Winning the War, Losing the War

Matthias Strohn

Osprey Books, New York, 2018, 304 pages

Book Review published on: August 10, 2018

It is difficult imagining that in the final year of the First World War, the Allies were on the verge of defeat. Germany’s defeat of Russia in 1917 enable the Germans to concentrate their forces solely on the Western Front. The Germany Army’s revised offensive doctrine, The Attack in Position Warfare, released on 1 January 1918, made German forces more lethal through emphasis on infantry-artillery coordination and moving artillery forward to sustain the attack. German Gen. Erich Ludendorff, victor of the Battle of Liege and the Battle of Tannenberg, saw an opportunity to win the war in early 1918 through a single massive decisive battle termed Vernichtungschlacht in German doctrine.

Germany launched Operation Michael on 21 March with the intent of separating the French and British armies and seizing control of English Channel ports, which sustained the British forces in France. Operation Michael achieved the most spectacular gains to that point in the war. Things looked dire for British and French forces on the Western Front.

In 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, Matthias Strohn has edited a multiauthor work containing ten chapters by some of the best historians of the First World War from around the world writing today. These ten chapters expand previous works on the First World War in providing an in-depth examination and analysis of the main armies involved within the changing context of the reality of warfare in 1918. It provides a much broader understanding how events of 1918 significantly changed the world that followed.

The work’s examination is especially illuminating regarding the Imperial German Army. The Imperial German Army was actually four separate armies reflecting Germany’s four kingdoms: Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg. Each of these armies possessed a general staff, but only the Prussian Great General Staff prepared war plans for the combined Imperial German Army. Another peculiarity of the German command system was the concept that position took precedence over rank. Germans routinely appointed officers to command and staff assignments far above the actual rank they held. Once in the position, the officer functioned with full authority of that position regardless to rank of his subordinates. It was not uncommon to have lieutenant colonels serving as corps chiefs of staff and issuing orders unchallenged to general officers commanding divisions.

The author masterfully challenges traditional perception of the German General Staff as masters of operational warfare. He uses Operation Michael to illustrate that the Imperial German Army failed to develop follow-on operations to exploit its success, which might have won the war for Germany in March 1918. Instead, the German General Staff continued seeking a single massive battle to win the war.

Chapter 6, “The Forgotten Fronts in Europe,” and chapter 7, “The War outside of Europe,” remind us of the vastness of the conflict. Events that took place during 1918 in Russia, Italy, and the Balkans set conditions for events that reverberated long after the war’s end. Chapter 10, “Learning from 1918 on the Western Front,” is highly instructive on a number of accounts as four principal armies fighting in Belgium and France learned from their experiences in terms of campaign design, tactical development, and coalition command. Operational maneuver and interdependence are the most notable key lessons, as these armies developed doctrine and equipment in the inner war years.

1918: Winning the War, Losing the War is an authoritative work on the last year of the First World War and a sober reminder that its conclusion was far from certain as the war entered its last year. It is exceptionally written and particularly relevant in this centenary of the end of the First World War. It is highly recommended.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas