“In war the result is never final.” Carl von Clausewitz’s comment on the ephemeral nature of victory remains one of the most important insights from his great work of military theory, On War. Even the most decisive battlefield success can only bring about a temporary advantage: a moment of political opportunity that must be capitalized upon before circumstances change. Victory is never set. It can never be preserved in aspic.
November 2018 marks the centenary of the Armistice at the end of World War I. At eleven o’clock French time, on a cold, misty morning, the guns fell silent and the world emerged from what was then the worst war in human history. Over 9 million men had died in the war, including 1.4 million Frenchmen, 890,000 Britons, 116,000 Americans, and two million Germans. Large parts of northern France, Belgium, Poland, and the Balkans had been devastated, leaving the civilian population vulnerable to the “Spanish Flu” that ravaged the globe in the years after.
Memory of the war may have been defined by the barren years of 1915–17—the time of trench stalemate that scarred a generation of young men—but 1918 saw the return of maneuver to the war and then victory and defeat. In March 1918, buoyed by the collapse of Russia and the lack of significant numbers of U.S. troops, Germany gambled upon an overwhelming battlefield triumph, attacking the British and French on the Western Front before the Americans could intervene in strength.
The United States may have declared war on Germany in April 1917, but it had only 287,000 troops in France when the great blow was struck. Despite impressive initial gains, Germany lacked enough combat power to separate the British and French forces and seize Paris—much as had happened in August and September 1914. And once her great blow was spent, she was vulnerable to an Allied counterthrust, which came on July 18, when the French alongside the Americans (now reinforced) counterattacked on the Marne.
With Germany having lost the initiative, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Generalissimo, began to plan and coordinate what he called a “series of movements” to keep up the pressure. Beginning on August 8, the British and French Armies mounted a joint attack at Amiens that broke the line and delivered a crushing blow against the German defenders. Utilizing the latest battlefield tactics, five hundred tanks, air superiority, and a surprise artillery bombardment, the opening blow was a stunning success, driving eight miles on the first day and capturing thousands of German prisoners who were fed up with the war, demoralized, and hungry.
What followed over the next three and a half months has been called the Hundred Days or the Advance to Victory. Attack after attack followed one another in an unbroken sequence, rippling up and down the entire Western Front from Ypres to the Meuse-Argonne (where the U.S. Army was now deployed). Suffering heavy and continuous losses, and no longer believing in victory, Germany’s will to fight evaporated. As one German soldier noted in a letter back home: “The mood amongst the troops is quite extraordinarily bad. Many regiments that are supposed to attack are simply refusing to do so. . . . Not one person in the officer corps believes that we will gain a victory any more.”
By the end of September, even the German High Command recognized that the war had to be ended. A note was sent to the U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, requesting peace talks on the basis of his Fourteen Points, which sparked off a month of negotiations on the exact terms. Germany attempted to split the coalition, hoping that America would consent to a “peace of justice” (another name for some kind of compromise peace), but with little success. A German delegation was led through the lines on November 8 to be presented with the final Allied terms, which included an immediate cessation of hostilities; the evacuation of France and Belgium; the surrender of much military equipment and rolling stock; and the occupation of the left bank of the Rhine.
It was only the Americans who would become stronger in 1919.
Was this enough? The British and French High Commands were well aware of how weary their men were becoming and how difficult it would be to continue the war into 1919. The French Army had already mutinied in 1917 and was now a wasting asset. When Foch was asked whether they should grant an armistice or continue the war, he denied that he was “waging war for the sake of waging war.” Once they had secured their main objectives, “nobody has the right to shed one more drop of blood.” Although the British had shown remarkable fighting prowess throughout 1918—spearheading most of the main Allied offensives—they were tired, short of reserves, and with little spare manpower left untapped.
It was only the Americans who would become stronger in 1919. General Pershing, the U.S. field commander, objected to any armistice short of unconditional surrender. To grant an armistice now, he warned,
would revivify the low spirits of the German Army and enable it to reorganize and resist later on, and would deprive the Allies of the full measure of victory by failing to press their present advantage to its complete military end. . . . A cessation of hostilities short of capitulation postpones, if it does not render impossible, the imposition of satisfactory peace terms, because it would allow Germany to withdraw her army with its present strength, ready to resume hostilities if terms were not satisfactory to her.
Pershing was right. Almost as soon as the ink was dry upon the armistice agreement, differences of interpretation and emphasis became apparent. German troops were allowed to march back home, wherever possible under the command of their own officers, which allowed rumors to spread that the army had not really been defeated. In December 1918, Friedrich Ebert, the provisional president of the Weimar Republic, told retreating veterans that their “sacrifice and deeds” had been “without equal” and that “no enemy has conquered you.”
At the peace conference the following year, the Allied powers, led by France, tried to turn the armistice conditions into a long-term strategy for the containment of Germany. They presented Germany with a fait accompli—demanding that she agree to large reparations, a war-guilt clause, and territorial adjustments that would result in Germany losing 10 percent of her pre-war population. Moreover, Germany would be limited to an army no larger than one hundred thousand men, and the Rhineland would be demilitarized.
The problem, as would later become apparent, was that the Allies had only won a narrow victory, not an overwhelming one.
The problem, as would later become apparent, was that the Allies had only won a narrow victory, not an overwhelming one. At Versailles, France tried to gain a permanent advantage over Germany, only to arouse the fury of the German delegation and sow the seeds for the “stab-in-the-back” myth of betrayal. Given the way in which the German public had been kept ignorant of the truth about what was going on at the front during the war, some kind of betrayal myth was probably inevitable after 1918, but the failure of the Allies to foresee it and to take action against it was deeply unfortunate.
Contrary to its reputation, the Treaty of Versailles was not a Carthaginian peace. The problem was that the Allies lacked the political will and consistency to ensure that its terms were adhered to. Both Britain and France struggled to hold onto their global preeminence after 1918. With economic problems, rising nationalism across their empires, and growing labor unrest, they were increasingly focused on internal problems and hoped that the results of the war would be permanently fixed in the international system. The end of history had arrived, so it was assumed, and they would always be on top.
With Britain and France taking decades to recover, the key questions concerned the Americans. U.S. support had been essential to victory in 1918, but her interest in European affairs waned rapidly after the war. With Woodrow Wilson suffering a stroke in 1919 and the U.S. Senate refusing to ratify the treaty, America never became a member of the League of Nations, the organization that Wilson had created to maintain global peace. The British and French were left to manage Germany on their own while struggling to recover from the economic and human costs of the war.
In the years after Versailles, the victory of 1918 gradually began to erode as Germany tried her best to undermine the peace settlement. She worked assiduously to cultivate alliances in the east and to revive her military strength in secret. France tried to hold on to what remained of the spirit of 1918, but found it an increasingly thankless task. She occupied the Rhineland in 1923 after Germany failed to keep up reparations payments, stationing colonial troops in Germany, which was seen as a terrible insult and was never forgotten. But with the rise of German power again in the 1930s, the Allied powers were either unwilling or unable to restrain Germany, or at least not until it was too late.
There would be no such mistakes after the Second World War. In 1945 the Allied powers demanded the “unconditional surrender” of Germany and committed to a long-term occupation of the country based upon clear and overwhelming military prowess and a close policy of denazification. Germany would be split up and transformed into a different kind of state with Prussia being abolished. Japan would also be purged of her militaristic history and reborn in a modern democratic society, reflecting the dominance of U.S. military power and culture in the post-war world.
After 1945 Germany and Japan became embedded in the U.S. strategic orbit, becoming strong allies and the locations of key bases for the projection of U.S. power—with no possibility that imperial Japanese or Nazi ambitions could ever revive. Here, finally, victory was turned into a long-term political and strategic success, in part because the rise of a new power, the Soviet Union, meant that America had to maintain its presence overseas and resist communist expansion wherever possible. The Cold War would, however, see the re-emergence of a familiar strategic problem. In both Korea and Vietnam, U.S. military strength could not be translated into long-term political success (barring the creation of a non-communist South Korea).
It is a problem that refuses to go away. In more recent times, both Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how elusive military success can be. The overwhelming destruction of the Iraqi military in 1991, following the invasion of Kuwait, was not followed up by any meaningful second act, only the costly and time-consuming process of containing Saddam Hussein. While the United States and their allies hoped to “return to normal” after 1991, the Iraqi Government started to work immediately at undermining the decision on the battlefield, putting down internal revolts, and even attempting to assassinate President George H. W. Bush. By March 1991, U.S. forces were on their way back home.
When America finally intervened again in Iraq in 2003, it showed, once again, a phenomenal military capability to win a conventional war, but a woeful lack of foresight in the secondary phase of rebuilding the country. In Afghanistan, similar problems were evident: military superiority has only propped up the Afghan government, not provided any kind of solution that would prevent the re-emergence of the Taliban.
While Western military power remains as formidable as ever, questions about war, peace, and the meaning of victory remain as pertinent as they were in 1918. Rather than focusing on the apparent futility of World War I, its horror and slaughter, it is worth considering why the “war to end all wars” only spawned a worse conflict a generation later. Unless battlefield success is followed up with a clear strategy for turning that temporary advantage into a more credible and enduring political and strategic situation, then it will likely be in vain. Military victory is, in a sense, only worth the paper it is written on.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 31
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