23 APRIL 1937, Page 23

MARCH, 1918 THE first and uninspiring function of an official

historian is to provide a conveniently arranged warehouse of accurate and complete information for the student's benefit. General Edmonds is a master of lucid arrangement, and the system by which facts have been checked and cross-checked guarantees a high standard of accuracy. But by dint of pithy comment and presentation of events with a nice sense of their relative impor-

tance he transcends his first dull duty and gives to each of the phases into which he has parcelled out the War both unity and dramatic value. The student will read him as a matter of course ; the layman, with the assurance that he will find no single paragraph laboured or overloaded, and a great deal to think about. This and the preceding volume cover a very crucial period, during which the last great German offensives were launched and failed on the brink of apparent success. Incidentally, it is lent a topical interest by the revived controversy about General Gough and the Fifth Army. During this period the German General Staff, in its marshalling of unprecedented masses of men and material for the attack, reached its high-water-mark of efficiency. British staff methods, and especially those of communication, had become ossified into a dangerously inelastic state. Unification of command, a step most obviously neces- sary if efficient co-operation under stress was to be maintained between armies widely differing in organisation and outlook, had been overlong delayed, largely by Mr. Lloyd George's refusal to admit its feasibility. When at last it was taken, the language of General Foch's Directives was foreign and bewil- dering to the harassed British Generals, and the time-lag between unity of command and unity of understanding, which would have been of little moment a few months earlier, added to the difficulty of the situation.

But the dangerous position in which the Allied Armies, and especially the British, found themselves was above all due to an ill-judged dispersal of strength. The German High Com- mand, bent on forcing a decision on the Western front, welcomed " side-shows," regardless of their local results, as definitely handicapping the Allies in the decisive theatre. Mr. Lloyd George, on the other hand, believed in side-shows and considered the Western Front to be over-insured. He was disinclined to trust the Commander-in-Chief there with too many men. Sir Douglas Haig, in spite of his protests, was instructed to accept an extension of the British front and was denied the reinforcements for which he called, and which later events proved to have been available, as well as the creation of a General Reserve by which the danger of weak links in the defensive chain would have been palliated.

The extension was effected by the Fifth Army taking over sectors, previously quiet, of which a French commentator wrote : " The French Third Army had left the line with little evidence of defensive preparations for their successors." Suffi- cient labour for the rapid fortification of its back area was not available. Thus a zone of weakness was created at a point of contact which, when the thunderbolt fell, inevitably tended to become a point of cleavage between the Allied Armies. That the threatened cleavage did not become actual was to a large degree due to the stubborn resistance of the Fifth Army, fragments of which fought on tenaciously " long after General Main, under whose command it came, had given it up for lost."

At a critical stage of the battle Sir Hubert Gough, against the wishes of his Commander-in-Chief, was replaced by Sir Henry Rawlinson. Had the two Generals and their staffs been of lesser calibre, this mid-stream change of horses might have had serious results. Its origin is given by General Edmonds, presumably on good evidence, in an astounding footnote. " On this day (28th March)," he writes, " Sir Henry Wilson told the Deputy C.I.G S that Hubert Gough has got to go because he had lost the confidence of his troops.' " Presumably the best judge of such a fact was the Commander-in-Chief in the field, rather than either the War Cabinet or the C.I.G.S. " As far as can be ascertained the proposal to remove General Gough at this moment was made by Sir H. Wilson, who did not want a strong man like Sir H. Rawlinson as Military Representative at Versailles and was looking about for a post to which he might be transferred."

General Edmonds, summing up in a valuable chapter of " Reflections," describes the lessons of the period as pre- dominantly constitutional and political. One, which he does hot mention, is obvious. In war, politicians inevitably and rightly become militarily-minded. Friction between minds formed in the divergent schools of politics and soldiering must often arise, but it may be creative of useful energy if the poli- tician respects the limits of his knowledge of the military medium and if the interplay of ideas is through channels of perfect goodwill and good faith. There is no room for intrigue or disingenuousness, and there is reason to suspect that both were present during this period. In other words, while the military politician may not be the nuisance soldiers sometimes think him, the political soldier is an unmitigated evil.