Victory through Coalition

Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Victory through Coalition: Britain and France during the First World War, Cambridge Military Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) XVI + 304 pp. ISBN 0-521-85384-2

Over the past twenty years the study of Britain’s role in the First World War has to a large degree been turned on its head by a new school of historians attempting to overturn what one can only describe as the ‘Blackadder’ school of thought. Up until recently this new school of thought has squarely concentrated its attention on the lower echelon of the war. The leading proponent has been Paddy Griffith with his notable work Battle Tactics of the Western Front, which looked at the development of lower level battle tactics in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). With the impetus created by this revisionism we have seen in the last few years the attention turn back to the role of the General Headquarters of the BEF in the fighting of the First World War with several studies looking at the generals and command and control of the BEF. We have even recently seen a new edition of Sir Douglas Haig’s War Diaries which has added to the debate on his role in the war. However, up until now there had only been one major study on the nature of the Allied war effort but this has changed with Elizabeth Greenhalgh’s new study. Elizabeth Greenhalgh has recently become well known for her analysis of the higher direction of the Allied war effort during the First World War and the nature of Coalition Warfare in this period. Most notable amongst her recent work was a debate in the journal War in History with Dr William Philpott of Kings College, London, who is another notable exponent on the nature of Coalition Warfare during the First World War. This debate in itself showed up the differences inherent in the use of sources by these two historians. As Greenhalgh herself comments in the bibliographical essay in the book, Philpott over relies on British based sources and concentrates on the first two years of the war (p. 287). This inherent structural weakness in Philpott’s analysis has left open an area for an in depth and illuminating study of Anglo – French coalition warfare and this is a gap which Greenhalgh’s work most ably fits into.

The book itself is split into eleven chapters dealing with various aspects of the nature and development of coalition warfare between the countries. It does not however only deal with the war on the land but also includes a chapter on the how the Allies responded to the threat of unrestricted U-Boat warfare by the Germans in 1917. The first area gives us a preamble to the book and the early development of the command relationship between the British and French not only at a national level but also between the military’s of the two countries. In this sections the author enlightens the reader to one of the major problems which would dog the coalition in the first two years of the war, and too some extent for the rest of it; that of communications. As Greenhalgh points out communication at a personal level, be it with a fellow Commander in Chief or Liaison Officer, has to be effective in order for operations to go smoothly. However, this was not the case for the either armies, for example, out of 488 graduating officers from St Cyr between 1889 and the beginning of the war only 106 spoke English with the majority speaking German (p. 9). Thus as the author quite rightly notes in the face of this statistic it is no wonder that problems occurred in the first few month of the war.

The next important area, which Greenhalgh looks at, is the important period of 1914 – 15, a period when France was putting the majority of effort in to the war while Kitchener’s New Armies were built up. This period is important in the understanding of the development of the partnership of Britain and France as it is the period when the two countries moved from entente to coalition. We see in this section an informative discussion of the effect which both the personalities of Field Marshal Sir John French and Marshal of France Joffre had upon the nature of the command issues, which were at the heart of the coalition moving forward in the war with Germany. The major issue identified by Greenhalgh is that neither C-in-C had any confidence in the other and that led to an inability or unwillingness to communicate, which would lead to extreme pressures being place upon the coalition over the year. Despite this problem there does appear to be a glimmer of hope for effective co-ordination amongst the allies. This came from the politicians rather than the generals in the form of Briand, Mitterand, Kitchener, Asquith and Esher. A system had been put in place for conferences between them in order to develop policy, and an overriding political body to oversee its direction. However, despite Briand’s plea of ‘Unite de front’, this body was not to come into being due certain extraneous factors (p. 39). However, Greenhalgh rightly points out that despite the problems encountered by both Britain and France in creating some form of unifying body the basis of what would come later in the war (pp. 35 – 40).

The next few chapters of the book deal with the one subject which has become a quagmire for historians to explain, the Battle of the Somme. As with her article in War in History Greenhalgh has attempted to examine the reasons why the British were there and what was the contribution the campaign of 1916. It is this section, where she is most critical of the coalition and much of this argument was seen previously in her debate with William Philpot. She clings to the argument that the New Armies were not on the Somme to help the French. This is an interpretation, which has been vehemently defended elsewhere, but none the less is an interesting thesis, which holds some merit and can not be dismissed too easily.

Greenhalgh then moves on to the problems of 1917, which were of particular interest to this author. She pays particular attention to the problems outside of the sphere of the Western Front and looks at the issue of the war against Germany’s U – Boat’s. This is a most enlightening chapter where we see Greenhalgh comment that the formation of the Allied Maritime Transport Council was one of the few successes of the year and that despite problems and pressures from all sides ‘…greater allied cooperation over the allocation of scare shipping resources enabled a more efficient use of the ships that had escaped the submarine.’(p. 30) This is turn then lead to the successful re – supply of the armies from both Britain and America, which allowed the armies to move into the successful phases of the war in 1918.

This is where Greenhalgh next moves her attention to by looking at the failures of the Allied High Command structure as became highlighted during the German offensive of early 1918. Here she argues that changes came about because of a crisis in command and that to a large extent this crisis was the fault of the politicians who felt the war was not being run effectively and wished a degree of control. However, what was born was a system, which improved co – operation between the military’s, but did not create the general reserve, which had been hoped for. This was mainly because the generals of both Britain and France united in fighting their politicians and curbing their control of the war effort. Thus the Supreme War Council simply became an official ‘…talking shop…’(p. 185), which certified private agreements, which General came too. Notable in this is agreement between both Haig and Petain. Greenhalgh then shows that the formation of the council proved useful during the German offensives and allowed Foch to stabilise the Western Front and then proved functional in the Allied counter – attacks from August onwards.

Greenhalgh’s work is a constructive addition to the literature on the higher command of the war and to some degree Greenhalgh shows that in spite of problems the coalition gained the final victory. What does come across is that the Generals felt they won in spite of the interference of the Politicians, this is especially noted by the role Lloyd George played. One reviewer has commented that it was the shock of the crises of 1917 and early 1918 which led to the formalisation of the coalition. However, it is the opinion of this reviewer that Greenhalgh has shown that despite certain cultural and diplomatic problems, the French and British army commanders formulated an effective ad – hoc solution that worked to some degree and was only modified because of the interference of politicians and the need to co – ordinate such large forces as were present on the Western Front. The best epitaph to be given comes in Greenhalgh’s conclusion where it states that:

it must be said that the Franco – British coalition, for all its defective mechanism, was effective enough to defeat one of the five perfect institutions that Europe…produce(p. 285)

Greenhalgh’s employment of French sources also helps in understanding the issues that were at hand. A major issue, which Greenhalgh herself alluded too, with previous works on the subject was the lack of French sources and the over reliance upon the diaries and memoirs of the principal players. However, Greenhalgh too can maybe be accused of relying too much on French sources and it maybe some time till a balanced picture of the higher direction of the war is produced. This work does, however, distinctly adds to our understand or the nature of the Allies coalition war and that it was indeed won because of co – operation despite various minor and major issues, which were thrown up in the course of the war. It would be recommended that it indeed be read in conjunction with Philpott’s work and is recommended to all with an interest in the nature of coalition warfare and the First World War.

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