Book review: Five Days From Defeat - How Britain Nearly Lost the First World War, by Walter Reid

Woolen poppies planted in a special Garden of Remembrance St Andrew's High Church in Musselburgh, East Lothian, to commemorate members of the Armed Forces.
Woolen poppies planted in a special Garden of Remembrance St Andrew's High Church in Musselburgh, East Lothian, to commemorate members of the Armed Forces.
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Before the Allied victory in 1918, there was very nearly defeat, writes Roger Cox

Much will doubtless be made, this November, of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, but it will be interesting to see what will be done to mark the 100th anniversary of the pivotal events of March 1918, when the British armies on the Western Front were driven to the verge of collapse by a ferocious German offensive, and were only saved at the eleventh hour by the intervention of their French allies.

On 21 March, the Germans unleashed their so-called Kaiserschlacht against the British Third and Fifth armies – a blitzkrieg-style attack aimed to strike a decisive blow against the Allies before the manpower and materiel of the United States could be brought to bear. By the end of the first day of the offensive, Britain had suffered 38,512 casualties and lost 500 guns; by the end of the second day, the Fifth Army had been penetrated as far as its reserve line, and the Germans, amazed by their gains, observed that the British “must have run like rabbits”. By 23 March, the Germans had advanced some 22km across an 80km gap in the British line, the hastily retreating Fifth army was disintegrating and Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief, had appealed to the French for support.

On 24 March, the British Third Army had also begun to retreat, and the Cabinet Secretary Maurice Hankey described the situation as “about as bad as it could be”. By 25 March the defensive line of the Somme, over which so much blood had been spilled two years earlier, had been lost, and Marshal Petain, Haig’s opposite number, put the chances of a German victory at 96 per cent.

It was against this catastrophic backdrop that the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, and Lord Milner, a key member of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet and soon to be Secretary of State for War, travelled from London to the town of Doullens, just north of Amiens, to meet the French Prime Minister Clemenceau and senior French generals Pétain and Foch, and address the crisis. The so-called Doullens Conference of 26 March is the primary focus of this startling book by Walter Reid, and the author shows with forensic precision both how close Britain came to defeat and how Haig subsequently attempted to re-write history so that he came out of the affair in a positive light.

Reid’s conclusion that Haig “wobbled” in 1918 is all the more surprising because, in his 2009 biography, Architect of Victory, he concluded that his nerve had held. In a footnote, he acknowledges this volte face, writing “Having now focused my research on this period, I have changed my opinion, unconstrained by consistency, that hobgoblin of little minds.”

Based on the mountain of documentary evidence Reid presents, it certainly seems likely that Haig was at least considering a British retreat to the Channel ports, as opposed to standing firm in order to remain in contact with the French. However, given that his army appeared to be on the point of annihilation, if that was indeed his intention it would have been an understandable response. More damning is the charge that Haig did his utmost to influence both official and unofficial histories of the war so that it appeared that the key decision to have Marshal Foch appointed supreme commander of the Allied armies had been his initiative. Reid is surgical in showing the various ways in which Haig achieved this, and in showing how his subsequent irritation with the new command structure proves it was never something he truly wanted.

In addition to hastily mobilised French reinforcements, which helped shore up the breach in the British lines, Reid suggests that Foch’s steely resolve was critical in bringing the German offensive to an end (“we must not now retire a single inch,” he said at Doullens), and that his coordinated oversight of the Allied armies on the Western Front paved the way for victory.

On 28 March there will be a ceremony at the Foch statue in London, marking his appointment as Supreme Allied Commander during what Hankey described as “the crisis of the nation’s fate”. Given Brexit Britain’s self-esteem issues, though, don’t expect to hear too much about it.

Five Days From Defeat: How Britain Nearly Lost the First World War, by Walter Reid, Birlinn, 256pp, £16.99