Stumbling Towards Victory
The Final Year of the Great War
Edited by Martyn Lawrence
Royal Armouries, Leeds, United Kingdom, 2018, 128 pages
Book Review published on: December 14, 2018
Martyn Lawrence has edited a wonderful look at the final year of the Great War. It goes beyond traditional works to include some 110 black-and-white images, many never before published, which conveys the horror and reality of that final cataclysmic year. Stumbling Towards Victory goes beyond western front ground battles in examining the final year on the home front, in the air, and at sea.
The book opens with German Field Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg, chief of the German General Staff, determined to launch an all-or-nothing offensive in the west in 1918 to win the war for Germany. British and French forces were facing a dire situation in the final year of the war on the western front. Italian forces experienced a decisive defeat at Caperotto in November 1917, and Germany’s defeat of Russia in 1917 enabled the Germans to concentrate their forces solely on the western front. Growing war weariness had swept across Britain and France in winter of 1917–1918.
German Gen. Erich Ludendorff, victor of the Battles of Liege and Tannenberg, saw an opportunity with Russia out of the war to win in early 1918 before the United States could train a sufficient force to alter the outcome. Germany would launch Operation Michael on 21 March with the intent of separating the French and British armies. Ludendorff envisioned the British forces falling back to defend Channel ports, which sustained the British forces in France, while the French forces protected Paris. The Allies knew the attack was coming but could not agree where it would take place. British newspaper stories of Germany’s new gas weapons and news that German tanks had been seen near the front lines further dampened hopes that the war would be ending soon or on favorable terms for the Allies.
Lawrence describes the ferocity of Operation Michael as the German army advanced forty miles on a fifty-mile front in a week, driving a wedge between British and French forces. The British and French forces were on the edge of defeat when German forces approached exhaustion. The lack of a more coherent strategy in using storm trooper tactics denied mechanized transport support to attacking German forces that had outran their logistical support. Follow on units were deprived of experienced leaders who had been transferred into German units leading the attack. Operation Michael achieved the most spectacular gains in the First World War. German forces captured more territory in four months than the Allies managed in three years and inflicted approximately nine hundred thousand casualties. However, as Lawrence asserts, the ground gained did not justify German loses that could not be readily replaced nor did it prepare the Germany army for the arrival of American forces into the fight.
The Allied counteroffensive began on the Marne in July 1918 as the French Tenth Army that included newly arrived American divisions was successful in gaining six miles while forcing losses of 800 guns and 168,000 men of the Germans. This was quickly followed up by Gen. Henry Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army that had advanced eight miles, captured 400 guns, and taken 32,000 prisoners. Ludendorff described it as “the black day of the German army.” During August 1918, British, French, and American troops captured 150,000 German soldiers, 2,000 guns, and 13,000 machine guns. The German kaiser instructed his foreign secretary on 14 August to open peace negotiations with the Allies. The Allies continued pressure on German forces until the end of the war.
Stumbling Towards Victory captures the role of women in securing Allied victory in the war. Lawrence informs the reader that 3.2 million British women were employed in industry in July 1914; this would rise to 7.3 million by July 1918. Lawrence describes the many challenges faced by women on the home front and in France toward achieving Allied victory. British women found new opportunities in the police force, in munitions factories, and in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Women’s Royal Air Force.
Lawrence’s examination of the air war captures the tremendous development in aircraft technology and production that took place in the war. A typical British aircraft in 1914 had a top speed of 72 miles per hour and could remain airborne for three hours. Four years later, fighter planes could reach 138 miles per hour and remain aloft for eight hours. By November 1918, Britain had 3,300 frontline aircraft and Germany had 2,600, while the Americans had around 750. The role of aircraft evolved from mere curiosities to major weapons of the air.
Stumbling Towards Victory is a quick read and is a sober reminder that Allied victory was far from certain as the war entered its last year. Lawrence masterfully combines many never-before-used photos and stories, along with an exceptionally written narrative that captures the end of the First World War. It is highly recommended for students of the war.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas