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scale, and at the end of it, in June, the remainder
were still on the brink of ruin, from which only
their "usual tenacity" had saved them.

The prognostics of Sir Henry Wilson and Foch
in the preceding autumn had been fulfilled as if by
programme. The Germans, impelled by a single
will, had in turn endeavoured to crush the separate
armies of the Allies, the Italians at Caporetto, and
the British at St. Quentin, and very nearly sue
cccded. The system of three independent Com-
manders-in-Chief had been disastrous on the
defensive for just the same reason they had pre-
dicted, that the help which one Commander-in-
Chief would give a colleague in danger would be
either insufficient or too late, or both, and could
only be decided by a superior authority superior
to them all. From the first week of March, when
the plan of a General Reserve was abandoned,
Cough's army was doomed, given the actual dis-
position of the reserve division of Petain and Haig,
as the map shows. During the fortnight that
preceded the battle no one on the immediate staff
of Foch had any doubt that a catastrophe was in-
evitable, and Foch himself told the Supreme War
Coimcil so on March 15 in London. The future
historian of the war can easily satisfy himself of



the accuracy of this forecast. There are two docu-
ments, short and simple, which for this, as well as
every other battle of the war, tell the story of the
engagement at a glance : the position of the Alhed
divisions and the Diary of G.H.Q.; these are
worth for any battle all the mountain of documents
that exist. The positions for March (which can be
seen in the map at the end of this volume) show the
Allied reserves were so disposed that they could not
reach Gough in time to save him against such an ava-
lanche, and the Diary of G.H.Q. that they did not.
Ludendorff to this day does not understand his
success, and attributes it to surprise. But there
could not be a battle in which there was less of the
unexpected. As Mr. Lloyd George has already
told the world, the British staff at Versailles had
worked out the attack exactly as it took place,
except that they placed the main point where the
Germans would try and come through a little
farther north. This accurate estimate was in the
main due to Sir Henry Wilson. He had formed his
staff so as to admit of two distinct branches. One
branch was Allied, the other Enemy, and it was the
duty of the Enemy branch to "get into the Ger-
mans' skins," and to study the attack from their
point of view. The direction of the coming attack



was thus gauged within a few miles, and its volume
within a few divisions. The conflict between these
branches was known as the "war game." This
war game was also played out before Robertson,
and afterwards before Haig. Robertson asked a
number of questions, all of which were answered,
and left looking very annoyed at having such dis-
agreeable ideas as an attack of this kind forced
upon him. Haig spoke only once: he asked —

"What is the meaning of anti-tank defence?"
and left in the same imbroken silence. There was
only one error in these calculations. By the rules
of the war game, Ludendorff ought to have had
Amiens ; there was one factor in the problem which
the director in the game, General Studd, had
not put quite high enough, the proud obstinacy
of English troops, however foolish their leading.
These anticipations were a reckoning from prob-
abilities, made in January. Ludendorff has pub-
lished his accoimt of the long internal debate in his
own mind, before he adopted his plan and took
consequential measures. But as fast as he took
those measures, Foch discerned his plan in Febru-
ary.^ As the spring approached the prognostics

^ I was interpreter and secretary to the Executive War
Board on all sittings. On reading Ludendorff 's Memoirs, I
s> 129


had grown more precise still. General Cox, of
G.H.Q. Intelligence, not only gave the exact area
of the attack (a portion of the German line which
was lying hushed and motionless while the whole of
the rest of it flared up with raids and artillery
preparation), but tipped the exact date "on March
20 or 21." The German strength was, of course,
known exactly, and its disposition roughly. Even
the result was not a surprise to some of the very
few who knew the Allied dispositions as shown in
the map.' It did not need particular genius to do
so, as any one can convince themselves by looking
at it and imagining a mass of eighty German divi-
sions in front of Gough's army.

It might have been far otherwise. The "terrible
blow," as Major Grasset calls it, which Foch in-
flicted on the Germans at the Mame in July, 191 8,
might just as well, and perhaps more effectively,
have been dealt on the Somme in March. When in

am struck by the accuracy with which Foch was reading his
mind in February. On one point only were Foch and Wey-
gand out. They were always nervous about an outflanking
movement through Switzerland. Weygand always spoke
anxiously about the great railway junction at Ulm, con-
structed for the purpose of suddenly switching masses of
troops to any part of the Rhine.
^ See Map at end of book.



June Ludendorff crossed the Aisne and prepared to
cross the Mame, Major Grasset says that Foch,
then Generalissimo, and with power to do what he
willed, "divined the error the enemy would make,"
and massed his reserves in the "wooded hills of the
region of Compiegne — Villers-Cotterets," that is
to say, to the north of Paris. He points out that
it was an irretrievable mistake of Ludendorff 's to
cross the Aisne with a "master of manoeuvre" Hke
Foch in possession of these wooded hills. But
Ludendorff had committed no less an error in
March (and Foch had anticipated it), when he
pushed across the Somme. If Foch had been
allowed, as he intended, to concentrate the bulk of
his General Reserve in these same wooded hills of
Compiegne, a mass of Allied divisions, issuing from
them, would have fallen on the German flank in
March with an even more fatal weight than in
July. Foch in the summer only rettimed to his
original March manoeuvre, just as Ludendorff re-
turned to his original error. Foch in the spring
would certainly with his plan have stopped the
charging German bull dead, and might possibly,
with a single rapier thrust of consummate deadly
elegance, have pierced right to his heart, and ended
him, then and there, for ever. Or our 5th Army



might perhaps have played the part the 5th French
Army, imder Berthelot, played at the second Mame,
and by its very retreat drawn the enemy where the
counter-attack could club and stun him more

After the March disaster the defeated Generals
heard no recriminations. The true spirit of patriot-
ism in defeat, that never despairs of its country,
was shown both by the King and the War Cabinet
who, with inflexible fortitude, telegraphed on
Monday to our armies to encourage, to thank, and
to congratulate them: Mr. Lloyd George, driven
to desperate expedients by the scheming and
bimgling of others, boldly swept the home defences
clean to send every man to France, and dared (as
he ought never have been compelled to dare) to
leave this island guarded only by a few brigades,
so that he let Sir Douglas know he was to be sent
80,000 men at once, and 82,000 more within three
weeks. The historian who wants to appreciate the
energy and courage of the War Cabinet, and what
a glorious pilot Mr. Lloyd George is in a storm,
should consult its Minutes at this period.

Meanwhile, on the night between Saturday and
Sunday, G.H.Q. and the Grand Quartier-General
resumed their adjourned debate, the subject being



the size of the "strong force of French divisions"
that was to come to our help. For now the dyke
was burst, it began to break down everywhere.
The cracks in Cough's line that could have been
filled up on Thursday with a few divisions, had on
Saturday become fissures, through which the Ger-
man flood poured in, and increased the pressure on
the whole of the receding and reeling line. Now on
Sunday great gaps were appearing in the front of
the Fifth Army, threatening ultimate disjunction,
which could only be filled with great forces. On
Sunday Sir Douglas wanted twenty divisions to
reconstitute the line. Petain had got as far as
promising twelve; but he only had five on the
battlefield, trying to take over the line on Gough's
right, and mixed in a confused fight with what was
left of our 3rd Corps. His divisions fought furi-
ously as they saw their sacred soil slipping into the
hands of the enemy, and villages as yet untouched
by the long war breaking into flame, but they were
insufficient, and they arrived too late. It was the
essential vice in their own plan — separate com-
mands and therefore separate reserves — that was
overthrowing the Allied Commanders. Each, as
the map shows,' had disposed his troops as if his
^ See Map at end of book.



own were the only Allied front, and none other
existed, and one of the two was bound to suffer,
especially the smaller of the two. Experience at
last convinced Sir Douglas of what reasoning had
been unable to persuade him. When in 19 17 Mr.
Lloyd George had made Nivelle supreme com-
mander at the Calais Conference on February 27,
Haig had simply repudiated Nivelle's directions on
March 4 when he received them. When in 19 18
Foch, as President of the Executive War Board,
had been in reality made supreme commander on
February i, Haig again repudiated his directions
on March 2. In each of these years unity of com-
mand had been frustrated by his refusals, resting
on a character of iron tenacity and the most gentle-
manly, attractive surface, and on a mind both
obtuse and extraordinarily slow.' The Command-
er-in-Chief was a knightly figure, with all the
bearing and temper of a leader, but on a very low
plane of human intelligence, as elderly cavalry
men sometimes are. Even on March 14, twelve

* Sir Douglas Haig certainly never protested at Versailles
when the plan of campaign for 19 18 was adopted by the
Supreme War Council, but it may quite well be that he did
not understand what was being done. My own impression
of him during the discussion was that he entirely failed to
follow what was being discussed



days before, he had persisted in London in reject-
ing the scheme of the General Reserve, and there-
fore in effect of a single central command. But
very early on Sunday, March 24, he telegraphed
to London asking Mr. Lloyd George to come over
and arrange for a single Supreme Commander.
He had never been able to grasp that the system
of double command might expose him to being
forced to fight Ludendorff all by himself, and it was
not till he had been doing so for three days, and
the prospect of continuing to do so actually opened
before him, together with the likelihood of being
driven into the sea, that he submitted to unity of
Command, and an authority superior to his own,
for which Mr. Lloyd George had always striven.

A French writer who was in the pubHcity section
of the Grand Quartier-General has warned histo-
rians against accepting too credulously the official
accotmts of the grand Etat-Major, and against the
"great business of attenuating the truth" he saw
going on imder his eye." Attenuation is a good
word, and we should be grateful to its inventor.

*G.Q.G., Secteur I, by Jean de Pierrefeu (I'Edition
Frangaise: Paris, 1920): " Cette vaste en treprise d' attenu-
ation de la verity, que j'ai vue s'accomplir jour k jour sous
mes yeux."



He knew how the facts were cooked, for he was in
the kitchen. The German General Staff, even in
its military publication, has continued to season
and manipulate the original material till it is almost
unrecognisable. Our official records, also, are not
innocent of attenuation, and the Despatches, like
the communiques, may be classed among them.
The own pen of Sir Douglas Haig has a most in-
genuous, quite a schoolboy, style, and as far re-
moved as possible from their deceptive and plaus-
ible cleverness. Our historians, like the French,
need warning: the Cambrai Despatches, for ex-
ample, crumble at one touch of one single authentic
document, the Diary of G.H.Q.' These elucida-
tions may be left to the researches of the historian
and the judgment of posterity, which is perfectly
just because it is perfectly indifferent. These en-
quiries and verdict will partly explain to our de-

' The historian can find the Diary of G.H.Q. for Cambrai
in the Registry at Versailles. What the Despatches conceal
about Cambrai is that the twenty divisions used in the
attack between Nov. 20 and Nov. 29, were so handled that
the signal success of the first attack could not be exploited.
The Diary of G.H.Q. shows this. There our troops tore a
great open rent in the German line, then as on several other
occasions, but with no result, and therefore to no purpose.
Hindenburg in his Aus Meinem Leben notes how often this
happened, and is evidently puzzled by it.



scendants why the Germans collapsed in France be-
fore the Allies in 191 8, when the Allies were inferior
or not much more than equal, and resisted during
the previous years when the Allies were overwhelm-
ingly superior. It is a fair conjecture, from their
results, that Haig conducted our armies in 1916
and 191 7 by the same methods as he did in 1918:
only the campaigns of 19 16 and 19 17 being offen-
sives, they could, like Cadoma's Isonzo attacks, be
trumpeted as successes. But in the case of 191 8
an earlier correction of these official fictions is

The Despatches on the battle of St. Quentin con-
ceal the fact that the Fifth Army under Gough
received little or no support, and by their language
also suggest (without, however, any explicit state-
ment) , that it was reinforced, and therefore that it
failed partly at least through its own fault. But
this army was left unassisted and unrelieved, and,
in a general sense, was left alone to meet the whole
weight of the German attack and ultimately aban-
doned. This, the real fact, is to the discredit of the
Commander-in-Chief. The Despatches, by their
artful omissions and suggestions, and by their ab-
sence of encomium, tend to transfer the blame for
this great defeat from him to the Fifth Army.



But Gough's army deserved all praise; they
fought with heroic cotirage and endurance against
the greatest odds. Instead of the mis-esteem, and
perhaps the reprobation, which this official accoimt
has cast on them, they deserve great honour and
still greater gratitude, neither of which they have
ever received. For their resistance should not only
in itself be memorable as a splendid feat of arms,
but it saved the Allied armies. As always in the
war, the boundless devotion and self-sacrifice of
England's humble sons redeemed every stupidity
and every selfishness of England's exalted chiefs.

Between March 21 and March 29 (inclusive)
a hundred German divisions came into action.
G.H.Q. Intelligence admitted between eighty and
ninety as identified, identification being a very
stringent and exacting test, and the real numbers
necessarily higher. But only thirty-five British
and fifteen French had come into action.

The battle of St. Quentin may perhaps be re-
duced to these abstract terms. The two Allied
armies, French and British, were together equal to
the German army, but the German army was two
or three times as large as the British. The conduct
of the battle by the Allied commanders was such
that the German commander was able with his



whole army to assault the British army for a whole
week without its receiving any substantial or oppor-
tune assistance from the French army, and such
that the German commander, during the same
period, threw into the battle at the decisive point
forces twice as large as the Allied commanders were
able to put in the battle at the same point. The
objective of the German commander was a place
where, if he could have reached it, he would have
been able to separate the Allied armies definitely,
and so subsequently crush them each in turn. This
objective he just failed to attain, because the por-
tion of the British army in front of it sacrificed it-
self to prevent him, and in so doing was utterly

This defeat is the natural and regular effect of
equally natiiral and regular causes, which always
have been, and always will be, operative in war, and
was not due to the weather, the Prime Minister,
or the shortage of barbed wire, as many think and
as others, mostly military sycophants, vociferously
repeat to make them think it. It is commanders
who lose battles, as it is they who win them. If
they are to enjoy the glory of success, they must
also bear the discredit of failure, especially if this
failure cost the lives of two score thousand English-



men in ten days.' The dead of the Fifth Army
have not the voice, and the living have not the
knowledge, to plead its case.

Whether Foch with the Executive War Board
(which in practice could not help becoming an In-
ter-Allied staff under him) could outgeneral Luden-
dorff, is debateable, and must remain uncertain
and undecided. Whether Ludendorff could out-
general Petain and Haig is both certain and de-
cided. It is not debateable, because he did.

Other standards of Haig and Petain's general-
ship exist. At equal strength the Allied defensive
under their direction broke down before the Ger-
man attack; in 1916, the Germans, not being more
than half the strength of the Allies, could not be
broken by the Allied offensive. Or again: Foch
struck down the enemy at the second Mame and
sent him staggering back to the Hindenburg line
with forces weaker than his; for the nimierical
superiority that passed from the Allies to the Ger-
mans in March, 191 8, did not pass back again to
them till September, when the amount of American
effectives in the field rose to about a dozen divi-
sions. This gives Ludendorff 's stature; it is not

' In the first ten days of St. Quentin many more English-
men were killed than in the whole Peninsular War.



high, but it must have been higher than that of the
two opponents he overcame at St. Quentin. Or
again: Ludendorff's attack could not have been
more clearly foreseen if he had served on us a
written notice of it, with full particulars; it requires
no military knowledge at all to perceive, from the
map, that hardly any dispositions of the Allies
could have been better calculated to assist him in
overwhelming Gough and reaching Amiens than
those adopted by Petain and Haig. The military
student will surely come to consider St. Quentin as
a model of what a defeat ought to be, a sort of
classical example, with a complete perfection of its
own; a flawless jewel of incompetence, surpassing
even masterpieces of the same kind like Cambrai.

In answer to Haig's request Lord Milner and Sir
Henry Wilson crossed over at once, and on Monday,
March 25, met Clemenceau and Petain and Foch at
Compiegne ; Petain was there, for the Germans were
pushing violently over the line of the Oise, the door
to Paris, and had got one foot through this door,
which Petain was trying desperately to close. The
British commander was absent at Abbeville, and
Clemenceau vacillated between the views of Foch
and Petain. No agreement was reached, and on
Tuesday there was another meeting at Doullens.



While Lord Milner and the British generals held a
meeting in the Mayor's room at the Town Hall,
Poincare, Clemenceau, and the French generals
waited outside the Town Hall. ' ' We walked up and
down in that little square for more than an hour,"
said M. Poincare later to Foch.' "You cheered us
during this long interval by repeating to us that
there was nothing to despair about, that we must
make an unyielding fight for every inch of our
sacred soil, and, at all costs, prevent the enemy
wedging himself between us and the English."
Clemenceau has also told us the story of that meet-
ing.'' On that "terrible day," he says, having
known Foch many years but never seen him on the
field of battle, "we learnt the stamp of man Foch
is. He remained imperturbable and confident, for
reasons which he deduced one from another with
the rigour of a mathematical demonstration, and
restored the courage of us all. He evidently be-
lieved the battle could be won, willed it, and was
going to win it." They then all went up and joined
the British, and a discussion on the military situa-

^ In his speech at the reception of Foch in the French

^ Fragment d'Histoire, HI, by Mermeix (Ollendorf,



tion took place. Haig declared he could hold the
line as far south as Amiens, but no further, and in-
sisted on a supreme commander. Petain even now
had only been able to bring seven French divisions
in action, across the great gulf that now yawned
between the two armies ; it was uncertain whether it
could ever be spanned. While this discussion was
proceeding, Milner took Clemenceau (who was
still fluctuating between P6tain and Foch) apart
and proposed Foch as supreme commander. To
Mr. Lloyd George and Sir Henry Wilson, whatever
their shortcomings, we owe, the world owes, Foch.

When Clemenceau took Foch aside and offered
him the supreme command he said to him, remem-
bering the scene in London a fortnight before —

"You have now got the place you wanted."

Foch answered angrily —

' ' What do you mean. Prime Minister? You give
me a lost battle and you ask me to win it. I con-
sent, and you think you are making me a present.
I am disregarding myself entirely when I accept

Foch was not asked to extricate two unlucky or

^ "II faut toute ma candeur pour accepter dans de telles
conditions." See Foch's own report of this dialogue in Le
Matin, Nov. 8, 1920.



iinskilful generals. He was asked to risk his whole
reputation to save two commanders from the con-
sequence of errors against which he had never
ceased to warn them, but in which they had per-
sisted; two commanders who, to evade measures
Foch had proposed in their own best interest, and
for our common security, entered into an intrigue
that a meaner spirit could not have forgiven, and
for which he has never even reproached them. If
his success in supreme command gives the measure
of his genius, his acceptance of it gives the measure
of his magnanimity.

Von Hutier, according to plan, was due in Amiens
on Sunday, but had been kept back by the "usual
tenacity" of our troops, which (as Hindenburg says
in his lately published Aus Meinem Lehen) so often
repaired the errors of their leaders.' On the Tues-
day, however, the Germans, racing along the St.
Quen tin- Amiens Road, with their artillery and
supplies left far behind, suffering from hunger, and
with little strength left in them, were only 12,000

^ We should do well to ponder Hindenburg's opinion of
our High Command; it was such, he says in Aus Meinem
Lehen, that our armies never gave him any real alarm (as
contrasted with the French) . Whether right or wrong, there
is no reason to think the old German warrior is expressing
himself otherwise than sincerely.



or 13,000 yards away from the town. The exact
distance, therefore, within which the Germans
came to winning the war may perhaps be exactly
computed in yards; it is the space along this road
which separated them from Amiens. The meeting
at Doullens was not very sanguine of saving it, and
Foch outlined his plans of defence in case Paris
had to be abandoned, and the British armies were
driven back to the coast. On returning to London,
Sir Henry Wilson reported to the War Cabinet
next day, not very hopefully, that the safety of
Amiens depended on whether the French could
collect sufficient troops there in time to defend the
town. For between Amiens and the upper waters
of the Oise, a space of front well over forty miles,
Foch, when he took over, had nothing but the frag-
ments of the Fifth Army, broken by six days' con-

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Online LibraryPeter E WrightAt the Supreme War Council → online text (page 7 of 10)