The Game Was Up for the Germans -- but Tommy Atkins Didn't Know

Article excerpt


HUNDRED DAYS: THE END OF THE GREAT WAR by Nick Lloyd (Viking, [pounds sterling]25) WITH booksellers' tables whimpering under the weight of new books on the causes of the First World War, you would be forgiven for thinking that the last thing we need is yet another trudge through the trenches. But Nick Lloyd, a lecturer at King's College London, has had the clever idea of writing about the bit of the war nobody remembers: the end. Far from being a pointless stalemate in the mud, the last hundred days of the conflict saw the Allied armies push their adversaries back from the Paris commuter belt all the way to the German border itself. Few people expected the war to end so quickly, and a generation of Germans -- including the Nazi leaders -- came to believe they must have been stabbed in the back. But Lloyd's brisk and thoroughly engrossing book leaves no doubt that they were beaten fair and square where it really mattered -- on the battlefield.

Lloyd's book opens in July 1918 with the Germans on the River Marne, having staked everything on a desperate all-out drive towards Paris. This mad gamble was the brainchild of their chief commander, Erich von Ludendorff, a short, bullet-headed man so grim and cold that even his wife called him by his surname. At home, the German public saw him as a military genius. But as the summer wore on and his offensive hesitated, stalled and then turned into a gruelling retreat, Ludendorff began to crack. Like Hitler many years later, he shrank into his own fantasies, lashing out at his subordinates whenever reality crept in. In three weeks, as the German effort crumbled, he appointed three different chiefs of staff for the Ninth Army. None of them made the slightest difference.

What Lloyd's book shows is that although few realised it at the time, the game was already up for the Germans. With thousands of fit young Americans flooding into France to relieve their exhausted French and British allies, the balance of the fighting was about to shift. …


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