In 1914 the outbreak of a general European war was accompanied by great hopes on both sides for the success of their differing strategies. Whilst the Germans looked to the Schlieffen Plan to deliver a swift knock-out blow against France, the French and their British allies hoped to contain their opponents until the Russian steamroller could smash them from the East. In the four terrible years of war that ensued, however, none of this was to come to pass. Far from providing the war-winning steamroller, internal collapse and revolution ensured that it was Russia rather than France which was eventually knocked out of the conflict. However, faced with stalemate on the western front, the British in particular repeatedly sought some kind of eastern strategy which would enable them to confront the Central Powers with the nemesis of war on two fronts. This perhaps reflected their sense of historical experience-then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, occasionally referred regretfully to the absence of papers on the Napoleonic Wars, when the British had last confronted a major continental opponent with war on two fronts. This search for an eastern strategy was indeed, as Brock Millman has recently pointed out in this series, still going on when the Great War was suddenly and unexpectedly won on the western front in the autumn of 1918.
Comparing the experience of 1914-18 with the run-up to and course of the renewed war with Germany unleashed in 1939 points to two ironies. One is that the hoped-for strategic breakthroughs of the First World War, which failed so miserably then, instead succeeded spectacularly in the course of the Second World War. In 1940 the Germans achieved what they could not in 1914, knocking France swiftly out of the war. But five years later the Russian steamroller took Berlin.
The second irony points to the subject of this book. The Russians may, in the end, have played a major part in delivering victory in the Second World War. The British may have spent the final years of the First War looking for an eastern strategy. But in the late 1930s, as war