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1917: Britain alone (sort of)

In an earlier post I said that things were looking good for the Allies in late 1916. In essence, they were getting stronger and their enemies were getting weaker. In early 1917, things got even better. America joined the war while Russia became a republic with a democratic constitution. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, as we know, lots did. First, while America may have been a rich country with a large population it suffered from exactly the same problems as Britain did in 1914. Its army was small and not prepared for war against similarly-armed opponents. It would take time to become effective and it’s debatable whether it ever really did.

Second, the French launched the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive. Although it was far from a total failure, Nivelle had made extraordinary claims for it. When the hopes founded on these claims were dashed French morale collapsed. What happened to the French army at this time is still shrouded in mystery. The rumour is that far more French soldiers ended up getting shot for mutiny than was admitted at the time or even subsequently. It’s possible we’ll get to find out a little more this year when a few more of the archives are opened.

One of the odd things was how this affected Haig’s standing. In February, there had been an attempt to subordinate him to the French High Command. By May, the French government was asking his opinion on who should head that High Command. He didn’t give it.

Third, the February Revolution failed to stick. The Russian army had ceased to be an effective fighting force well before the Bolshevik take over in November.

So by late summer 1917 Britain’s only effective ally was Italy. While I am tempted to crack jokes Italian “effectiveness” the truth is that I don’t know enough about Italy’s contribution in the war to comment with any great authority. And, anyway, after the defeat at Caporetto, in November, they were in much the same position as the French.

Worse still, in February, the Germans launched unrestricted submarine warfare. This sent shock waves through the British high command. At one point, Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, claimed that Britain had only a matter of months left before its food supplies ran out. The only thing that could save it was the British army capturing the Channel ports where most submarines were based.

This is the context in which Passchendaele – or the Third Battle of Ypres as it was officially known – was fought.

26 comments to 1917: Britain alone (sort of)

  • NickM

    The fundamental problem the Italians had was ending up against Austria. This meant going up hill against a well dug in enemy in the Alps.

  • The order of events in early 1917 is worth noting. The Germans launched unrestricted submarine warfare at the start of February 1917. The sinkings were the crucial extra factor that prompted US entry in early April. The clinching argument for the Germans was the point Patrick’s post makes – that at the start of 1917 things were looking good for the allies and bleak for the Germans: they saw no way to win on their land fronts. Britain and France were attacking, and looked ready to continue attacking. Russia was so vast that just pushing her armies back, with the troops could be spared from the west to do it, would leave her still holding the line and tying down German forces. The promise of unrestricted submarine warfare looked like the only way to win.

    Then the first Russian revolution occurred. After that, the possibility of achieving the total defeat of Russia presented itself; “unrestricted submarine warfare is the only possible way we can win” no longer seemed so true. There was post-war speculation – by Churchill and others – that if the Germans had delayed the decision for two months then they might well have seen reason to delay it forever, or if the revolution had occurred in the middle of January instead of the middle of March then the decision might never have been made. In that case, the US never enters the war, the Russians leave it, and 1918 sees France and Britain facing a Germany that can concentrate all its force on them and without their US ally.

  • Laird

    Niall, that all makes sense but it ignores the fact that Woodrow Wilson desperately wanted to get the US into the war, and was terrified by the thought that it would end before he could do so. (Yes, his re-election campaign was run on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, but among his legion of character flaws was that he was an inveterate liar.) Even without Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare Wilson would have found a way to get us into it.

  • Paul Marks

    Laird – you are, unwittingly, pushing a myth that comes from the radical left (and the Nazi “right”) and was put into libertarianism by a real “inveterate liar” – Murray Rothbard (and his weird Jewish Nazi pal – Paul Gottfried, as well as the “usual suspects” Pat Buchanan and co).

    In reality Woodrow Wilson had been savagely denounced for NOT pushing for war in response to German attacks on Americans – not only had the Germans killed many Americans at sea, they had also killed Americans inside the United States (via terrorist attacks – terrorist attacks that have been “shoved down the Memory Hole” by those who want to pretend that World War One was a war to suit the interests of “capitalists” such as Morgan family – actually the Morgans were intend pro British and NOT just for financial reasons, but did not like Woodrow Wilson). The Germans had also stirred up Mexican factions against the United States – and German Geopolitics taught (in the German universities) long BEFORE the First World War had argued that it was imperative for Germany to take over the New World – to displace the United States and Britain in Latin America, and to subvert the United States from inside and outside.

    I despise Woodrow Wilson – both politically and personally (I despise the politics of “Teddy” Roosevelt but I like him as a person – I can not stand Woodrow Wilson either politically or personally), but the idea that he was to blame for “getting America into the war” is wrong. GERMANY was to blame for getting America into the war in 1917, just as it had been to blame for getting Russia, France and Britain into the war in 1914.

    Till intellectuals stop being “clever” about the First World War and understand that it was GERMANY who was responsible for turning a Balkan War (there had been two Balkan Wars in the couple of years before 1914) into first a European War and then into a World War, the study of this matter will go no where.

  • Paul Marks

    As for Woodrow Wilson.

    He was one of the people who did not understand that German Progressivism was NOT about the monarchy – getting rid of the monarchy would achieve nothing, while Progressive ideas in a “united Germany” remained in place. This was because Wilson was a Progressive himself – and thus shared many of the ideas of the German academics (just an American version of them). The failure of Wilson to understand the real source of the intellectual problem in Germany (for to accept that Progressive German ideas were wrong would be to accept that HIS OWN ideas were wrong) and the vital need to end “German unity” (to restore the independence of Bavaria and so on) led the French to despair of Woodrow Wilson.

    Woodrow Wilson did not “get America into the war” – GERMANY did that. But Woodrow Wilson was one of the people who prevented the “breaking up” of Germany (an artificial Empire State – only created in 1871) and thus ensured that there would be no real peace – just (in the despairing words of Marshall Foch) a “20 year truce” before the Germans attacked again.

  • Laird, I must agree with Paul that Woodrow Wilson did not want to get the US into the war. He very, very much wanted to play a role in WWI but it was not the role of ally to one side and enemy to another. Wilson desired to be the neutral arbiter, standing above the foolish unenlightened fighters from a position of calm moral superiority and looking down equally on both. This role fitted his self-image to a tee and he never abandoned it in his heart even after he had nominally joined one of the sides – to the understandable puzzlement and annoyance of his allies when he acted accordingly.

  • I should add (to my July 2, 2017 at 8:27 am comment) that Wilson also saw the war as a way to justify political activities he wanted to pursue in the US: government propaganda, suppressing rival speech (and pressing for dodgy 1st Amendment rulings to support those acts), etc.

  • Paul Marks

    General Nivelle had made careful preparations for the capture of certain German positions – but we will never know whether his plans were good or bad, because the Germans pulled out of those positions to new defensive positions further back.

    The great failure of General Nivelle (and it was a moral failure as much as intellectual failure) was to fail to say “my plans are now moot – as the Germans have changed the situation”, instead he went ahead and that led to disaster.

    It is not true that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” – but no plan that ignores what the enemy has done survives contact of the enemy.

    As for Haig – he should never have been an officer. He not only failed the mathematics examination (wire pulling got him round that problem) just as he had previously failed the examination (YES this is CONTESTED) to get into Camberley (more wire pulling to get in), and James Edmonds did most of the work for Haig whilst at Camberley – telling him what to write and so on (ordered to do so by Professor Henderson).

    As an officer (which he should never have been) Haig did not improve – Plumer gave him low marks in a test that Haig had to sit himself (and Haig never forgave Plumer for that). And his personal conduct was actually worse than his lack of ability, for example he took credit for the work of General Broadwood (later killed at Pascheendaele – after being sidelined and put into harm’s way by Haig) in the Sudan – Haig actually wrote the newspaper account that gave him the credit for the work of other men. Haig should have been court marshalled and dismissed from the army for his dishonourable conduct (in a previous century he would have been “called out” on to the Field of Honour and shot in a duel).

    In the First World War his behaviour of Haig in 1914, drawing his pistol and shouting that “we will sell our lives dearly” (Harry Flashman style play acting – as there were no Germans around when Haig did this) can be forgiven because of the stress of the retreat – and because it did no real harm. However, nothing Haig did in 1914 stands out as good – he was at least as incompetent as officers who were sent home. But it is 1915 that really exposed Haig as the vile man he was.

    On the first day of the Battle of Loos Haig gassed his own men – to be fair he did not do this on purpose, he did not check the wind (in his defence it was said that Haig was having an asthma attack and was rather “out of it” when he gave his orders) – the gas he fired off hung around on the battlefield and Haig’s men charged into it.

    But the second day of the Battle of Loos is unpardonable – Haig pretended to the commanders of two reserve divisions (fresh from England) that they were going to chase beaten Germans, but then sent them on attack against massively fortified German positions (Haig thought that the two division might get through by the “force of their ignorance” – a CARTOON view of warfare, like a cartoon character not falling after running off a cliff but not falling till they KNOW they have run off a cliff by looking down, real life is not like a cartoon).

    Officers to the front and on horse back (logical if one thinks one is chasing a beaten enemy) were shot down first – so there was no one to order a retreat. Of the ten thousand men who attacked some eight thousand men were killed or wounded by the end of the day. No Germans were shot at all – NONE. The Germans were in massively fortified positions (the British soldiers could not even see them – let alone shoot them) – although a few Germans did suffer mental damage (from shooting helpless British soldiers who kept walking up and down in front of the, many feet high and thick, barbed wire – in front of the German fire) and had to be sent to mental hospitals. And a few Germans refused to fire – on the grounds that it was “murder” and were brought before military courts.

    Two divisions (some ten thousand men) essentially wiped (80% casualties – killed and wounded) for no German deaths at all. Any commander with even a scrap of personal honour would have killed himself after this.

    General Haig did not kill himself – he did not even resign or request court marshal. Instead Haig used his wire pulling and office politics skills (which were very highly developed – the “manly man of few words” being a careful part of his act) to conspire to get his Commanding Officer (Sir John French – not a good general, but a man of great personal courage as he showed as late the campaign Ireland after the First World War, the difference between the two men can be summed up by their different roles in the old cavalry – Haig had been an Inspector of cavalry, Sir John French had personally led cavalry charges) dismissed and take his job. Haig’s campaign of lies (“the reserve divisions were not where I wanted them to be” and on and on) is faithfully presented, as truth, by academic historians (who assume that anything official on paper must be true – the E.H. Carr style of “history”, which forgets the basic rule of serious history NEVER TAKE A SOURCE ON TRUST) – who have never killed a man in their lives, and know nothing about killing.

    1916 needs no long examination – Haig, for example, was responsible for July 1st 1916 on the Somme, where 20 thousand British soldiers were killed and 30 thousand wounded. His slow attacks (in line) would not have worked in 1815 (Battle of New Orleans) let alone 1916. It was not new technology that was the real problem – the real problem was the utter ignorance of the basic rules of infantry warfare of Douglas Haig (and of his creatures – those officers he favoured). The only officers who were punished for July 1st were a couple of officers who did NOT order suicide attacks (they were sent home in disgrace – by a man who never fired a weapon in combat between 1914 and 1918 and had spent a lifetime in the army without ever being wounded). Haig learned nothing by this – and ordered more attacks the next day. The Earl of Cavan physically took General Rawlinson – and to show him that an attack on a certain position was insane – and even “the cad” (Rawlinson) agreed – and called off the attack. Haig, without bothering to look for himself, just overruled both men and ordered the suicide attack to proceed – that was the sort of man he was.

    The Earl of Cavan (“Fatty” – the Commander of the Guards) was one of two men, the other being General Plumer, who was sent to save the Italians at various times – there were competent British Generals, they just do not get statues on Whitehall or “funds” named after them.

    Patrick – I know you have lost someone close to you (although who it is I do not know) so I will not go on to Passchendaele in 1917. I would ask (humbly ask – as a personal favour) that you do not write on this subject.

    Still that is entirely up to you – it is up to me to reply to any Haig defence, WITHOUT losing my temper (although, in my youth, I knew some of the men involved in these battles), or to not reply at all.

    A short account is that Haig was told that shelling would turn this area into a marsh – but did it anyway, with British soldiers stuck (and dying) in mud.

    There were indeed real tactical successes in the 1917 offensive (some battles where Plumer was in command) – but Haig favoured General Gough, an incompetent “creature” of Haig – whom Haig later used as a “scapegoat” (his own word) to save himself (Haig) from blame for the defeats of early 1918 in the German Operation Micheal offensive.

    The 1917 offensive really achieved nothing – and went on for months, with a horrible cost of lives.

    It was not really a help to the Russians – as the Russians needed help inside Russia or on the fronts they were actually fighting on, “distraction” offensives on fronts hundred of miles away were of little use.

    Britain Constantinople in 1915 would indeed have been of use to the Russians – one would have been able to link up with them, and the Germans would have found themselves truly encircled and without hope of victory. But useless British Generals (NOT General Haig – he had nothing to do with it and was entirely innocent of this) flung that chance away at Suvla Bay in 1915 – when ten thousand British soldiers landed facing a couple of hundred of Turks. The British Generals then proceeded to do NOTHING for days – whilst the Turks rushed in reinforcements and built defences. The chance to knock the Ottomans out of the war in 1915 (thus preventing the Armenian Genocide and so on – as well as linking up with the Russians thus preventing the Russian Revolution and ending the First World War in 1915 or early 1916) was flung away by a group of useless British Generals at Suvla Bay and none of the names of the Generals (Stopford and co) was “Douglas Haig”.

    The French (as Patrick rightly points out) restored discipline, after their great mutinies, by a mixture of quiet politeness – and shooting ringleaders. There is actually no contradiction there.

    Although many (but not all) of the French mutinies were more of the “we will hold the line – but will not attack” type. Even that is unacceptable.

  • Patrick Crozier

    When I cast doubt on the effectiveness of the US Army in the First World War this is not a case of idle Yank-bashing. Long standing Samizdata readers will know of my admiration of the US.

    Rather it is simply the statement that building up an army is a difficult process and takes time. You have to: recruit the men, train the men, equip the men. Who’s going to be doing this training? Most of your experienced people will be on the front line. Who’s going to be doing the equipping? Your war industry will be geared up to supply a much smaller army. OK, that’s not the full story. Since 1914 the US will have been flooded by orders from the Allies and there will have been a growth in the domestic industry, so expansion might be slightly easier. But still difficult.

    Worse still is creating a cadre of experienced officers. That cannot be done quickly. Even in 1918, the British were some way behind the Germans. So where were the Americans likely to be?

    America’s greatest military contribution to the war was probably providing the destroyers necessary to make convoys a practical proposition.

  • bobby b

    Patrick Crozier
    July 2, 2017 at 8:54 am


    Were there quite a few more commenters back then, or did your post just attract a big crowd?

  • Laird

    Niall (and Paul), we will just have to disagree on whether Wilson wanted to get the US into the war or to stand above the fray as an all-wise neutral arbiter. I believe there is sufficient evidence of the former; that he had plans for our entry drawn up long before the re-election campaign which trumpeted his (alleged) neutrality, even pacifism. You are welcome to disagree, of course. And while there certainly was political pressure for our entry, the large majority of Americans still wanted to stay out of this “European War”, as is evidenced by Wilson’s re-election. The Germans made it easy for him, but even without unrestricted submarine warfare (and that idiotic Mexican ploy) he would have found a way.

  • Patrick Crozier

    One day Paul will provide evidence for his claims. Sadly today is not that day.

    Not that it matters much. Haig’s key jobs were strategy and logistics. He got these right.

  • Edward

    For Lord Haig, I tend towards Patrick Crozier’s opinion rather than Paul Marks’.

    The US military contribution to the war is pretty much irrelevant. As stated above, the desperation that would cause the Germans to launch the Kaiserschlacht in 1918 was a result of the success of the British naval blockade plus the fall of Russia and Brest-Litovsk.

    Absent the doughboys, everything goes as per history. The German offensive grinds to a halt, and the Entente retreat, hold, then push back. The German retreat turns into a rout. The only difference is that the British and the French do not stop. By mid 1919, the Union Flag and the Tricoleur fly over Berlin. And a whole load of other nastiness, prompted by that useless progressive prig Wilson, is thereby avoided.

  • Laird (July 2, 2017 at 1:13 pm), “[Wilson] had plans for our entry drawn up long before the re-election campaign”

    Laird, the ineffectiveness of US forces in WWI that Patrick refers to reflects the fact that Wilson’s planning compares very poorly to Franklin Roosevelt’s. Wilson had even longer to prepare than Roosevelt but the slowness to organise the army as regards men and, even more, weapons in WWI is striking. US forces went into action – when they finally did – armed with French artillery. Part of nazi confidence that they could endure US entry in WWII was from knowing how slow US build up had been in WWI.

    That Wilson intended to exploit the war – and had thought and planned how to do so – I agree. That he had thought or planned much how to enter the war so as to fight as a loyal and effective ally I do not agree (if he did, he did so very poorly compared to Roosevelt). That he saw entering on one side as his best way to exploit the war I also do not agree, although I do think a mood that could be called “a crisis is not a thing to waste” meant he thought much about how to exploit it and that was one way, if not his ideal way.

    If, as you say, we must agree to disagree, fair enough (for example, I won’t discuss Haig in this thread, having done so before and feeling that Paul and I must agree to disagree on that subject). So please make a final reply if you wish, and I’ll leave it so.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    This is very arrogant of the British!
    Whenever they want, they forget the Commonwealth! It was the Commonwealth that helped Britain- she was NOT fighting alone! Canadians and Anzacs (Australia and New Zealand, for outsiders) were also in the trenches, and probably others. In the second world war, the Commonwealth was also helping, as were minorities from other invaded countries like Poland.

  • Watchman

    I’m not going to get into the argument of whether Haig was an efficient commander, but I am slightly concerned by one of Paul’s criticisms. The fact Haig did not shoot a weapon in anger is kind of what we want from commanders. It is rather difficult to command if you are concentrating on fighting, so your generals really shouldn’t be shooting at people (or in a position to have to do this). Anyway, generals tend to be a lot older than most combatants, so are quite likely not the people you want shooting (any sensible army has a lot of people doing something other than trying to kill people directly, be they medical, construction, logistics or simply so left-handed that they aren’t allowed a rifle (my grandad’s WWII experience)).

    Hopefully Paul’s other criticisms are sensible and not so emotionally-based as an assumption that modern generals should act like medieval warleaders (and note they generally were not in the front line, contrary to popular portrayals). As an actual counterpoint, I don’t remember any account of Wellington ever engaging in combat (other than having an aide’s leg removed by a passing cannon ball) during the Napoleonic was – or Napoleon himself for that matter – and you don’t see criticism of that.

    And did the US ever have a substantial operational army in Europe? My understanding is they were mostly if not entirely attached to the French army, in the same way as the Portuguese were (and therefore the Brazilians, who were attached to the Portuguese (as far as I know, they didn’t have a subsidary unit, but if say Uruguay sent some solidiers that’s probably where they’d have been (if they were an ally – never figured out who was on which side in South America)).

  • Laird

    Nope, Niall, I’ve said my piece. You get the last word.

  • Jacob

    “your generals really shouldn’t be shooting at people (or in a position to have to do this).”

    No, Generals should not be shooting people, though they need to be near enough to the front to hear some fire and to understand what goes on.

    What Paul meant is that Haig never actually fought in battle, not when he was a general, but never, never even in his youth. Every general needs to rise up through the ranks and acquire combat experience on the way in various capacities. Lacking combat experience in an active officer, during a period of dozens of years of ample active conflicts is a sign of personal cowardice and incompetence, and is a serious flaw.

  • Mr Ed


    Would you be so kind as to itemise the claims that Paul makes that you say lack evidence? Otherwise, it is pretty pointless seeing your challenge when there is so much that Paul puts over, that it is impossible to gauge the basis for your assertion that his claims are not evidenced?

  • Jacob (July 3, 2017 at 4:47 pm), Haig went out to the Sudan in 1898 (sacrificing two days of his embarkation leave to tour a machine gun factory) and wrote a letter to Sir Evelyn Wood about his first action there, which included the line “We felt the want of machine guns.” As you can tell, I know these facts in connection with researching Haig’s awareness of machine guns, but they clearly indicate his having been in action.

    In the Boer war, Haig was in the battle of Elandslaagte. He was deputy Assistant Adjutant General of the Cavalry Division during the relief of Kimberley (which involved a cavalry charge), and the taking of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. He later briefly commanded the 3rd Cavalry Brigade and was then made Assistant Adjutant General in the Cavalry Division. The cavalry saw a good deal of such action as there was in the latter half of Boer war against guerrillas. Haig was mentioned in dispatches four times during the Boer war.

    No-one in the British Army had any experience in WWI-style battles, or in manoeuvring armies of the size Britain raised by 1915, let alone 1916. Haig was an ambitious officer. He pursued such action as there was to be had, from a feeling of duty no doubt, but also because being in action helped greatly in getting promotion. (Haig supplemented this with other methods such as royal connections.)

  • Patrick Crozier

    Or, your could yourself. Anything that is news to you would count.

    Not that it matters. I have been asking Paul to provide evidence for his claims for years. Not once has he done so. He is not going to do it now. I am not going to waste my fingers on further requests.

  • Mr Ed


    If you are suggesting that I could myself itemise the claims that you say Paul makes that lack evidence, which is my reading of your comment, and the only reading I can sensibly make of it, there is the insurmountable problem that I do not, and cannot, know which claims you refer to, which is the reason for my request.

    If anyone should allege of anther that he lacks evidence for his claims, the burden is on the alleger to show that the claims are unfounded, at least by example.

    If you cannot, you appear to have lost the argument, sourly.

  • Laird

    Mr Ed, FWIW Patrick and Paul have been arguing about Gen. Haig here for years, Patrick pro and Paul con. I can sympathize with Patrick if he’s tired of the debate (although Paul seems indefatigable).

  • Mr Ed


    I am aware of the long-running Haig issue, hence I proposed a ‘Haig Convention’. Paul has had the benefit of an early acquaintance with veterans of WW1, those who saw it all in colour.

    Perhaps we need a specific post to which all Haig-related comments can be diverted and the evidence marshalled. This is not the first time that Patrick has not put forward evidence to support his contentions, and I have not seen a rebuttal from him as to the aspects of Haig’s character such as the mathematics exam. For those of us without a morbid fascination in WW1, it is also tiresome to see unsubstantiated claims.

  • Jacob

    There is no great need of doing deep research about Haig. (I haven’t done such research, and I don’t know if Paul’s claim that Haig never participated personally in combat is true. It does not matter).

    Sending infantry to assault fortified machine gun positions is utter folly and idiocy. You don’t need to study war (such as the American Civil War) to learn this. You need eyes to see and some brains to analyse what happens around you.

    Yet Haig sent infantry into mass attacks on fortified machine guns, again and again and again and never learned anything. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in vain.These facts are not disputed. Nobody claims that the ground campaigns in WW1 were brilliantly done or successful.

    No condemnation of Haig can be too strong.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Watchman @July 3, 2017 at 12:24 pm:

    And did the US ever have a substantial operational army in Europe? My understanding is they were mostly if not entirely attached to the French army…

    The U.S. had two Armies at the front in 1918, First and Second, with five corps and 24 divisions. Two French corps were attached, one to each Army.

    There was another US corps (of only two divisions) attached to the British Fourth Army for the Second Battle of the Somme.

    Bear in mind that U.S. divisions were about twice the size of French or British divisions.