Out of the Trenches

02.25.14

How the War Ended: WWI’s Last Hundred Days

With the anniversary of the First World War’s contentious start approaching, dozens of books have already come out, but one new history bucks the trend to focus on the final days of the War. And it’s a brilliantly enlightening approach to war and men’s lives writes Ian Klaus.

If you add Nick Lloyd’s Hundred Days: The Campaign that Ended World War I  to the six Great War-related books recently reviewed by R.J.W. Evans in The New York Review of Books, you end up with a page count of just slightly under four thousand. 

Six months before the centenary of the war’s beginning in August 1914, we are already in the midst of an extended World War I book season with substantial works by Christopher Clark, Margaret Macmillan, and Max Hastings, among others.  Clark’s has quickly joined the pantheon of classic books on the Great War, stretching back to Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August and, more recently, the first volume of Hew Strachan’s The First World War.  Clark, as many reviewers have noted, has provided a WWI history for our time, replete with acts of terror and non-state actors. 

With Hundred Days, Nick Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Defense Studies at King’s College London, has skipped the queue and gone right to the war’s conclusion. The “Hundred Days” is the British term of reference to the period between the Second Battle of Amiens on August 8, and the armistice on November 11. After years of bloody and costly stalemate, and having weathered the German Spring Offensive, the Allies threw a remarkable force of men, machines, and ammunition at increasingly weakened German forces in the summer of 1918.

A quote from a Canadian private about the light from the battle: “You could have read a newspaper whichever way you looked.”

At first glance, Lloyd’s entry into the mix seems unlikely to make the cut for many readers. Lloyd does not offer any groundbreaking revelations or controversial reevaluations as did Fritz Fischer in his much disputed Germany’s Aims in the First World War or Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War. To the contrary, with its set piece treatment of battles and tactics it harkens, at least at first glance, to the traditional military history that has been in retreat for years. In an attempt to carve out his space, Lloyd suggests that the war’s conclusion has been understudied, but that only seems in comparison to some of the most analyzed events and battles in history. 

Lloyd states at the outset that part of his endeavor is to examine the contribution of the tactical “learning curve” of the Allies to this endeavor. The Battle of Amiens, for instance, saw Allied troops drive six to eight miles behind enemy lines and inflict 45,000 casualties on the Germans. It featured an array of new tactics including new methods for utilizing and targeting artillery, as well as deploying tanks and aircraft. 

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Hundred Days: The Campaign that Ended World War I By Nick Lloyd 400 pages. Basic Books. $29.99. ()

But to focus on the big question of adoption and application of military tactics that Lloyd sets out for himself would be to miss the simple brilliance of Hundred Days.   Lloyd describes the strategic implications of “creeping barrage”—a new approach to artillery deployed at Amiens and in fact developed by the Germans that involved a moving wall of artillery fire in advance of infantry—but he also adds a quote from a Canadian private about the light from the battle: “You could have read a newspaper whichever way you looked.” Hundred Days does not draw its force—slow building, moral and historical—from such expertise, but rather from the author’s ability to combine an exploration of strategies and tactics with an illustration of how they were experienced by the brave and tired soldiers far removed from decision making. 

Noting the remarkable Allied superiority in technology, including tanks, for example, Lloyd also provides the reader a sense of what exactly it meant to be inside those new-fangled steel machines: “Most of the crews were suffering from minor ailments: cuts and grazes from bullet ‘splash’; burns from the engines and exhausts; and confusion and exhaustion brought on by carbon monoxide poisoning and petrol fumes.” And those were the fortunate. “Certain sections of the battlefield,” he adds, “were littered with the ghastly remains of burnt-out tanks and incinerated crews.”  In the form of diaries and other first hand-reporting, Lloyd does this seamlessly, linking the historical forces that decided with the war with the individual experiences of those who fought it.

Like many, Lloyd notes that the American entry into the war in 1917 effectively sealed Germany’s fate, but he spends more time detailing how American officers adapted to a war of gas, grenades, machine guns and tanks. The Germans used gas in concentrated areas, and then after a pause, would often launch a second gas attack.  This was not without effect, as described in the efforts of an American battalion gas officer to keep young American troops from shedding their masks to vomit after the first round. Nor does he limit this device to Allied troops. The harrowing experiences of Germans soldiers as they face unprecedented levels of British, American, and Canadian shelling are given deep treatment.  

The assault of the 5th Australian Brigade on Mont Saint-Quentin began at 5 A.M. on August 31.  The early hour is noted as a small part of Lloyd’s larger explanation of the tactics that helped end the war.  The brigade’s rum “fortunately” arrived at 3 A.M.  This detail doesn’t help the reader understand the war’s end, but it is to know just a little more of what the war was like for men living and dying in it.

In spring 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece on U.S. soldiers fighting in Baghdad.  The article included a photo of U.S. soldiers sleeping in the Abu Jafar al-Mansour Sports Club, one of more than a hundred outposts established in dangerous Baghdad neighborhoods as part of the surge.  The soldiers sleep on the floor in their full fatigues, boots laced up.  “A year from now, five years from now, when they write the history book , there are going to be two things: the fall of Baghdad and the surge,” one of the soldiers observed, "Win or lose, it's going to be an important piece of history." 

In Hundred Days, Lloyd has provided an accessible overview of how strategic and tactical shifts—like the surge in Iraq and the associated urban outposts—can help alter the course of a war and indeed end it.  But much more importantly—and like the photo of the soldiers in the Baghdad gym—he explores how those strategic and tactical shifts affected the lives of soldiers.  As history progresses, it is their lives and experiences that are often most at risk of fading.  There are no living veterans of the Great War, making it all the more essential that not only the tactics, tools, and economy of war, but also the soldiers themselves, remain the important pieces of history.  At its best, Hundred Days does just this.