Wednesday, May 17, 2017

1918: The Last Act Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

Pen & Sword Military, 1962, 2013

The year 1918 would be a difficult year to summarize in a single volume, but the late British historian Barrie Pitt successfully did so in 1962. The book is now re-issued by Pen & Sword Books. During 1918 the Germans initiated their final series of offensives in the hope of forcing a concession from the Allies before the full weight of American military forces could be brought to bear in France. Despite initial, limited success, the German effort failed, and the Allies in turn went on the offensive. It is this dramatic rush of events that Pitt covers in his book. Pitt's first two chapters give a sweeping summary of the war up to 1918. He reviews not just the battles, but the strategies and armies of both sides. He covers the misery of the trenches and describes the weaponry employed by the men who fought in the filth and squalor. Pitt also touches on the politics, mostly British, which swayed some of the strategy. With the stage thus set, Pitt covers each of the German offensives in turn. Coming to 1918, Pitt covers the sweeping battles from the level of the private in the mud-filled outpost shell hole all the way to the lofty heights occupied by Haig, Foch, and Ludendorff. His coverage of the leaders on both sides seems very evenhanded. The entire year receives fair and thorough coverage, which is no mean feat. Pitt takes us behind the scenes, too, in that he discusses the thoughts and considerations, both military and political, that provoked the various military actions. By the middle of September 1918, "the entire territorial gains of the Ludendorff Spring Offensive" had been lost (p. 221). This, and the terrible strain under which Ludendorff had been operating, according to Pitt, resulted in Ludendorff temporarily losing his nerve and viewing the German military situation as worse than it actually was. In turn, the German government began putting out peace feelers; the result, in conjunction with the final Allied push beginning in September, was internal collapse and defeat for Germany.
British Prisoners and Wounded with a Single Guard, Spring 1918
Pitt's writing style is very pleasant and at times humorous. For example, when describing the interactions of Allied commanders, Pitt says: "Despite their differences in the military field, however, the three Allied Commanders-in-Chief, Haig, Petain and Pershing, maintained excellent relations, all thoroughly misunderstanding the others' points of view without being particularly conscious of any basic divergencies, and appreciating their personal qualities" (p. 68). And this, in regard to Haig's "backs to the wall" message in the spring: "[T]he message kindled a firm determination among the Staffs and the rear echelons to resist the enemy to the last infantryman" (p. 125). And of the horror of combat near St. Quentin, Pitt wrote: "Entire platoons had been wiped out in seconds, men had been killed by the flying fragments of their friends' bodies, buried in collapsing trenches, trodden to death by those seeking room to dodge their own" (p. 82). At the end of the chapter that covers the fighting around the Lys in April, Pitt cites horrific casualty figures. He then states: "These figures, like all the dreary numbers in statistical tables, have been added and divided, sub-divided and subtracted, affirmed and denied in a hundred different permutations in order to support or condemn one or other theory of war. But taken as they stand, they tell the tale of human folly in terms of human suffering" (p. 134). Indeed, this quote can refer to the entire war.
Soldiers of the 27th  New York Division Training for Their Attack on the Hindenburg Line 
1918: The Last Act is enhanced by 15 fine maps and 46 black and white photographs. Pitt's three-page bibliography contains many important sources, but his endnotes—only 31 of them in a two-page "Sources" section—are not adequate for today's academic standards; they are fine, however, for the casual reader. The book is a pleasure to read and a wonderful summary of an eventful year. I highly recommend it.

Peter L. Belmonte

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