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1918 - A Forgotten Victory
on 20 July 2008
There is a perverse aspect to the British character that, whilst firmly believing everything British to be the best, at the same time positively revels in its failures. The ultimate example of this trait is the even more bizarre ability to turn what was the greatest achievement in British military history, the victories over the German army in 1918, into some kind of defeat. For too many, including very many historians, the history of the Great War seems to stop in March/April 1918 amidst much reverent expressions of admiration for German stormtroop tactics, clearly so superior to anything the staid old British could come up with (sic). The truth, though, is that the old fashioned stick-in-the-mud British did actually develop the all arms battle that so eluded the Germans - until 1940 anyway - and this is made brilliantly clear in Peter Hart's latest book.
Peter Hart once again displays his skill at telling the story from all angles, from the higher levels of command to the private soldier. The perspective gained by this approach helps explain what happened and why but, all importantly, what this meant for those quite literally in the firing line. And this is where, I feel, Peter Hart's work is unmatched by any other historian of the period writing today (and there are some very, very good ones too!).
What comes across time and again is how this book is rooted in a deep respect for those who went through experiences that most of us, fortunately, will never have to. That respect does not wallow in tales of 'mud, blood and endless poetry'; those that get trapped in that particular quagmire do no justice to the men of 1918. These were no passive victims blindly following a bunch of red-faced, stupid generals but first class, professional soldiers who achieved in 1918 what had been learned at such cost by the British army through the Somme, Messines, Third Ypres and Cambrai. But, as anyone reading this book will be left in no doubt about, war is hardly ever glorious, honourable or noble. And lessons learned or no, the cost was never cheap.
Time and again, after elegantly outlining the reasons for tactical and strategic success or failure, Peter Hart brings the reader back to the price paid by the ordinary soldier. You're never allowed to become an arm chair strategist pondering the events of 1918 in the abstract. What took place happened to real people and the author's clear passion to keep their memory fresh shines through each and every page.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It should be read alongside the author's earlier book about the 1918 air war, "Aces Falling", to get an even more complete appreciation of the events of 1918. My own grandfather was a young 1918 recruit who served in the final advance to victory. I can think of no higher tribute to him and his generation than this superb book. Outstanding!