To Win a War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

John Terraine, in To Win a War: 1918, The Year of Victory, adds to his studies of World War I which he has pursued since the early 1960’s. From Mons: The Retreat to Victory (1960) to this work on the last months before the Armistice he has dealt in detail with individual battles, campaigns, biographies (Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier, 1963, and General Jack’s Diary, 1964), and broader studies such as The Western Front (1965) and The Great War I: An Illustrated History (1965). The author’s point of view, his preferences for some individuals over others and some ideas over others, emerge clearly and without apology. This is a British author writing with a distinct national, military, and historical bias.

Terraine wants to make a number of special points beyond simply retelling the glories and trials of the end of the Great War. Much of the war has remained in the common memory: the Battles of the Frontiers; the massive bloodlettings at the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele; the 1918 German spring offensives. The great, final victory, however, has, he believes, been nearly forgotten by those in Britain who ought to remember. The reasons which he finds for this national amnesia are not especially edifying nor completely persuasive. Primarily, he blames Britain’s Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who plainly disliked and distrusted the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Lloyd George’s equal dislike of the Western Front as a slaughter pen made it impossible for the Prime Minister to credit the winning of the war to the man he so despised, won in a theater he hated. Terraine believes that Lloyd George tried to pretend that victory did not happen and in this was supported by many others who for their own reasons wanted to see the Western Front and its generals as villains. Beyond that, he charges that this forgetfulness wasted the lessons learned and made it more certain that there would be another war. Since the legend in Germany, that the German Army had never been defeated by the Entente forces, strengthened Hitler’s hand in coming to power and rebuilding the military, it is an argument that can be made, but a tenuous one at best. In this work the author sets out to write a defense for men whom he sees as unjustly forgotten heroes, to support his particular hero, Douglas Haig, and to lay down another barrage in that seemingly endless struggle over the Western Front and its commanders.

This is not only a history of life in the trenches, dugouts, and officers’ headquarters. At the top, besides Lloyd George and Haig, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, General John J. Pershing, Marshal Henri Petain, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, General Erich Ludendorf, and the Kaiser all play major roles. Terraine tends to see them and the issues surrounding them in terms that are all too often harshly delineated in black or white, sometimes dismissing them with a peremptory adjective. Granted that Lloyd George was a slippery fox and Haig a doughty, loyal soldier, the constant juxtaposition of the two with the former always wrong, petty, or foolish and the latter always wise and modest strains credibility. This same tendency frequently occurs with other men and events and weakens what is in some ways a strong, interesting, and necessary work.

It is always difficult to begin writing about a war at any place other than at the beginning, but...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XIX, October, 1981, p. 290.

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1539.

New Statesman. XCVI, November 17, 1981, p. 664.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, August 2, 1981, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXIX, April 24, 1981, p. 67.