Book Review: With our Backs to the Wall, by David Stevenson

David Stevenson’s comprehensive study of 1918 explores the factors that the hopeless stalemate had long obscured

Technological advances in the Great War: from cavalry to trench warfare | Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

The Great War’s Final Year

The conclusion to a war is invariably far simpler than its cause. One side is vanquished, or both sides agree to concessions that bring hostilities to a close.

This was certainly the case with the Great War. What started those four years of heinous battle is debated still today. Its beginnings were tangled up in tensions that had strained European relations for years.  Monarchs and empires were at breaking point in the East, and, in the West, they wanted more than they had.

At the end, it was all centred on the western front, with Germany fighting alone, no longer able to count on back-up troops and supplies from Austro-Hungary, whose economy, logistics and military planning were all in dire straits.

David Stevenson’s magisterial account With our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 shows how German Gen. Eric Ludendorff’s five almost crippling spring offensives were quickly undone by an Allied Powers breakthrough.

Before that flip of fate, however, everything pointed to a German victory. There was a huge boost from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, as Russia retired to deal with its 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Bulgaria, too, had sued for peace; now Germany could re-route units for an all-out offensive along the Hindenburg line.

And early results were astonishing. For the first time in three years, stalemate had been broken. German storm troopers – who would later form such a vicious part of Hitler’s rise to power – smashed through the Allied defences and reached north and south of St. Quentin.

Stevenson’s grasp of military movements is commanding. It is not until the second section of the book, however, that the reader really begins to grasp the decimation of the administration and supplies behind the front lines.

German military organisation was cripplingly complex. The Oberheeresleitung, with two effective chiefs of staff, presided over 26 military districts from within Germany’s then confederate states. Though these sub-divisions all followed the Prussian Army model, Stevenson is right to observe that managing such a complex fighting force placed a huge drain on resources.

But this was nothing compared to the desperate shortages of food and industrial supplies on the home front, which Stevenson shows as a failure of politics; shortages of gold set off spiraling inflation. Families were starving, as were soldiers whose rations were cut and cut again. Ludendorff struggled to maintain morale, and the ideological justifications espoused early on were no longer effective.

By the fifth spring offensive, German troops were exhausted. What followed was an astonishing 100 days, the Allies recaptured territory back to France’s eastern frontiers.

Stevenson then looks beyond that crucial western front, fascinating  detail about how the opposing powers managed their war, and the massive advantage the Allies had at sea.

The North Sea blockade scuppered the Central Powers and, out in the Atlantic, German submarines were of limited use. The area was vast, and the early vessels had to cruise with their conning towers above water.  Torpedo chambers at the bow, a craft had to line up at right-angles to a convoy ship.  Accounting for the speed and distance, the white streak left in the wake of an advancing torpedo revealed its source.

The war did give rise to great innovation. German armaments were often superior, while aircraft and intelligence were the Allies’ triumphs.  The British used aerial photography to great effect. While they could not pinpoint exact locations and troop concentrations, observation of train movements proved reliable indicators of an upcoming offensive.

And German signals were hobbled after French cryptanalyst Georges Painvain learned to decode new patterns the same day.

Overall, Stevenson thinks German intelligence was a failure. Aerial attempts were fruitless, and spies were captured immediately.  This seems surprising given the strong ties between British and German royal families who were, no doubt, conducting their own negotiations behind the backs of politicians and commanders.

Kaiser Wilhelm had scruples about targeting his cousins’ palaces with Zeppelin bombing. Kaiser Karl in Austria had supported France’s claims in Alsace-Lorraine and undermined his own foreign minister Otto Czernin’s 1917 attempts to strengthen ties with Berlin.

The actions of renegade royals probably ran even deeper than Stevenson considers, and it would be interesting to read a more thorough investigation of the role of monarchs in the War. Timothy Snyder’s The Red Prince, for example, makes it clear that in 1915 the Habsburgs had already laid plans for Imperial monarchies in Poland and Ukraine in the event of a ceasefire.

Stevenson also mentions some cultural implications of the War, from working practices on the home front to race relations in American trenches where, for the first time, blacks fought alongside whites.

Other observations, like how the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915 was all but overlooked by the international community, warrant further investigation. The author makes no attempt to draw conclusions from this inertia.  Such flippancy must have found manifestations closer to home, on both fronts.

While Stevenson is excellent at explaining the factual background to key developments in 1918, he does not contextualise his observations in the wider historiography of the end of the Great War.

In any history, the author must pitch his thesis against others. In his final conclusion that, ultimately, the failure of politics and morale led to the signing of the Armistice, Stevenson seems to have forgotten his own detailed analysis of the economics that so favoured Allied production and supply.


With our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
by David Stevenson
Penguin Allen Lane (2011), pp. 752

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