Germany 1917. The 1987 Presidential Address delivered by the Honorary President John Terraine
(This article first appeared in Stand To! 24 Winter 1988 pp 14 - 18)
It was Field Marshal von Hindenburg who said: 1916 spoke a language which made itself heard.' I think he was right: it is important to understand that language, because otherwise some very serious matters make very little sense. The same is obviously true of 1917 (or any other year, for that matter). The only difference about 1917 is that some of its events were so important in world history that they never have fallen into the oblivion that permeates other periods of the First World War.
The two Russian revolutions of 1917 have been part of the daily life of the world ever since. You could say the same of America's entry into the war, which effectively spelt the end of American isolationism, and her entry into European affairs from which she has never been able completely to withdraw.
And on the battlefronts, there were the French mutinies of May and June, which spelt out the war-weariness of the French Army and a large part of the French people—and we got the backwash of that in 1940. The Battle of Caporetto and its sequel, in October, showed that Italy was affected by the same disease, and once again World War 2 supplied the evidence.
Nothing can diminish the importance of those vast events, whose consequences overhung the inter-war years, were acutely felt in the Second World War, and continue with us with every news bulletin that we watch or listen to, with every newspaper that we open.
On our own Home Front, there was a good deal in 1917 to give us continuing food for thought, too. The submarine blockade, a very frightening experience which would be repeated twenty five years later; the most effective air offensive against our cities so far, for a very large number of civilians their most direct experience of war, and very shocking that was; conscription, now in full swing, for the first time in our history; rationing, which also came as a shock; continuing heavy casualties, on the same scale as those on the Somme, which had already horrified all those who had any awareness of them; bad blood between leading soldiers and civilians (especially the Prime Minister, Mr Lloyd George, and his military advisers), of which, of course, the general public was unaware, but which disturbed all those who knew about it.
Yes, the British had a good deal to think about in 1917, a good deal to remember it by.
Lost to view in all this—not surprisingly—was the subject of my talk today: Germany. Which was a pity, because throughout the war Germany was its centrepiece. Germany, in fact, was the prime mover of the war; as Dr Paul Kennedy has said:
German war planning was, in certain respects, unique. For it was only the German plan which involved an attack upon another power (France), whether or not the latter wished to become involved in the war; it was only the German plan which involved the violation of neutral territory simply to satisfy military exigencies; and— most important of all—it was only in the German plan that mobilisation meant war.
These indubitable facts constitute some of what I call the 'terrible simplicities' of the war. They led directly to Germany seizing the initiative, according to the dictates of the notorious 'Schlieffen Plan', in 1914, and effectively retaining it almost until the very end. Thus, 1914 was the year of the great German attack on France; 1915 was the year of the great attack on Russia; 1916 began with the attack that was meant to bleed France to death, at Verdun—and then things began to go wrong.
They began to go wrong during that intense period of warfare which included the Battle of the Somme and also included Russia's last—and very successful— offensive, under General Brusilov. By the end of August 1916 they had gone so far wrong that the German Chief of Staff—effectively the Commander in Chief of the Army in the field—General von Falkenhayn was dismissed. He was the second to go, marking two phases of the great German failure.
Falkenhayn was replaced by Field Marshal von Hindenburg, with General Ludendorff as his First Quartermaster General, both brought over from the Eastern Front. The first thing the new team had to do was to investigate conditions on the Western Front, which they did in early September; they found these very different from what they had been used to in the East—in fact, they were appalled. Hindenburg said he 'succeeded to an evil inheritance.'
What were they to do about it? What was their prescription for 1917? Let's hear Ludendorff summing up the problem; the German High Command, he says:
. . . had to bear in mind that the enemy's great superiority in men and material would be even more painfully felt in 1917 than in 1916. They had to face the danger that 'Somme fighting' would break out at various points on our fronts, and that even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely, especially if the enemy gave us no time for rest and the accumulation of material. Our position was uncommonly difficult and a way out hard to find.
The German leaders found two 'ways out'; the first was forced on them by the condition of the Army. By the end of 1916, the year's casualties totalled at least 1,400,000 (according to the German Official History); in Ludendorff's words: 'The Army had been fought to a standstill and was utterly worn out.' The symptoms of this condition were visible to him and to Hindenburg in September —one of the most tragic months of the war.
September 1916 was the only occasion in the whole war when the full strength of the Alliance—French, British, Italians, Russians and Romanians—was combined in a simultaneous operation. The object was very simple: to end the war—and in theory this was the most promising opportunity offered so far. But September witnessed what I have called 'the last sacrificial exertions of the old German Army' and they were just enough to disappoint the Allies and make sure that the war would go on. That was tragedy indeed.
But Hindenburg and Ludendorff could see that there must be no more 'Somme fighting'; the German Army, good as it was, would not be able to stand it. So they set in hand, against all previous German doctrine and practice, the construction of that great line of field fortifications which they called the 'Siegfried Position' and the British called the 'Hindenburg Line'. Ludendorff says: 'Whether we should retire on them, and how the positions would be used, was not of course decided in September 1916; the important thing was to get them built.'
It was a second tragedy that at the turn of the year the Allied political leaders vetoed the generals' intention to reopen the 'Somme fighting' that the Germans dreaded before these new lines were ready. The German leaders were not to know that they were to receive succour from such an unlikely quarter; if they had known, world history would definitely have been very different. If they had known, they would almost certainly not have also taken their second way out'; the declaration of 'unrestricted submarine warfare' on 1 February 1917. This act was, if anything, even more revolutionary than building the Siegfried Positions, and carried with it always the acute risk of bringing America into the war against them—which it very soon did.
It can be argued, of course, that American intervention was sooner or later inevitable; that may be true—but we don't know. What can also be argued, on firmer ground, is that if the Germans had anticipated the Russian revolution in March, they would not have taken the risk of provoking the Americans. That may well be. What is perfectly clear, without any 'ifs', is the magnitude of their sense of disaster on the Somme in adopting two such ways as these of avoiding a repetition.
That was the purely military legacy of 1916: a heavy defeat from which the Germans emerged by the skin of their teeth; the Army in urgent need of rest and restoration; and a very serious manpower problem due to their losses and their commitments. Their Forces and civilians alike now also faced another ordeal: the fearful winter of 1916-17, the worst since 1880, and one of the worst in modern times. It began to show its teeth in November, and it went on until nearly May of 1917. In January there were records of 19° of frost and in February 25°. Canals and rivers froze over; the inundations which protected the Belgian front froze over—causing considerable alarm. When the tides went out along the Channel coast, they left frozen sands behind them. The French railway system in the north broke down. The Russian railway system was so badly damaged and blocked by heavy snow-falls that food could not be brought into the cities. There were bread riots in St Petersburg. They very quickly turned into revolution.
In Germany, this was known as the Turnip Winter'. Premature frosts in 1916 spoiled the potato harvest; this important item in the national diet practically disappeared, and the substitutes were not exactly cheering. A sailor in the High Sea Heet at Wilhelmshaven wrote: We get potatoes once a week. On weekdays we get yellow, red and other varieties of turnips, alternating with blue, red and green cabbage . . . Anyone who spent eight days here and became acquainted with the life of the sailors, would find that the most important question of the day is: What is there to eat today?
If things were bad for the Navy, you can depend on it that they were considerably worse for civilians. The Allied blockade was now taking serious effect, and there were drawn faces in the food queues. Princess Blticher, an English woman married to a German aristocrat, who spent her war in Berlin, wrote in January:
We are all growing thinner every day and the rounded contours of the German nation have become a legend of the past. We are all gaunt and bony now . . . and our thoughts are chiefly taken up with wondering what our next meal will be . . . A month later she also noticed that: Now one sees faces like masks, blue with cold and drawn with hunger, with the harassed expression common to all those who are continually speculating as to the possibility of another meal.
Food was scarce, prices going up. Bread was adulterated with a mixture of root vegetable, eggs were doled out on a scale of one every three weeks or so, a main staple in the butchers' shops was black crows, and potato cards had to be presented in restaurants and hotels. During this winter, wages went up fifteen points and prices went up 67 points. Twice in January there were minor riots in Berlin's food markets. John Williams describes a typical day's menu—if the ingredients could be obtained: Breakfast: a cup or so of coffee substitute or tea substitute, without milk and with a minimum of sugar; one third of the daily bread ration (2Vi oz); L u n ch : a plate of soup with a slice of bread; 2 oz of meat, 2 oz of vegetables, a small pudding or cake and a cup of coffee substitute; Tea: substitute coffee or tea, a Vi oz wheat-flour cake; D in n er: no soup or pudding, a modicum of meat and vegetables with a little cheese and the rest of the bread ration; a glass of very watery beer.
For a normally well-fed nation, this was pretty poor stuff: Germans were eating no more than a quarter of the meat they had eaten before the war and pork—their favourite, the making of all their famous sausages— had now practically vanished. You can imagine that German civilians, tightening their belts against winter and the blockade, would extract nothing but satisfaction from the exploits of their submarines, applying 'unrestricted warfare'—that is to say, sinking Allied vessels at sight. The U-boat commanders, in 1917, justified their harsh actions by the sufferings of their own civilians; they did it again, quite understandably, in World War 2, when bombers came over to pulverize their cities.
But sinking Allied ships didn't put more food into the shops; in April the bread ration was cut, and there was an immediate wave of violent protest and even strikes. It is impossible to hide such symptoms as these. Field Marshal Haig, prompted by the Intelligence Service, noted a 'prospect of famine in Germany' on 6 April. On 12 April, his Head of Intelligence, Brigadier General Charteris, received a report of 'a great lack of food and a great increase in Socialism'— precisely the two factors which had produced such devastating results in Russia only a month earlier. On 20 April, he noted reports of 'disaffection and food trouble in Germany' culminating in a strike in Berlin.
This Berlin strike was no trivial matter; it involved 220,000 workers who staged a huge demonstration, forcing the authorities to promise an increase in their meat ration. At the same time there were strikes in Leipzig where the demands were not only for more food and coal, but also took on a political significance; peace without annexations— which was not at all what the Army leaders had in mind. The strikers were calmed down by promises of increased wages and a reduction of the working week to fifty two hours. But already there was more trouble in Berlin, where munition workers came out with the same peace demands as the Leipzig men. Their factories were occupied by soldiers and this time they were ordered back to work with threats of fines and imprisonment.
On 23 April Brigadier Charteris had evidence from a captured document of a onethird cut in the rations of the German Army—the first time such a thing had been heard of. All this prompted him to a definite conclusion which he passed on to his Chief: '. . .it seems evident that the present is not the moment to withdraw any active offensive operations and adopt a defensive policy. For the first time, the enemy shows definite signs of giving way under pressure of our operations.' The further background to that is, of course, that after a brilliant start at Vimy Ridge and elsewhere on 9 April, the British Arras offensive had now settled down into the all-too-familiar and costly trench-to-trench attrition, while the much vaunted French offensive launched by General Nivelle on 6 April on the Aisne, had completely failed to fulfil his promises, and was collapsing into stalemate with very heavy casualties. So naturally, there was talk of calling off these Allied offensives. Obviously, in view of their own losses, which were severe, and what was happening at home, nothing could have pleased the Germans better. They had had a bad fright—indeed Ludendorff says it was only the Russian revolution that saved them. They had fallen back to the Siegfried positions, and now they just wanted to be left alone to recuperate.
It is, I think, impossible to understand what happened on the Western Front in 1917 without bearing always in mind this flow of, basically, perfect correct information about what was happening inside Germany, and to the German Army in the field.
The Allies themselves had problems: manpower problems affecting their armies severely, and war-weariness at home— especially in France, which was understandable indeed. Even before Nivelle's offensive started, French total casualties were getting on for three million, and Britain's about one and a quarter million. But now, of course, the Allies had something else on their side: America had declared war on Germany on 6 April. There wasn't any doubt that this was going to be helpful—but nobody quite knew when.
So this was the dilemma the Allies faced as May came in (and at last the bitter winter relaxed its grip): they had virtually lost an important ally—Russia—and their own offensives were not doing well; powerful voices were raised arguing that the best thing to do was to break off the action, wait for the Americans to come in, and then start again. But their military intelligence also knew that the Germans were in serious trouble; if the Allies waited, the Germans might soon bring forces over from the crumbling Eastern Front, and they might also overcome their problems at home; British GHQ argued that there should be no relaxation, that the Germans should be hit hard while they were in a bad way; those who knew what the U-boats had achieved in April were even more insistent. And all the signs were that the Americans would be a long time coming. So what this argument came down to was that it was best to try to end the war now, before any more bad things could happen—and there seemed to be a good chance of doing so.
The situation at home in Germany showed no sign of improvement. Food was always the obsessive subject in Germany in 1917, but there were other matters, too. There was a shortage of coal which continued throughout the year—in fact, it got worse. Princess Bliicher remarked in February that coal 'seems suddenly to have disappeared from the face of the German Empire.' What had happened was that the Germans had overexported coal in 1916, and when the awful winter came they had no reserve stocks. The result was exceedingly depressing: industries not directly concerned with war production had to stop all night work and overtime; shops, cafes, hotels and restaurants in Berlin had to reduce fuel consumption to one-third of normal; shop-window lighting practically vanished; Berlin apartments had a 'lights out' at 9 pm; in Munich all public buildings, theatres and cinemas were shut.
The shortage of coal meant electricity cuts so there were no trams. There was an acute petrol shortage—cars and lorries almost disappeared; in Berlin circus elephants were used to pull coal carts from the railway stations. But the railways themselves told the most serious tale of all; John Williams says:
… after some thirty months of total war, the mighty German war machine was beginning slowly but surely to run down.' It was a process, he says, 'that operated in widening circles'—but at the centre of them all was the collapse of the railways: mobilisation had cut into platelaying and other maintenance gangs; deterioration in servicing reduced train speeds; expresses were cut out except on the main routes, and reduced even there; ordinary passenger trains had a speed limit of 20 mph, and freight trains 12 mph; there was a shortage of lubricating grease and of oil which caused deterioration of the rolling stock; upkeep and cleaning was neglected in passenger coaches—soap, towels and often even water were in short supply; but most serious of all was the deterioration of the locomotives, which were down to 40% efficiency due to lack of maintenance; there were increasing accidents and breakdowns; freight volume was reduced to 25 % of normal.
I expect you are getting the picture. Just think of British Rail in its worst post Beeching days, then double it and add a bit more for luck. The Germans were certainly getting the message. Germany and Austria, according to one economic survey in 1917 were living from hand to mouth.' 'Decay and rust', said the writer, 'had got the upper hand.' And all the time there was the blockade, strangling any hope of alleviation from outside. So strikes and agitation continued, becoming more and more political in content: the Ruhr in June, and in July Dusseldorf and Upper Silesia, where half a million tons of coal that could not be spared were lost.
And the Allied Intelligence Service—the British in particular—monitored all this with accuracy; Sir Douglas Haig noted on 2 June: 'Extracts from German correspondence which we have recently captured are the most encouraging I have yet read: hunger, want, sickness, riots, all spreading in the most terrible manner throughout the Fatherland.'
Let me remind you again: the Russian example was still quite fresh in mens' minds. It was less than three months since similar manifestations, on no greater scale, had brought the fall of the Russian Empire, a general internal collapse and what looked increasingly like an inability to go on waging war. If Germany was going the same way, the obvious thing to do was to give her another good hard push.
And that was precisely what the British Army now did.
Five days after Haig wrote down the encouraging signs of possible German collapse, the British Second Army detonated its million pounds of high explosive under the Messines—Wytschaete Ridge and the BEF pulled off its second splendid victory of the year. Hindenburg wrote:
When the fateful June 7th dawned the ground rose from beneath the feet of the defenders, their most vital strong-points collapsed, and through the smoke and falling debris of the mines the English storm troops pressed forward over the last remnants of the German defence. Violent attempts on our part to restore the situation by counterattacks failed under the murderous, hostile artillery dire which from all sides converted the back area of the lost position into a veritable inferno. . . Our losses in men and war material were heavy. It would have been better to have evacuated the ground voluntarily.
And Ludendorff added: 'The 7th June cost us dear, and owing to the success of the enemy attack the drain on our reserves was very heavy.'
There was no mistake about the Battle of Messines; it was a deliberately limited operation and it was a complete success for General Plumer and the Second Army. The majority of British casualties were caused by the victorious infantry crowding on the Ridge to look down on the abandoned German positions below. It prompted the question, what might be done by an unlimited operation. In any case, it was a significant start for the summer offensive in Flanders which was intended to be the main British action of the year.
Brigadier Charteris prepared a paper for Haig, who had now to present his further plans to the Government for approval, and from this paper Haig extracted a summary which he sent to General Robertson, the CIGS. It is an everlasting example of the dangers of incautious phrasing even when dealing with firmly-established facts. Charteris's paper contained a long section on German manpower, which he summed up in one arresting sentence: 'Germany is now within fo u r to six m onths of the total exhaustion of her available man-power, if fighting continues at its present intensity.' In his summary of the whole paper, he changed this slightly: 'Germany is within four to six months of a date at which she will be unable to m aintain the strength o f h er units in the field .' (R oad to P asschendaele p 135: Haig 12 June). That is not quite so strong as the first version, but it drops the proviso: '. . . if fighting continues at its present intensity.' But that reappears again in a weaker form in his final conclusion: '. . . it is a fair deduction that, given a continu ance o f circum stances as th ey stand at p resen t and given a continuance of the effort of the Allies, then Germany may well be forced to conclude a peace on our terms before the end of the year.' (supra pp 132-3).
'Continuation of the effort of the Allies'— that, of course, was the rub. Because now the French Army was going through its period of widespread mutiny, the full extent of which was kept very firmly secret. Haig knew there was trouble, and thought he had been told the full truth, but I do not believe that he really knew the full story until after the war. For once the French were being very tight-lipped.
Russia, in July, attempted one last offensive. If they had done it in April or May, Ludendorff says that Germany would have been in sore straits; but they didn't, and by July no one expected much from them. Their offensive collapsed in a matter of days—all it had done was to hasten another revolution.
And the British, while all this was happening, spent the next seven weeks on laborious preparations for extending their Handers offensive further north—something which could have been pushed forward much earlier if the BEF had not been absorbed in the unnecessary and costly battle of Arras. It was all lamentable—another of the war's great tragedies, because it was precisely during this mid-summer period that Germany passed through her most serious internal crisis of the war until November 1918.
It was during this period that the Dutch and Swedish Socialists were working hard to set up an international conference in Stockholm to discuss means of restoring peace. For all the belligerent governments, the question whether delegates should be permitted to attend such a conference was a very serious one, causing much heartsearching and ill-feeling.
We have to remember—it is all too easy at times to forget—that the largest single party in the Reichstag (the German Parliament) was the Social-Democrats, who came out strongly in favour of the proposed Stockholm conference, and declared their intention to be represented at it. In view of the disturbed state of the country, the Chancellor, von Bethmann Hollweg, decided to give them permission to do so. This was a fateful decision; it finally undermined confidence between the Chancellor and the Army leaders.
Then, in July, came another blow: on 3 July, the Reichstag debated war credits, and the occasion rapidly turned into a vote of confidence in the war itself. The agent of this was not a Social-Democrat, and certainly no extremist of any description: he was Matthias Erzberger, a respected leading member of the rather conservative Centre Party.
Erzberger was convinced that the submarine campaign was failing. It had been trumpeted as the weapon that would bring Britain to her knees 'before the harvest'— that is to say, before August. Here was July, and there was no sign of such a thing and Erzberger was unable to discover any evidence that there ever would be. The only alternative, he decided, was a negotiated peace, and he told the Reichstag so in July. Erzberger, says Ludendorff, made a speech which utterly surprised us, in which he maintained that the submarine war was perfectly hopeless and that it was quite impossible for us to win the war at all. On this the spirit of the Reichstag broke down completely . . . Now it was perfectly clear how far we had sunk. If things continued in this way in Germany, if nothing was done to encourage and strengthen the people, military defeat was indeed inevitable.
At this stage Erzberger, against the principles of a lifetime, teamed up with the Social-Democrats and the more extreme Independent Socialists to draft a resolution which has gone down in history as the 'Reichstag Peace Resolution'. The key section of it said: 'The Reichstag is striving for a peace of understanding, for a durable pacification of peoples. Forced annexation of provinces and political, economic and financial oppression are incompatible with a peace of this kind.' Bethmann Hollweg allowed the resolution to go to the vote, and it was duly passed on 19 July.
He knew this would be an unacceptable situation for the High Command, and offered his resignation; the Kaiser refused to accept it. And that put the fat in the fire. Ludendorff wrote:
After all that had happened I could no longer believe that the Chancellor was the right man to perform the task demanded of him by this war and lead the country out of the depths of its depression to victory. It had become evident to me that, in order to conquer in the field, the General Staff needed the co-operation of the statesmen at home . . . This co-operation we had not obtained; national thought and feeling at home had fallen off. The political leaders lacked creative force; they had no ideal which would take hold of the people and thus develop their powers.
It is usually a pretty bad sign when military chiefs declare that 'the political leaders lacked creative force'. July 1917 was no exception. Hindenburg and Ludendorff decided that Bethmann Hollweg must go. There was no need to stage a military coup—to march soldiers into the Reichstag or the Chancellory, as Cromwell did in 1653, or General Bonaparte did in 1799. All the German military chiefs had to do in 1917 was to hand in their own resignations—which were, I need hardly say, at once refused by the Emperor. Bethmann Hollweg, having no majority to back him, had no option but to hand in his own resignation again, and this time it was accepted.
He was succeeded by a nonentity: a Prussian official named Georg Michaelis, who was, in fact, simply the nominee and mouthpiece of the High Command. So Hindenburg and Ludendorff became not only the commanders of the Army, but effectively the rulers of Germany. That was a black moment, not just for the Germans, but for the peace hopes of the world.
For the next fifteen months Germany became what it had never been: an outright military dictatorship. The Reichstag was powerless; the Emperor was powerless; the Germany of Bismarck was dead. Erzberger summed all these amazing events up in a telling phrase; they amounted, he said, to 'the turning of the first sod for the grave of the old regime.'
This was the peak of Germany's 1917 crisis, and as though to give it extra emphasis on the very day the Reichstag passed its Peace Resolution, the German armed forces displayed symptoms of the disease that had struck the French. Mutiny broke out in certain units of the High Sea Fleet on 19 July.
By comparison with what happened in November 1918, it was a small affair, affecting just a few of the battleships in Wilhelmshaven harbour. The chief causes of the mutiny were bad food and bad officers— the best of the young officers were always volunteering for the U-boats or the destroyers; the big ships saw no action, their days were idle and their morale was correspondingly low. They were a ready prey for anti-war agitators in the dockyards.
This mutiny—which, like the French Army's, was kept a close secret—was soon suppressed, and the ringleaders were arrested. But the frame of mind persisted, and the sailor I quoted earlier, Seaman Stumpf, summed up the state of feeling the Fleet in these words:
High state of excitement caused by a total lack of confidence in the officers. Persistence of the fixed notion that the war is conducted and prolonged solely in the interests of the officers. Manifestations of bitter anger due to the fact that the sailors are starving and suffering while the officers carouse and roll in money . . . I am convinced that an actual revolutionary situation exists in the fleet.
'An actual revolutionary situation': mutiny in the Navy; a 'Peace Resolution' in the Reichstag; strikes in the munition factories and coalfields; military dictatorship. Those were the realities of Germany in July 1917.
And on 31 July the British offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres began.
I am not going to make any attempt at a history of that battle, which is often misleadingly known as 'Passchendaele'. I only want to point out that from the German point of view, this was its background.
And of course, British Intelligence was not aware of all of it by any means: the naval mutiny was a well-kept secret for a long time; the military dictatorship was something that only time would make apparent—it was not openly declared; and the loss of coal production and its effects were also something that would take time to show. What Charteris did keep a sharp eye on all the time was the state of the German Army reserves— the manpower without which it would not be able to keep up its strength in the field. And what seems to me to be so exceedingly sad—another tragedy, in fact is how close to being right he was.
The first day of the battle was disappointing for the British—a good start, spoilt by weather, ground won and then lost again when the Germans counter-attacked in drenching rain; the Royal Flying Corps unable to give the artillery any help—and this, as we know too well, was just the beginning of a rotten month. Haig recorded rain in his diary on eighteen days of August 1917. Conditions became indescribable. As the O fficial H istory said, 'The memory of this August fighting . . . remained the image and symbol of the whole battle. . .'
How did the Germans see it? General von Kuhl, the Chief of Staff of the Army Group facing the British attack said that when the barrage began on 31 July, 'it was if Hell itself had opened.'
Ludendorff said that now 'The fighting on the Western Front became more severe and costly than any the German Army had yet experienced.' The opening day, he said 'Caused us very considerable losses in prisoners and stores, and a heavy expenditure of reserves.'
Reserves; the German reserves became a theme tune. Reserves—and morale.
British Intelligence—that is to say, Charteris—has been much criticized for the way it presented these two vital subjects. There are, you see, three elements in Intelligence work: first, obtaining the information—from a variety of sources; secondly, sifting the information that had been gathered into categories. As far back as February 1915, Haig had told Charteris what he thought these categories should be:
Improbability but reported— he assumed that this was what he was getting, and to a large extent it was—but with a dangerous addition: the third element: thirdly, there was the matter of presenting the information, once it had been gathered and sifted.
Haig's own disposition was always optimistic, and in black times that was an incalculable benefit to the Army and the country. In 1917 he went through some very difficult periods, not because of the German enemy, but because of the hostility of the Prime Minister, Lloyd George and some other members of the Government. This conflict was not always open, but it was always there, and it was discouraging and distracting—two conditions that one does not need when one is conducting a big battle against an enemy like the Germans.
Charteris believed that he had a duty to give the Commander-in-Chief some encouragement whenever he could—and this he did by taking some liberties with the category of 'Possibility'. Here he parted company with another very important Intelligence officer, the Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office, Major-General MacDonogh. MacDonogh is an officer we don't know enough about, but from all the accounts we have of him, he seems to have been a first class Intelligence officer by any standard. He never fell into the trap of 'colouring' the information that he passed on to his superiors and the Operations Department with opinions of his own.
There was now open disagreement between War Office Intelligence and GHQ Intelligence—and from our own position of hindsight, we can see that it was a disagreement not fundamentally about the facts, but about the 'colouring'.
On basic facts, there was broad agreement; so we find the Director of Military Operations at the War Office telling the War Cabinet on 30 August that the Germans had now pulled out thirty one tired divisions from Flanders (with which GHQ would agree), and his comment was that the effect of the fighting on the German reserves 'might be considered, from our point of view, as very satisfactory'. Charteris translated the same facts to Haig as the Germans having only four fresh divisions left! That's what I mean by 'colouring'.
The German leaders, however, were in no doubt about the seriousness of their position. A very well executed secondary operation by the Canadians at Lens in the middle of the month, according to von Kuhl, had wrecked their whole arrangements for the relief of battle-worn divisions on the northern front. The general effect of the month's fighting, he says, was that 'the strength of numerous divisions was being used up', and it was increasingly difficult to replace them.
Ludendorff summed it up:
The costly August battles in Flanders and at Verdun imposed a heavy strain on the western troops. In spite of all the concrete protection they seemed more or less powerless under the enormous weight of the enemy's artillery. At some points they no longer displayed the firmness which I, in common with the local commanders, had hoped for.
The outlines of everything that Charteris was proclaiming are quite clear in the German accounts: weakening of reserves, deterioration of morale. It was a question of degree and interpretation. Already, he had significantly changed his tune on one matter. On 18 August he drew up another paper on German manpower, and this time his prognostication was that 'even the resources of the German Empire cannot stand the strain of the war on the population for more than . . . a maximum of twelve months.' Not 'four to six months', you notice—but twelve months. And of course, he was quite right: it was exactly twelve months later (August 1918) that German manpower ran out, the army in the field began to crack, and the will to win at home evaporated.
Twelve months—not much consolation for those who were trying to win the war in 1917 in the Ypres Salient.
Certainly, one gets no sense of this revised opinion coming across to Haig—but frankly, I don't think it would have made a lot of difference. The bedrock fact was quite clear: the German position was a very serious one. Furthermore, Haig was very concerned to keep the French in the war—in fact, to bring them more actively into the battle; and it was on 20 August that they showed their first sign of doing this, with their successful attack at Verdun that Ludendorff was referring in the passage I quoted a minute or two ago.
He and Haig saw it in much the same light; Ludendorff said that the Verdun attack showed that 'the French Army was once more capable of the offensive.' Haig wanted more efforts like that—he certainly would not be breaking off the battle just as the French seemed to be getting into their stride. However, for the time being, he had to break it off; it just could not be kept up in the appalling condition of the ground, and what he called the 'continual stormy weather'— and in any case, General Plumer, a very methodical officer to whom he now transferred the main role, insisted on due time to prepare for the next stage.
When it came, at the end of September, it was marked by three great successes, including the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October, which the Germans called a "black day.' Ludendorff said this battle 'was extraordinarily severe, and again we only came through it with enormous losses'. 'October', he said, 'was one of the hardest months of the war', haunted by losses and the everincreasing difficulty of replacing them. But then down came the rain again— Germany's best ally. And by then the worst of her crisis was over; the Bolsheviks were in power in Russia, pledged to peace, and the threat from the East disappeared.
With the hindsight that we have, I think we can say that August was the turning-point in Germany's fortunes.
At the front, the Canadian performance at Lens was bad news, and the U-boats had not brought Britain to her knees. The French revival was bad news. On the other hand, the Germans had comprehensively repelled the last Russian offensive, and they could now watch Russia decline into chaos. The Americans were still conspicuous absentees from the Western Front. The German Army, despite its losses, was holding on.
At home, despite the severe disappointment at the failure of the U-boats, there were a few hopeful signs. Some grain came in from defeated Romania—not as much as had been hoped, but enough to get the Germans through until their own harvest.
It was even possible in August to increase the bread ration from 170 to 220 grammes a day. On the other hand, the meat ration had to be reduced again, to 250 grammes a week, and an ill-advised slaughter of milch cows promised trouble in the future. But with Russia now seeking peace, there was at least a chance that there might be a bit more food one day soon.
The industrial agitations which marked the earlier part of the year quietened down; the German people were gritting their teeth and hanging on, like the Army, and as they were to do again under a deluge of bombs in 1943-45. As I said in my book about the Royal Air Force, German morale, in both wars, proved to be one of the very worst targets to attack.
But the end of 1917 was really no brighter for the Germans than its beginning. In Flanders, the great battle had become what Ludendorff called 'the greatest martyrdom of the war.' At home, it was martyrdom of a different kind; one brief picture of it will have to do for all. A German woman wrote:
One of the most terrible of our many sufferings was having to sit in the dark. It became dark at four in the winter. It was not light until eight o'clock. Even the children could not sleep all that time. One had to amuse them as best one could, fretful and pining as they were from under-feeding. And when they had gone to bed we were left shivering with the chill which comes from semistarvation and which no additional clothing seems to alleviate. It is a pitiful picture, sixty million hungry people shivering in the dark.
Germany's position was, quite simply, desperate. All that could save her was peace—and desperate measures would have to be taken to procure it. It was not what you could call a good look out for 1918.