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Reading, Writing, And History
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
Undertaking to examine “the decisive effect of individual human character on history,” the British writer Correlli Barnett reaches a glum conclusion. In his excellent book, The Swordbearers , he studies four famous leaders of the First World War—Colonel-General Helmuth von Moltke, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, General Philippe Pétain, and General Erich Ludendorff—and his moral seems to be that these men were thrown into crises that were simply too big for them. Their impact on history came largely because of their own inability to measure up to an overwhelming challenge.
It was not altogether their fault. They had to direct the enormous instruments of mass power which modern Europe had developed, and these instruments were all but uncontrollable. Immense technological proficiency was in the hands of a society that was politically and socially obsolescent. These men could not rise above the level of that society, and in the end they destroyed what they were trying to save. Leadership of an extraordinary kind was demanded of them, and unfortunately they were just average leaders.
Moltke, for instance, had to execute the famous Schließen Plan, which was supposed to bring Germany a quick, decisive victory over France. (Whatever else World War I might have done, its effect would certainly have been infinitely different if it had ended in two months.) Moltke was probably the wrong man for the job; far from being the blood-and-iron war lord of Prussian military tradition, he was sensitive, subject to paralysis simply because he saw his innumerable problems in too great detail.
But the job itself was wrong. Once Germany’s magnificently prepared armies went into France, they got beyond the reach of headquarters. Communications broke down, and presently each army was acting on its own. They were fighting a twentieth-century war under the conditions of Napoleon’s day; trained to render implicit obedience to detailed orders from the high command, they got off into a confusing melee where fragmentary’ orders based on imperfect knowledge reached them too late to be of any use. When they moved across Germany these armies went by train, with every detail of supply and transportation elaborately arranged; when they moved across France they went on foot, services of supply collapsed, the soldiers themselves were marched out of their shoes, and in the end they lost the Battle of the Marne from a combination of utter exhaustion and the lack of coherent direction. Moltke was the victim not so much of his own inadequacies as of an impossible situation.
Pétain was another sensitive soldier, who found himself given supreme command in France in 1917 just at the moment when the French Army was beginning to mutiny. Heaven knows it had reason enough for a mutinous state of mind, and Pétain served his country ably by devoting himself simply to keeping the army in existence, saving its manpower, and waiting for the rising tide of Allied power to save the day. The trouble here was that he was confirmed in a defeatist psychology. He kept France from falling out of the war then, but a generation later, called on once again to serve in a time of catastrophe, he could be nothing more than the architect of defeat.
Ludendorff defeated himself, as Mr. Barnett sees it. An expert tactician, he mastered the secret of winning tactical successes, brought the German war machine close to victory in 1918, lost sight of his strategic goals in his obsession with purely tactical achievements, found at last that he had used up the strength that was needed to turn these achievements into final triumph, and then gave way to panic. He had none of Moltke’s or Pétain’s brooding sensitivity, but his toughness was brittle and it broke under strain. Once he realized that Germany’s strength was ebbing and that Allied power was immeasurably increasing, and that his own powerful offensive was not going to bring a quick decision, he threw in his hand. The immediate cause of Germany’s surrender in November, 1918, was not the legendary “stab in the back” inflicted by defeatist elements at home, but the abject collapse of the will of General Ludendorff.
Of the commanders whom Mr. Barnett studies here, the most interesting by all odds is Admiral Jellicoe. Not only was he a much more appealing character than these others; he seems also to have been more intelligent, and his great handicap was the fact that he realized all too well—as few other men did at the time —that the famous British Navy which was his to command was actually (in Mr. Barnett’s expressive phrase) a “flawed cutlass.” It simply was not as good as it was supposed to be, and that knowledge kept Jellicoe from taking advantage of the opportunity that opened to him at Jutland.
The British Navy was the victim of its own imposing tradition. For a century it had not fought, except for minor “police actions” here and there, and Mr. Barnett sums it up with cruel frankness: “The navy was no longer a deadly functional instrument of policy; it was an exclusive yacht club.” It was a spit-andpolish organization, most of whose officers blandly assumed that no other navy was comparable to it, and over the years it had gone badly to seed. To be sure, Sir John Fisher came in as First Sea Lord in 1904 and gave it a merciless shaking-up, and when he left, Winston Churchill arrived and carried the process further, but the time had not been long enough. As one of Fisher’s protégés, Jellicoe knew that most of the defects had not been remedied.
The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War , by Correlli Barnett. William Morrow and Company. 392 pp. $7.50.