The End of the War as They Knew It

Review of With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918, by David Stevenson (Cambridge, M.A.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011)

The year 1917 went badly for the Entente powers ("Allies") on a variety of fronts. Despite the American entry into the war in April, military operations by France, Italy, and Britain failed to break the stalemate. Each nation suffered severe losses, while revolution in Russia brought the Bolsheviks to power, resulting in a ceasefire with the Germans. Observers questioned how the Allies could win the war, and expected conflict into 1919.

Cover of With Our Backs to the Wall Victory and Defeat in 1918 by David Stevenson
Cover of With Our Backs to the Wall Victory and Defeat in 1918 by David Stevenson.

David Stevenson's sixth book on the conflict, With Our Backs to the Wall, seeks to answer the question, "Why did the First World War end at the time and in the manner that it did?"1 An expert in World War I history and professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Stevenson succeeds in writing a nuanced, multinational study of the events in 1918.

Stevenson grounds his study with clear organization and solid research. He draws his evidence from a wealth of archival material from Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Austria, Canada, the Netherlands, and Italy, together with voluminous published material including Stevenson's own three decades of research into the war. Chapters are organized with a prologue to the war from 1914 to 1917, two parts on the military operations of 1918, then nuanced chapters examining the major combatants in technology, logistics, and intelligence, manpower and morale, submarine warfare and maritime shipping, economics and finance, and home front matters of race, class, and gender. Scholars and students of the war will welcome the statistical data about war production, finance, and railroad transportation. A final chapter on the armistice brings all of this information into focus to solidify Stevenson's argument. The writing is clear and flows well. The book could use a stronger introduction and conclusion emphasizing Stevenson's salient points. That minor criticism aside, the author's is largely even-handed and fully developed by his final chapter.

Fighting in 1918 reintroduced mobility to the battle ground. From March to July 1918, German forces went on the offensive and fought five engagements, capturing significant portions of French countryside at the cost of over one million causalities. The Allied armies bent under assaults, but did not break. With German forces exhausted and their offensive strength sapped, the Allies counterattacked from July to November. Within a few months the Allied powers reversed the German gains and overwhelmed the Central powers, thanks to Allied advantages in materiel, leadership, and morale.2

Germany's decision to wager victory on a major offensive originated from the military High Command under the control of Field Marshal Paul Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. By achieving territorial gains Germany could position itself advantageously for a future war that the military chiefs expected.3 Weaknesses in Ludendorff's forces and his own micromanaging, however, undermined the German effort. Stevenson emphasizes Allied improvements in military technology, notably British and French advances in heavy artillery, gunnery, introduction of counter battery fire, and the creeping barrage which devastated German forces. The defeat of the spring offensives of 1918 and the mass arrivals of American troops collectively broke the morale and manpower of the German army.

Stevenson uses Ludendorff as the key agent with which to explain the tipping point for the war's conclusion. He traces Germany's decision to seek a ceasefire on Woodrow Wilson's terms to the fateful day of September 28, 1918 when Ludendorff suffered a nervous breakdown. Four factors bore down upon him: Bulgaria's call for a ceasefire; advances by Allied armies across the Western Front; the lack of German replacements; and recognition of the futility of further sacrifice.4 Economically, Stevenson demonstrates numerically how the German economy could have continued to support fighting into 1919; but the loss of manpower and morale, the utter collapse of Austria-Hungary, together with internal revolution at the upper echelons of government presented a ceasefire as Germany's best course of action.5

A second questions remains, however: why did the Allies choose to halt instead of marching into Germany? Stevenson approaches this matter by examining the economic, political, and military circumstances of the United States, Britain, France, and Italy. Each nation's leadership eyed the others with suspicion. Wilson considered the British and French as imperialists; and by October, he began to negotiate a political peace with the Germans following acceptance of his Fourteen Points. Stevenson singles out Wilson's contribution to peace, noting "without Wilson's personal role...the fighting [would not] have ended when and in the circumstances that it did."6

The military terms of the ceasefire, in a case of compromise, would be brokered by the French and British military leadership. Ending the war in 1918 served Wilson in two ways: financially it freed him from the risk of incurring greater debts, and domestically with the midterm elections he could staunch the Republican Party's call for wider war. The British and French collectively feared American domination of the fighting in 1919 via their manpower advantage. French forces faced shortages of manpower and morale, while their rail network teetered on the edge of collapse. British land forces were exhausted and shrinking in numbers after years of heavy fighting. Italy's main adversary, Austria-Hungary, collapsed in the fall of 1918; and without British or French support, Italy lacked the materiel means to sustain further combat. Thus, the decision to end in 1918 resulted from the major combatants all attempting to achieve the acme of political advantage through a cessation of hostilities.

As a study of 1918, With Our Backs to the Wall is a solid piece of scholarship from one of the foremost contemporary historians of World War I. Neutral in his assessment of all belligerents, Stevenson's tome is a refreshing study of the Great War's conclusion. Sadly, in a twist of fate, Ludendorff's predictions in the spring of 1918 would come to pass. A successor war would be fought, unleashing savagery and destruction which arguably exceeded the great tragedy concluded only twenty years prior.

1 David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (Cambridge, M.A.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), xvi.
2 Ibid., 169.
3 Ibid., 33-34.
4 Ibid., 511-13.
5 Ibid., 418-19.
6 Ibid., 499.