, and to engage the
enemy wherever he came on, with British, French,
and Italian forces. Haig and Petain adopted quite
another principle; according to the old method,
each of the fronts, British or French, was treated
as a separate front, and the enemy might be en-
gaged under certain contingencies by each army,
French or British, separately. There can be no
doubt about the plan of operations they adopted;
for it was embodied in a written agreement made
between the two.' Presumably in most battles
commanders have kept their main idea inside their
own head, but in this case it exists in writing.

The agreement provides that they are to assist
each other, but in one way, and one way only : the

' The historian can easily find it in the Registry at Ver-
sailles. The reference number in the Registry is file 26/E./6.



extreme French left met the extreme British right
at Barisis, the point of jimction of the two lines.
Whichever of the two was attacked, the other, in
case of need, agreed to help his colleague by ex-
tending his own line, but by extension only. The
helper would thus relieve a certain number of his
colleague's division, who would be released for use
elsewhere. But it was by extension only. If we
were attacked, for example, on our left, at Ypres,
the French relieved divisions on our extreme right ;
but they were not bound to come and fight shoulder
to shoulder with us at Ypres. Similarly, if Petain
was attacked on his extreme right, in Switzerland,
for example, we were under an obligation to begin
taking over the line on his extreme left, but not to
fight shoulder to shoulder with the French in the
Jura. The exact dimensions this extension of either
the French left or the British right was to take had
to be left unfixed, and depended on the judgment
and goodwill of the helper. Further, Petain natur-
ally did not want to be called upon to take over
portions of line on which a battle was actually
proceeding. So he stipulated — and the stipulation
is expressed in the plainest terms — that he was only
bound to extend his extreme left if we were attacked
at a portion of our line other than our extreme right.



Though the Supreme War Council had issued
orders to all Commanders-in-Chief to send all plans
of operations at once to Versailles, this agreement
could not be obtained from G.H.Q. till the fight-
ing had actually begun. On its arrival these criti-
cisms were at once made of it.

First: Either Petain or Haig, according to this
scheme, might have to fight Ludendorff alone,
which was impossible. For his 200 divisions must
sooner or later by their mere rotation (roulement)
in the line, and quite apart from their mass, have
exhausted even Petain's 97, still more Haig's 57.
In the event, Ludendorfif burst the British with one
giant charge of his whole mass.

Secondly: Neither Petain nor Haig was botind
to make any preparation beforehand to assist the
other, because neither could know whether he was
to be helper or helped. In the event, neither of
them did make any preparation, as the map' shows
at a glance.

^ See map at end of book. " Map showing position of all
Allied Divisions in France in the third week of March, 1918,
before the battle of St. Quentin." The position of the Brit-
ish divisions was obtained from G.H.Q. ; the position of the
French divisions from the French section of the Supreme
War Council, and is undoubtedly correct. I mention this
because the G.H.Q. map was marked to show a number of



Thirdly: As the helper was left to decide the
amoimt of help, it was certain that the Com-
manders-in-Chief would haggle and dispute, every
general by nature clinging to his reserves like a
miser to his money. Naturally, for the safety of
the troops for which he is responsible is his para-
mount motive. So delay would occur that might
be disastrous. In the event, there was prolonged
haggling, and consequent disastrous delay.

Fourthly: As Petain was bound to assist Haig
by extending his left, and in that way only, and as
it was stipulated that P6tain was not bound to
make this extension if the German attack occurred
at Haig's extreme right, it followed that Haig had
dispensed the French from assisting him at all if
he was attacked on his extreme right, even if
attacked by the whole German army. In the event,
he was attacked by the whole German army, on
his extreme right.

In a word, Haig's plan of operations contem-
plated that, under certain contingencies, he would
fight Ludendorff , who was more than three times as
strong as he was, all alone. Those contingencies

French divisions round Paris, which were really near Rheims
and the Aisne. This struck our officers who had charge of
these maps at Versailles very forcibly.



arose. Ludendorff attacked him from Barisis
northwards with his whole army. If the historian
is incredulous about this plan, as he may well be,
he is referred to the document. Besides, in conse-
quence of this plan, the British army, as will be
shown later, did in fact engage the entire Ger-
man army for a whole week with assistance from
the French so small and tardy as to be almost

There appears also to have been a further verbal
agreement by which Haig undertook, whatever
happened, not to require any help from Petain
till the fourth day of the battle. So the French
Operations officers at Versailles declared most em-
phatically, and, though there was means of check-
ing their statement, there is no reason whatever
to reject it.

The press, the scene of so many of our military
triimiphs, raised the clamour, and still in some very
partial quarters continues to do so, that this soldier
was not reinforced by the politicians as he ought
to have been, and was kept short of men. The
only way in which the politicians could have en-
abled this soldier to execute the plan of operations
he had himself conceived would have been to treble
his army.



General Staffs, in times of modem war, when the
nation becomes an army, are the most powerful
organisms in the State, for almost every one must
obey them, and they tend to supersede the State
itself. Through their huge patronage they lay
hands on the legislature and the press. But above
all, public opinion is theirs to shape it as they
please; for that great two-handed engine of decep-
tion, the censorship which conceals the truth, and
propaganda which creates the false, is in their
hands. This machine, created originally for one
purpose, to deceive the enemy, had come, perhaps
unavoidably, to be used for deceiving everybody,
soldiers and civilians. Keeping up the morale, in
the jargon of the war, is the purpose of this second
deception, as if men who give their lives with such
generosity, without hesitation, needed lies as a
further inducement to do so. It is an easy and
efficient engine to work, for people are left far more
iminstructed, and are far more misled by news-
papers in our enlightened period than ever they
were by rumour in the past, before the spread of
education had made it possible to induce people
to believe anything by printing it. Germans were
sure half London was burnt and in ashes; and we

have never heard of German victories, like Pil-
7 97


kallen, when they took as many as 100,000 Russian

But falsehood, however indispensable (and per-
haps in this case it is unavoidable), exacts its price;
and here it recoils in an unexpected direction.
Generals can have great reputations which are
entirely artificial. They do not have to win vic-
tories or campaigns; the subject press bureau and
the tame herd of special correspondents or special
press agents' do it for them. It is in the High
Command, and not in the line, that the art of
camouflage is most practised, and reaches to high-
est flights. All chiefs everywhere are now kept
painted, by the busy work of numberless publicists,
so as to be mistaken for Napoleons — at a distance.
Canny Scots soon discover that having the brother
of the editor of the leading newspaper of the major-
ity party of the legislatiure as a chaplain-general is
a greater piece of luck than breaking the German
line, and a long visit from an influential newspaper
proprietor preferable to a good plan of operations.
Criticism and doubt becomes scandalous or illegal
outside the armies, and (quite rightly) indiscipline
and insubordination within them. It ceases to be
necessary for Generals to win even wars ; they wiU

* See Appendix A.



be almost as victorious if they lose them. This is
not fanciful, for almost the whole German people
believe Hindenburg unvanquished and invincible;
they believe he never was defeated, but broke off
the fight and submitted because Germany's allies
deserted her. In spite of the Armistice, he is just
as much a conqueror to-day as when his authority
extended from Dunkirk to Kieff; and before we
deride them as dupes, it is as well to remember that
a great many sensible people here are sure that the
retreat of the Fifth Army in March, 19 18, was
an ingenious manoeuvre, and most people consider
that what the Germans call the Bloodbath (das'
Blutbad) of the Somme was an Allied triumph,
though, being almost twice as strong as the Ger-
mans, they could only gain a few miles of ground
at a stupendous cost. Joffre, whose mistakes in the
first weeks of the war nearly lost it, remains seated
in the hearts of the French as a national hero,
however much commissions of inquiry may expose
him.' No doubt if Haig had been driven into the
sea in April, 191 8, as seemed likely, he would have

^ See the report of the " Commission parlementaire d'en-
qudte sur le role et la situation de la metallurgie en France,"
which made a searching inquiry into the conduct of opera-
tions in August, 1914.



remained just as immortally glorious and some one
else would have been to blame. A new doctrine
has come to prevail that Commanders-in-Chief
can do no wrong and are not responsible.

Statesmen, of course, know the truth. Any one
in the room at the Supreme War Council who knew
these heroes remote from their godlike state, bright
pomp of swarming obsequious Staff Officers, mil-
lionaire A.D.C.s and attendant Major-Gen-
erals, motors and mounted orderlies, secretaries
and cooks, with the foimtains of official eulogy
playing on them in ceaseless glittering streams,
could measure their real stature, in all its naked
and tragic mediocrity: naked, because the working
of their confused, slow, and narrow minds revealed
itself without chance of concealment in those keen
debates with masterly heads like Sonnino or Foch ;
and tragic, because these incapables and intriguers,
thus decorated and exalted, disposed haphazard
of all those brilliant young generations that were
being mowed in swathes by the German scythe.
If any one could do so, very much more could
minds as quick and piercing as Mr. Lloyd George's,
or deep and experienced as Lord Milner's, estimate
them. But these fictitious conquerors are unshak-
able and cannot be uprooted, so deep is their real



hold on the army and the nation.' The French
Prime Minister protested in vain to Mr. Lloyd
George in 191 7 against Haig's "repeated tenden-
cies to evade the instructions given to him, " and
his "constantly renewed tendency to call into ques-
tion the plan of operations adopted by the Confer-
ence, " but Mr. Lloyd George could do nothing.
It becomes almost impossible to displace these
Napoleons, whatever their incompetence, because
of the enormous public support created by hiding
or glossing failure, and exaggerating or inventing

This is probably true of every belligerent. Sal-
andra, for example, the Italian Prime Minister, was
overthrown in 191 6 for daring to doubt Cadoma,
though Cadorna had never done anything but fail.'
Salandra the politician ventured to think Cadorna
the soldier was not invincible, on no other ground
except that Cadoma was always beaten. So Ca-
doma continued muddling away thousands of lives
in his blundering offensives, and his bubble repu-
tation continued to grow bigger and brighter till

^ See the account of Haig's refusal to obey the decisions of
the Calais Conference in 1917, in Appendix B, "Unity of
Command in 1917."

^ See La Nostra Guerra, by Generale E. Vigano; Firenze:
F. Le Monnier.



Caporetto burst it; even then his sycophants in the
press clamoured that the defeat and the loss of half
a million men was not due to Cadoma, but to some-
thing else.

And no one else was as loyal and long-suffering
as we were. Falkenhayn had to go after Verdun,
and Nivelle after the Chemin des Dames, in spite
of all their laurels. But Haig survived the Somme,
and Passchendaele, and St. Quentin, and their
huge slaughters, next to any one of which the
Chemin des Dames failure — where Nivelle only
just missed — is inconsiderable or trivial. Haig's
reputation survived the loss of very nearly half a
million men in Picardy in 191 6, and another loss of
very nearly half a million men in Flanders in 191 7;
when, in a speech made at the end of 191 7, Mr.
Lloyd George hinted at dissatisfaction with our
High Command, a universal cry of reprobation
went up from the whole country. He called this
superstition the military Moloch.' We cannot
complain if we so blindly adored the idol that de-
voured us.

But the most insidious and worst effect of this
so highly organised falsity is on the generals them-
selves: modest and patriotic as they mostly are,

' To Repington. See Repington's Diaries, Oct. 21, 1916.



and as most men must be to take up and follow the
noble profession of arms, they themselves are ulti-
mately affected by these imiversal illusions, and,
reading it every morning in the paper, they also
grow persuaded they are thunderbolts of war and
infallible, however much they fail, and that their
maintenance in command is an end so sacred that
it justifies the use of any means. There were
strange happenings in London when Sir Henry
Wilson succeeded General Robertson as Chief of
the Imperial General Staff. The War Cabinet took
their decision on Thiu'sday, February 14; but Gen-
eral Robertson, not for the first time, treated them
and their decisions as if they did not exist. For
several mornings Sir Henry went down to the War
Office to find his room still occupied by General
Robertson, carrying on as usual and ignoring him
entirely. As is evident from his press, General
Robertson, who had felt strong enough to try and
turn Mr. Lloyd George out with the help of Rep-
ington on February 12, anticipated that the House
of Commons, which was to discuss the new appoint-
ment on Tuesday, February 19, would dismiss the
Prime Minister who had dared to dismiss him; as
indeed Robertson's chief Staff Officer, Maurice,
was publicly to incite the House of Commons to



do in May. It was the duty of the Secretary of
State for War, Lord Derby, to eject him; but he
had pledged himself to both sides, and remained
timidly neutral, tremulously uncertain which cause
it would be most advantageous to desert, and wait-
ing anxiously to see which party was the strongest.

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10

Online LibraryPeter E WrightAt the Supreme War Council → online text (page 5 of 10)