THE ALLIED WINTER OFFENSIVE
WHILE the Allied offensive up to the present has not yielded the results that were expected, its achievement is none the less real and important. If the operations in the west appear to turn upon mainly local objectives, it must be recognised that the shape of the eastern campaign is entirely different. It is true that the Russians have not yet encountered any positions comparable to those o: the Siegfried Line ; but they have been exploiting the enemy's enforced economy in an area that has steadily appreciated in value. They are now moving in on Buda Pesth, and, taking the position at its face value, it seems likely that the Hungarian capital may fall very swiftly. This would be a resounding victory ; but its military by-products would be even greater. The routes to Austria are being opened ; and on the Ipel the Russians are nearer than ever before.
They have now only to folow the course of the Danube in their northern advance ; but there are a number of tributaries to cross. Rivers in military history have not a consistently good record as defences ; but, in the present war, canals, rivers and even streams have shown themselves perhaps even more loyal allies than such elaborate works as those of the Siegfried Line. Nevertheless, the Russians have at least broached the northern approach to Austria, and it is a considerable advantage to have more than one string to the bow. It is this very advantage that has enabled the Russians to open up a new front when the East Prussian sector and the Vistula front were stabilised. The Germans have at length come to realise the strength of the Russian threat in the south, and according to report are concentrating fresh forces to deal with it.
The prospect of an advance on Vienna and the assimilation of the Imall British units in Yugo-Slavia and the Allied armies in Italy into a great southern front may be distant ; but it is at least a possibility. What we cannot grasp with any full satisfaction is the measure of the Russian strength in this area. The two marshals and General Petrov have shown by their advance that they dispose of some considerable force, because Buda Pesth is a prize the enemy will not relinquish without a battle ; and this applies with greater force to the gateway into Austria. Yet it cannot be ignored that, on the Russian accounts, the casualties for some three weeks totalled only about 2,000 men per day. During the last few days, however, they have reached a higher figure.
In the end it is the German Army that forms the Russian objec- tive. The estimation of casualties has its relevance to that ; and where many factors may remain in dispute the losses inflicted can bt estimated with some degree of accuracy. The destruction of an army may come through a mortal blow to its organisation. That was how the enemy army in Tunisia was defeated. But this is the one occasion in which the classical example of the destruction of an army has been seen in this war. The other occasion that comes nearest to it is the battle of Normandy, when the enemy was so badly struck that for some time the disorganisation was profound. But even in such battles as that of Stalingrad the hard steady grind- ing that is generally called attrition has to be pursued before victory is complete. Stalingrad was encircled in the third week of November, but the final surrender did not come until the end of January, after a stiff three weeks' battle. The hard pounding phase occurred even in the battle of Alamein ; and when the fracture came Rommel still retained sufficient control of his army to withdraw the bulk of his best German elements.
The appeal to attrition does not, therefore, mean that the general purpose of war is being overlooked ; on the contrary, it is being directly fulfilled. Neither does it imply, as has at times been sug- gested, any deficiency of generalship. The choice of Verdun in 1916 as a sphere for the German offensive was motived by the determina- tion to hold the French to a punishing defensive battle. It was a position which the German Staff thought the French were bound to defend at all costs. Under such circumstances armies either defend under disadvantageous conditions and lose heavily, or they yield the position and open up opportunities for exploitation. It is this
dilemma that the Russians have created by their southern offensive. The Germans must either defend their present positions or abandon Buda Pesth and open the way to an advance upon Vienna. So far, they have been trying to hold the Russians off the Hungarian capital ; but to do so they have had to bring fresh divisions into the area to make up for their losses and to check the advance.
It is an illusion that Germany can suffer these losses as well as the Allies. Even if the Allies suffered equally, being superior numerically, they would be growing relatively stronger at an increas- ing pace. But we must also take into account the compulsion that these losses exercise on the Germans to draw upon such reserves as they possess ; and there is evidence that this process is causing anxiety. The Russian Command is not, of course, at present strik- ing where the nearest approach to Berlin lies ; and the threat to the Austrian gate must divert more troops from that sector. There are, then, great chances in this sector of the front ; and while they mature the German Army is being steadily ground down so that it will be less able to resist on any sector.
The chastening thought that influences many minds at this moment is the expectation that this process was more complete than apparently it is. It is not the case that this was due to over- ambitious expectations of the eastern offensive ; it is in the west that the tendency to exaggerate the success was most evident. But it is here that the process of attrition has gone farthest. Whereas the losses inflicted for most of the last month had only equalled about 2,000 per day in the east, in the west they were nearly 7,000. That is a very great matter. The present German divisions are about 9,000 or io,000 strong ; and the daily loss approaches that of a division per day. It is obvious that to calculate the full effect of this loss we should know the rate of reinforcement. This factor cannot be a matter of accurate calculation ; but we have had reports of Volksturrn units being sent to the front ; and we have learned from liberated France the effect of a powerful air offensive on the communications. Even if the Germans had unlimited reserves they would be of no service if they could not be swiftly sent to any sector under attack.
It can be seen, then, that the offensive on the Western front, in conjunction with the heavy interception raids, is making inroads on the German Army which it cannot afford. But at the same time it is only now that the Allies are entering the main zone of the German defences in the south. The French Army's success in the area of Belfort contributed to the casualties inflicted on the enemy ; but it is notable that, even now, the Nineteenth German Army is keeping open its line of retreat across the Rhine. After suffering a severe setback, the Germans recovered ; and, although they must sooner or later be driven back across the river, the rate of advance has slackened. It is in two distant places in the area of the Seventh and Third American Armies that the situation seems most open. General Patch has passed through Haguenau and is pressing the Germans into the corner where the Siegfried defences turn sharply from the Rhine towards the west. If that corner could be forced there might be a chance of turning both the Rhine and the Siegfried Line. It is, of course, as well recognised by the enemy as by ourselves. What chance there is depends upon the fact that Patton, himself entangled in a forbidding industrial area and fight- ing through the Siegfried Line, is making progress which, though less rapid than we could wish, is greater than the enemy can face with equanimity.
Reinforcements have been sent there ; and here, again, the same factor of reserves begins to take control of the development. The First American Army is through the Hurtgen Forest ; but when we remember that it was first entered three months ago we gather a better idea of the stubbornness of the German defence. The Roer line seems at last to have gone ; but once again the most important factor is the time it has taken to clear the Roer and the Maas. Over the whole of the European theatre of war the developments turn upon the extent of the casualties. At some point the inactive parts of the various fronts will spring to light.
Our judgement upon when the German breakdown may be ex- pected will depend upon the estimate we have formed as to the ratio ef loss to replacement. Already it would seem that the casualties are too great and too steady for any sort of effective replacement. The Germans, who lost a million troops in about five months, cannot afford to continue to lose at a rate of a division a day. But we have now seen with what fierce and effective skill they maintain their position, and, as we look across the ground ahead with its fresh inducements to stand, we have to realise that, short of some mis- judgement on the part of the German Command, the break may still be some distance off. The campaign for Vienna may provide the Command with the opportunity.