Reflections on the Strategy of the Allies

By Winston Spencer Churchill
(Formerly First Lord of the British Admiralty)

[The Century Magazine, May 1917]

All through the war the Germans have had an enormous advantage over the Allies in one respect. They seized the initiative at the outset, and with only occasional interludes they have retained it until now. Their war direction throughout has been pursuing three conceived plans, while the Allies at almost every stage have been compelled to adapt their action to that of the enemy. The German centralized control was, even at the very outset of the war, intimately operative upon Austria; it has since become absolute not only upon Austria, but upon Bulgaria and Turkey. All the resources of these states, themselves combined in each case in the hands of one or two men, are now gripped effectively by "main headquarters," and "main headquarters" has gradually focused itself into Hindenburg and the kaiser.

The Allies, on the other hand, have made much slower progress toward unity of war direction, and in this respect even now stand at an incomparably lower level than their opponents. Indeed, there have been positive retrogressions; in England, especially since the advent of the coalition, and in France many people have had to be consulted. In Russia a variety of strong forces are always at work about the center of power. Physical and geographical difficulties have long necessarily obstructed a close and constant personal consultation of the Allied chiefs. Great efforts have been made to overcome these difficulties, and considerable advances have been made during the last year. The constitutional changes which have recently taken place in Great Britain, France, and Italy should render possible a much greater advance.

The mere gathering together at occasional conferences round the common table of military and political delegations from all the Allied states will never provide an instrument of war direction comparable with that which is being used against them by their enemies. Trust in one another, faith in their cause, loyal and unselfish effort, operating by telegraph, can at the best produce only imperfect results. In peace wisdom may be found in a multitude of counselors; in war the reverse is true.

If the Allies could get the leading man of each of the four great Allied powers, whether sovereign, general, or statesman, to sit in constant conclave at some central point, and each supported by the unswerving obedience of his nation, that fact in itself would be worth more than a million soldiers a year to the Allied cause, and would probably conduce to a speedy victory. The enemy has had this, or something very like it, for many months; we are still far from it. But we are making progress toward it, and we shall some day attain it unless the war comes sooner to an end.

Nothing would conduce so easily and speedily to a united war direction among the Allies as the discovery and development of a successful form of initiative by any one of them. If, for instance, in the spring or summer of 1915 Allied fleets and armies, mainly British, had been able to open the Dardanelles and dominate Constantinople, the elimination of Turkey as a military factor would probably have followed, and it might then have been possible to assemble at Constantinople a united and permanent war council for all the Allies, great and small, and from this central situation, always one of the vital nerve-centers of the world, to lay broad, deep, and far-reaching plans which would have regulated and coordinated the naval, military, economic, and diplomatic measures of the year 1916. Success would have bred success, and out of victory would have come the means of further and final victory. But the Allies have never been able to get their heads sufficiently above water for anything like this, and though good-will, fidelity, and generous emulation have sustained them and kept them all together, no single power or common policy has ever yet secured that paramount position which would swiftly bring success.

It is a frequent mistake to confound the initiative with the offensive. The one by no means implies the other. The initiative may seize swiftly and suddenly certain vital and neglected positions or strategic theaters and compel the enemy to adopt the offensive to regain them. The positions which the Germans captured in France at the outset of the war have left them, broadly speaking, in continuous possession of the strategic initiative in the West. The strategic initiative as distinct from the tactical will not be recovered merely by assumptions of the offensive, but by the discovery of a method by which three men can certainly beat two continuously. The initiative which was seized by the British navy at the very beginning of the war has never been lost, although the Germans have from time to time shown much enterprise in the adoption of minor offensives. In order to obtain the initiative in war it may be necessary to wait, constantly making preparations, for a very long time. Premature action of an offensive character may delay and possibly prevent altogether the transference of the initiative.

We can see now plainly that there never was any chance of the great offensives at Champagne and Loos in 1915 succeeding. Judging by the limited results obtained lately on the Somme, with the enormously increased resources in men and the incomparably increased resources in artillery and munitions, it is surely obvious that the Anglo-French armies never had any real prospect of breaking the line in the preceding year. But if the war energies consumed forever in Artois and Champagne had been saved until the spring of 1916, and had been launched then with some novel method at some moment when the Germans were fully extended in their attack on Verdun, the chances of a decisive victory would certainly have been enormously enhanced. Similarly, perhaps, if the great effort made on the Somme in 1916 could have been limited to the minimum necessary to relieve the pressure at Verdun, and all the rest carried forward, the prospects for 1917 would certainly have been far more favorable.

The method and consequences of Rumania's entry into the war will remain one of the tragic surprises of history. Here was a martial state possessing an army three or four times as big as the British army before the war. She was united to the Allied cause by strong ties of interest and sentiment. Throughout the war her neutrality was benevolent to the Allies; but being a small state in a partly isolated position, she was forced to delay her entry into so supreme a quarrel until the general war situation offered a hope that her intervention would be decisive.

The wonderful victories of Brussiloff and the failure of the Austrian offensive against Italy, combined with the beginning of the Anglo-French offensive on the Somme, led the Rumanian chiefs to believe that the moment for action had arrived. One would have expected that a neutral state with many German connections would have had accurate means of informing itself as to the interior condition and resources of the Central empires; that their competent military leaders would have been able, after waiting so long, to choose the right moment for action; that their detached and impartial study of the course of the war would have enabled them to learn its lessons and appreciate more accurately even than the actual belligerents their true position; and that two and a half years of ceaseless preparation would have furnished their armies with the most modern armament and equipment.

One might also have hoped that after this long period of war the coordination of action between the great Allies and their accumulation of military experience would have enabled them to offer sure and far-seeing guidance to their new ally; that they would not allow her to come in until they were certain that her intervention, while being effective, would not expose her to undue hazard, and that the plan of campaign of all the Allied armies operating in this theater would have been closely concerted and would have been directed according to the highest military conceptions. The exact contrary occurred. The Central powers, in the grip of Prussia, were found capable of an unexpected effort of military strength. Brussiloff was brought to a standstill; the great Austrian army which he had destroyed was replaced by a new and still larger army, and enormous additional forces were provided for the attack on their new Rumanian antagonist. The initiative which Germany had lost by her failure at Verdun and the defeats in Volhynia was immediately recovered, and is still fully operative. The Rumanian armies, although exhibiting splendid bravery, were found to be woefully deficient in many of the vital necessities for modern war.

From the outset the Rumanian plan of campaign revealed obvious military faults. Instead of there being a great Russian and Rumanian army ready on the declaration of war to strike south toward the Constantinople railway, and to join hands with an adequate Allied army from Saloniki, the Rumanian forces were disposed in disconnected detachments along the Danube, or plunged in fan-shaped movements along an enormous front into the defiles of Transylvania. Russian aid arrived only in time to save Moldavia, and the Saloniki army was unable to make any effective diversion. Thus the arrival of an ally, instead of proving a help, has proved up to the present an apparent injury, and has added another to the already long list of miscalculations and misfortunes which have dogged the Allied policy in the Balkans.

Again, the attitude of the Allies toward Greece from the very beginning of the war down to the present moment illustrates with bitter point the famous observation that "the genius of comedy is the same as that of tragedy, and that the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also." There have been at least four occasions when Greece could have been prosperously and honorably brought into the war on the side of the Allies. First, at the very beginning, before Turkey had declared herself for the Germans, and while she was still threatening Greece with a local war; secondly, after the fall of the outer forts at the Dardanelles; thirdly, in the present year, when M. Venizelos, having secured a majority at the election and been acclaimed with all the prescription of a newly chosen parliament, was arbitrarily and unconstitutionally dismissed from power by the Greek court; and, fourthly, at the moment of Brussiloff's victories and Rumania's entry into the war. If is difficult to understand why, after all other opportunities had been missed, this last should not have been chosen as the moment when the Allies should have summoned Greece to fulfil her treaty obligations toward Serbia. It is indeed ungrateful and ungenerous to cast the blame of this on Great Britain or Sir Edward Grey or, indeed, upon any single power. The cause of the evil is to be found in that hiatus whence many of our misfortunes have sprung, namely, the difficulties of truly concerted action among great and separate Allies, and the lack of any primacy of leadership or control.

To appreciate what was accomplished in the great Battle of the Somme it is well to look at the past. All the previous great offensives in the West since the flank reached the sea and trench warfare supervened failed to secure decisive strategic results. First was the German thrust for Calais in October and November, 1914. Here the enemy had enormous superiority of numbers. The line in front of them was pitifully thin. Supports and reserves, cavalry, odd battalions, camp-followers—all had to be used to fill in the fighting front. Trench warfare was in its infancy. The shelter-pits and trenches of the lines that were defended were dug under the full severity of the enemy attack; the artillery and ammunition of the defense were scarce; their machine-guns few and far between; barbed-wire was almost non-existent: and yet the whole might and fury of the German attack was broken, and the flower of fresh armies cut down.

Secondly, in May and June came the persevering French offensive near Arras, with corresponding British cooperation. This was considered necessary in view of the Russian situation. These attacks continued for many weeks and involved a great slaughter without producing any strategic result or appreciable gain of ground. The German losses were also heavy, but their methods of defense underwent considerable improvement and refinement.

Thirdly, came the September attack by the French in Champagne and the British at Loos. On these the highest hopes were based. All the Allied enterprises against Turkey were sacrificed to them. A further enormous slaughter ensued; the desperate heroism of the troops was quenched by nothing but death. The skill of the commanders was exhibited by a variety of ingenious expedients. But although it caused a number of German divisions to be transferred from the East to the West, and thus aided the Russians in their extreme need, the German front in France remained unbroken and its alignment virtually unaltered.

Then, fourthly, with the New-year German unwisdom came to the relief of the Allies' disappointments. While all the great opportunities for the Germans to gain against Russia were neglected, we witnessed the launching of an attack on Verdun, with a preparation, intensity, and perseverance unprecedented by all that had gone before. This German attack was characterized by many new features. It was what might be described as an "anvil attack." A salient sector of the French front, which it was rightly believed they would endeavor to hold at all costs, was made the target for an immense artillery bombardment unequaled up to that time; and this prodigious blasting process was combined with an increasing succession of infantry assaults prolonged over five or six months. Despite all the novel features and profound knowledge which launched this onslaught, it constituted in the upshot the greatest rebuff and disaster which German military annals contain.

Preceded by these heralds, the Battle of the Somme began in July last. This battle, in its scale, its ruthlessness, its carnage, exceeded all former armed conflicts of mankind. The finest armies that have ever existed, supplied with weapons and munitions never before wielded by human hands, and instructed by all the experience of former battles, met in prolonged and merciless grapple. At the most moderate computation a million British, French, and German soldiers shed their blood, and according to official figures of the German losses, this number must be greatly increased. Verdun was saved. The losses inflicted on Germany were most serious. Seventy thousand prisoners were taken. But the German line, though dented, remained unpierced. Nor were they prevented from carrying out, though perhaps only to a modified extent, other important operations of the highest consequence in other theaters.

Let us examine the anatomy of these vast modern battles as exemplified by Verdun and Somme. You select a battlefield. Around this battle-field you build a wall, double, triple, quadruple, of enormous cannon. Behind these you construct railways to feed them and pile up mountains of shells. All this is the work of months. Before long the enemy learns what you are doing, and he in his turn makes his gigantic concentration of artillery. Thus the battle-field is completely encircled by thousands of guns of all sizes, and a wide oval space is prepared. Through this awful arena all the divisions of each army are made to pass in succession, as if they were the teeth of interlocking cog-wheels grinding one another, and battered ceaselessly by the enveloping artillery. In the end nearly every division in the West, British, French, and German, is "put through the mill," and is in the process cut down by half or more of its fighting men. Some are put through two or three times as the cog-wheels revolve. Every object in the arena is pulverized. The surface of the earth is changed. The very soil is blown away.

For month after month the ceaseless cannonade continues at its utmost intensity, and month after month the gallant divisions of heroic human beings are torn to pieces in this terrible rotation. Then comes the winter, pouring down rain from the sky to clog the feet of men, and drawing veils of mist before the hawk eyes of their artillery. The arena, as used to happen in the Colosseum in those miniature Roman days, is flooded with water. A vast sea of ensanguined mud, churned by thousands of vehicles, by hundreds of thousands of men and millions of shells, replaces the blasted dust. Still the struggle continues. Still the remorseless wheels revolve. Still the artillery roars. At last the legs of men can no longer move; they wallow and flounder helplessly in the slime. Their food and their ammunition lag behind them along the smashed and choked roadways. The offensive is suspended till the spring.

The most remarkable tactical feature about this almost superhuman clash of nations is undoubtedly the much greater approximation to equal terms of the offensive and the defensive. The superiority of the Allied artillery, and the complete mastery they have won in the air, in combination enormously facilitated the attack. The prolonged and intense bombardments in many cases obliterated the trenches, and over the whole battle-field barbed wire was largely destroyed. The battle, therefore, in many of its episodes, has been a great field action between the armies in a wilderness of craters and shell-holes. In these circumstances the superior personal qualities of our troops, and the devoted leading of their officers, found a scope long hitherto denied them. It is a tremendous fact that the new armies of Great Britain, the civilians of yesterday, showed themselves capable of mastering in the closest conflict the best soldiers of the Prussian military régime.

The consequence is that of all the great offensives which have been undertaken by both sides in the West since the beginning of the war the Somme is undoubtedly the one which has yielded the most important results. The effects produced upon the German armies and upon the German nation are profound and lasting. During the whole of last summer and autumn the Germans were continually oppressed by the sensation of their armies being exposed to the relentless and successful attack of enemies their equal in discipline, their superior in numbers and munitions. During the whole of that time they were subjected to continued humiliation in the field. Our own men steadily gained the consciousness of personal military ascendancy over their foes.

The results of this process may be far-reaching. That the morale of the German army has been affected is evidenced by the readiness with which large bodies of men have offered themselves as prisoners in recent actions. Moreover, the operations conducted by the French have been specially profitable, and the methods of attack in both armies have been continually improved. Numerous instances can be citecl where important British and French attacks have not only been successful, but profitable, and even highly profitable, so far as relative losses are concerned. The extraordinary results achieved at Verdun by General Nivelle are evidences of a development of an organization and a machinery which, if applied with sufficient frequency and on a sufficient scale, might well prove decisive. It is surely to method and machinery rather than to numbers and to heroism that the Allies must look in the long succession of red months that are before us.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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