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Review of the Whole War as One Great and Continuous Engagement—British March to the Rhine

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Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig's final dispatch regarding the operations of the British armies in France is dated March 21, 1919, and was made public in London on April 11. It is divided into three parts. The first deals with the armistice and the march of the British to the Rhine. The second is a masterly review of the whole war as a single campaign. In the third, Sir Douglas Haig singles out certain of his officers for honorable mention. The first and last sections are reproduced below in somewhat condensed form, but the main section, containing the British commander's survey of the whole war, is presented in the full official text.



AT 11 o'clock on Nov. 11, 1919, at which hour and date the armistice t granted to Germany by the Allies took effect, the British front extended over a distance of about sixty miles from the neighborhood of Montbliart, east of Avesnes, to just north of Grammont. This front from south to north was held by troops of the Fourth, Third, First, Fifth, and Second British Armies, all of whom were in hot pursuit of the enemy at the moment when the armistice came into operation.

Troops were at once directed not to advance east of the line reached by them at the time when hostilities ceased, and certain parties of Germans taken prisoner after that hour were returned to the enemy.

The zone allotted to the British armies extended from the front then held by us in an easterly direction as far as the German frontier, whence it continued in a northeasterly direction to the Cologne bridgehead. To permit the enemy to withdraw his troops from the area immediately in front of us, our positions were maintained unchanged until the morning of the 17th of November. Thereafter, to avoid all possibility of collision between the opposing forces, the movement of troops toward the frontier was regulated so as to preserve a safety zone

of ten kilometers in depth between our advanced detachments and the enemy's rearguards.

As we progressed eastward, the front held by the British armies, already short, would automatically be decreased. On the other hand, the maintenance of supply across and beyond the battle areas presented difficulties which would grow rapidly as our communications lengthened. These two considerations made it both feasible and necessary to effect a redistribution of troops, so that the extent of the forces advancing into Germany should be no more than was absolutely necessary to meet military requirements.

I decided that the opening stages of our advance should be carried out by the Second and Fourth Annies, under command of the two senior army commanders, General Plumer and General Rawlinson, and that each army should consist of four corps each of four divisions. To insure rapidity of movement and to facilitate supply, the artillery and auxiliary arms and services accompanying these armies were cut down to a minimum, and all surplus units then attached to them were transferred to the First, Third, and Fifth Armies. Arrangements were made for reorganizing these lastmentioned armies and for withdrawing them to areas further west.

At midnight on the 17th of November le 2d Cavalry Division covering the t-ont of the Fourth Army and the 1st nd 3d Cavalry Divisions covering the ront of the Second Army crossed the ine reached on the 11th of November and ommenced the march to the German 'rontier. The leading infantry divisions noved forward on the following day.

The advance was carried out under active service conditions, cavalry leading and all military precautions being taken. Among all arms, the general bearing, smartness, and march discipline of the troops were of a high order, reflecting

credit on the army and the nation. All traces of the desperate fighting and forced marches of the previous months had been removed, and men, horses, guns, and vehicles appeared as though turned out for parade. Throughout the advance, despite long distances covered under difficult conditions, indifferent billets, and the absence of the usual opportunities for bathing or renewing clothes, the same general standard of excellence was maintained In a remarkable degree.


In every town and village streets were festooned with flags and spanned by triumphal arches bearing messages of welcome. Men, women, and children thronged to meet our troops and exchange greetings in French and English. Nor was their gratitude confined to demonstrations such as these. Wherever our men were billeted during their advance everything possible was done for their comfort. In many cases refreshment was pressed upon them without payment, f.nd on all sides, despite the shortage of food from which the occupied districts of Belgium had long suffered, the generosity of the civil population found means to supplement the rations of our troops. During this period large numbers of released prisoners of war, French and British, came through our lines and were passed back to collecting stations. The enemy seems to have liberated the majority of the allied prisoners west of the Rhine without making any provision for their feeding and conveyance. The result was that much unnecessary suffering was caused to these unfortunate individuals, while a not inconsiderable additional burden was placed upon our own transport and supplies.

At the time of the armistice railheads were nn the general line Be Cateau, Valenciennes, Lille, Courtrai, and for many miles In front of them bridges had been broken and track torn up or destroyed by mines. Even after the cessation of hostilities delay action mines, which the enemy had laid in the course of his retreat without preserving ex

act record of their location, went up from time to time, causing serious interruption to traffic. The clearing of these mines was a work of considerable risk, and the fact that comparatively so few mines exploded after trains had begun to run is entirely due to the great courage and skill with which officers, noncommissioned officers, and men of the tunneling companies performed the difficult and dangerous task of detecting them and rendering them harmless.

Until roads and railways could be got through to the areas which the enemy had not damaged the progress of our troops was necessarily limited by our ability to supply them.

Succoring Civilians

[Sir Douglas Haig notes that the difficulties of transport were Increased by the necessity of giving succor to the liberated civilian population.]

Tn this connection it is not out of place to refer to the work done by the British Army in providing food and medical attendance for a civil population which in France alone amounted to nearly 800,000 persons. In France it entailed the supply and distribution of more than 5,000,000 rations during a period exceeding six weeks, until the French were able to complete their arrangements for relieving us of the task. The service we were able to render in the name of humanity has been most generously acknowledged by the French authorities.

The fulfillment of our program under such conditions would have been Impossible without the exercise of great patience and wholehearted co-operation on the part of the troops under -ery trying conditions.

It will readily be understood that had our advance been conducted against active opposition even from a beaten and demoralized enemy, our progress must have been greatly delayed. Immense loss would have been caused to property of all descriptions and incalculable suffering inflicted upon the inhabitants of the invaded districts of Belgium, France, and Luxemburg.

On the morning of Dec. 1, a date forever memorable as witnessing the consummation of the hopes and efforts of four and onehalf years of heoric fighting, the 1st Cavalry Division crossed the frontier between Belgium and Germany. On the same day the 2d and 1st Canadian Divisions of the Canadian Corps and the 20th and 9th Divisions of the 2d Corps resumed their march toward the frontier. On this date, however, the supply situation became critical, trains due on Nov. 30 failing to arrive until the night of Dec. 1-2. In consequence, for two days the army remained practically stationary, and it was not until Dec. 4 that progress was resumed.

Before Christmas Day the troops of the Second Army had reached their final areas In the occupied territories of Germany.



In this, my final dispatch, I think it desirable to comment briefly upon certain general features which concern the whole series of operations carried out under my command. I am urged thereto by the conviction that neither the course of the war itself nor the military lessons to be drawn therefrom can properly be comprehended, unless the long succession of battles commenced on the Somme in 1916 and ended in November of last year on the Sambre are viewed as forming part of one great and continuous engagement.

To direct attention to any single phase of that stupendous and incessant struggle and seek in it the explanation of our success, to the exclusion or neglect of other phases possibly less striking in their immediate or obvious consequences, is, in my opinion, to risk the formation of unsound doctrines regarding the character and requirements of modern war.

If the operations of the last four and a half years are regarded as a single continuous campaign, there can be recognized in them the same general features and the same necessary stages which, between forces of approximately equal strength, have marked all the conclusive battles of history. There is in the first instance the preliminary stage of the campaign, in which the opposing forces seek to deploy and manoeuvre for position, endeavoring while doing so to gain some early advantage which might be pushed home to quick decision. This phase came to an end in the present war with the creation of continuous trench lines from the Swiss frontier to the sea.

Battle having been joined, there follows the period of real struggle, in which the main forces of the two belligerent armies are pitted against each other in close and costly combat. Each commander seeks to wear down the power of resistance of his opponent and to pin him to his position, while preserving or accumulating in his own hands a powerful reserve force with which he can manoeuvre, and, when signs of the enemy becoming morally and physically weakened are observed, deliver the decisive at

tack. The greatest possible pressure against the enemy's whole front must be maintained, especially when the crisis of the battle approaches. Then every man, horse, and gun is required to co-operate, so as to complete the enemy's overthrow and exploit success.

In the stage of the wearing-out struggle losses will necessarily be heavy on both sides, for in it the price of victory is paid. If the opposing forces are approximately equal in numbers, in courage, in morale, and in equipment there is no way of avoiding payment of the price or of eliminating this phase of the struggle.

In former battles this stage of the conflict has rarely lasted more than a few days, and has often been completed in a few hours. When armies of millions are engaged, with the resources of great empires behind them, it will inevitably be long. It will include violent crises of fighting, which, when viewed separately and apart from the general perspective, will appear individually as great indecisive battles. To this stage belong the great engagements of 1916 and 1917, which wore down the strength of the German armies.

Finally, whether from the superior fighting ability and leadership of one of the belligerents as the result of greater resources or tenacity or by reason of higher morale, or from a combination of all these causes, the time will come when the other side will begin to weaken and the climax of the battle is reached. Then the commander of the weaker side must choose whether he will break off the engagement, if he can, while there is yet time, or stake on a supreme effort what reserves remain to him. The launching and destruction of Napoleon's last reserves at Waterloo was a matter of minutes. In this world war the peat sortie of the beleaguered German armies, commenced m the 21st of March, 1018, lasted four months, yet it represents a corresponding stage in a single colossal battle.

The breaking down of such a supreme effort will be the signal for the commander of the successful side to develop his greatest strength, and seek to turn to immediate account the loss in material and morale, which their failure must inevitably produce among his opponent's troops. In a battle joined and decided in the course of a few days or hours there Is no risk that the lay observer will seek to distinguish the culminating operations by which victory Is seized and exploited from the preceding stages by which it has been made possible and determined. If the whole operations of the present war are regarded In correct perspective the victories of the Summer and Autumn of 1918 will be seen to be as directly dependent upon the two years of stubborn fighting that preceded them.


If the causes which determined the length of the recent contest are examined in the light of the accepted principles of war, it will be seen that the duration of the struggle was governed by and bore a direct relation to certain definite factors which are enumerated below.

In the first place, we were unprepared for war, or at any rate for a war of such magnitude. We were deficient in both trained men and military material, and, what was more important, had no machinery ready by which either men or material could be produced in anything approaching the requisite quantities. The consequences were two-fold. First, the necessary machinery had to be improvised hurriedly, and improvisation Is never economical and seldom satisfactory. In this case the high-water mark of our fighting strength In infantry was only reached after two and a half years of conflict, by which time heavy casualties had already been Incurred. In consequence, the full man power of the empire was never developed in the field at any perior of the war.

As regards material, it was not until midsummer, 1910, that the artillery situation became e%'en approximately adequate to the conduct of major operations. Throughout the Somme battle the expenditure of artillery ammunition had to be watched with the greatest care. During the battles of 1917 ammunition was plentiful, but the gun situation was a source of constant anxiety. Only in 1018 was it possible to conduct artillery operations Independently of any limiting consideration other than that of transport.

The second consequence of our unpreparedness was that our armies were unable to Intervene, either at the outset of the war or until nearly two years had elapsed, in sufficient strength adequately to assist our allies. The enemy was able to gain a notable initial advantage by establishing himself in Belgium and Northern France, and throughout the early stages of the war was free to concentrate an undue proportion of his effectives against France and Russia. The excessive burden thrown upon the gallant army of France during this period caused them losses, the effect of which has been felt all through the war and directly influenced its length. Just as at no time were we as an empire able to put our own full strength Into the field, so at no time

were the Allies as a whole able completely to develop and obtain the full effect from their greatly superior man power. What might have been the effect of British intervention on a larger scale in the earlier stages of the war is shown by what was actually achieved by our original Expeditionary Force.


It is interesting to note that in previous campaigns the side which has been fully prepared for war has almost invariably gained a rapid and complete success over Its less well prepared opponent. In ISfifi and 1870, Austria, and then France, were overwhelmed at the outset by means of superior preparation. The Initial advantages derived therefrom were followed up by such vigorous and ruthless action, regardless of loss, that there was no time to recover from the first stunning blows. The German plan of campaign in the present war was undoubtedly based on similar principles. The margin by which the German onrush In 1914 was stemmed was so narrow and the subsequent struggle so severe that the word "miraculous" Is hardly too strong a term to describe the recovery and ultimate victory of the Allies.

A further cause adversely influencing the duration of the war on the Western front during its later stages, and one following indirectly from that Just stated, was the situation in other theatres. The military strength of Russia broke down in 1917 at a critical period, when, had she been able to carry out her military engagements, the war might have been shortened by a year. At a later date, the military situation in Italy In the Autumn of 1017 necessitated the transfer of five British divisions from France to Italy, at a time when their presence in France might have had far-reaching effects.

Thirdly, the Allies were handicapped in their task and the war thereby lengthened by the inherent difficulties always associated with the combined action of armies of separate nationalities, differing in speech and temperament and, not least important. In military organization, equipment and supply.

Finally, as indicated in the opening paragraph of this part of my dispatch, the huge numbers of men engaged on either side, whereby a continuous battlefront was rapidly established from Switzerland to the sea, outflanking was made impossible and manoeuvre very difficult, necessitated thedelivery of frontal attacks. This factor, combined with the strength of the defensive under modern conditions, rendered a protracted wcaring-out battle unavoidable before the enemy's power of resistance could be overcome. So long as the opposing forces are at the outset approximately equal in numbers and morale and there are no flanks to turn, a long struggle for supremacy Is inevitable.


Obviously, the greater the length of a war the higher is likely to be the number of casualties incurred in it on either side. The same causes, therefore, which served to protract the recent struggle are largely responsible for the extent of our casualties. There can be no question that to our general unpreparedness must be attributed the loss of many thousands of brave men whose sacrifice we deeply deplore, while we regard their splendid gallantry and self-devotion with unstinted admiration and gratitude.

Given, however, the military situation existing in August, 1914, our total losses in the war have been no larger than were to be expected. Neither do they compare unfavorably with those of any other of the belligerent nations, so far as figures are available from which comparison can be made. The total British casualties in all theatres of war, killed, wounded, missing and prisoners, including native troops, are approximately three millions, (3,076,388.) Of this total some two and a half millions (2,588.834) were incurred on the Western front. The total French losses, killed, missing, and prisoners, but exclusive of wounded, have been given officially as approximately 1,831,000. If an estimate for wounded is added, the total can scarcely be less than 4,800,000, and of this total it is fair to assume that over four millions were incurred on the Western *-ont. The published figures for Italy, killed and wounded only, exclusive of prisoners, amount to 1,400,000, of which practically the whole were incurred in the western theatre' of war.

Figures have also been published for Germany and Austria. The total German casualties, killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, are given at approximately six and a half millions, (6,485,000.) of which the vastly greater proportion must have been incurred on the Western front, where the bulk of the German forces were concentrated and the hardest fighting took place. In view of the fact, however, that the number of German prisoners is definitely known to be considerably understated, these figures must be accepted with reserve. The losses of AustriaHungary in killed, missing, and prisoners are given as approximately two and three-quarter millions, (2,772,000.) An estimate of wounded would give a total of over four and a half millions.


The extent of our casualties, like the duration of the war, was dependent on certain definite factors which can be stated shortly.

In the first place, the military situation compelled us, particularly during the first portion of the war, to make great efforts before we had developed our full strength in the field or properly equipped and trained our armies. These efforts were wasteful of men, but in the circumstances they could not be avoided. The only alternative was to

do nothing and see our French allies overwhelmed by the enemy's superior numbers.

During the second half of the war and that part embracing the critical and costly period of the wearing-out battle, the losses previously suffered by our allies laid upon the British armies in France an increasing share in the burden of attack. From the opening of the Somme battle in 1916 to the termination of hostilities the British armies were subjected to a strain of the utmost severity, which never ceased, and consequently had little or no opportunity for the rest and training they so greatly needed.

In addition to these particular considerations, certain general factors peculiar to modern war made for the inflation of losses. The great strength of modern field defenses and the power and precision of modern weapons, the multiplication of machine guns, trench mortars and artillery of all natures, the employment of gas and the rapid development of the airplane as a formidable agent of destruction against both men and material, all combined to increase the price to be paid for victory.

If only for these reasons no comparisons can aisefully be made between the relative losses incurred in this war and any previous war. There is, however, the further consideration that the issues involved in this stupendous struggle were far greater than those concerned In any other war in recent history. Our existence as an empire, and civilization itself, as it is understood by the free Western nations, were at stake. Men fought as they have never fought before in masses.

Despite our own particular handicaps and the foregoing general considerations, it i3 satisfactory to note that, as the result of the courage and determination of our troops, and the high level of leadership generally maintained, our losses even in attack over the whole period of the battle compare favorably with those inflicted on our opponents. . The approximate total of our battle casualties in all arms, and including overseas troops, from the commencement of the Somme battle in 1916 to the conclusion of the armistice, is 2,110,000. The calculation of German losses is obviously a matter of great difficulty. It is estimated, however, that the number of casualties inflicted on the enemy by British troops during the above period exceeds two and a half millions. It is of interest, moreover, in the light of the paragraph next following, that more than half the total casualties incurred by us in the fighting of 1918 were occasioned during the five months, March-July, when our armies were on the defensive.


Closely connected with the question of casualties is that of the relative values of attack and defense. It is a view often expressed that the attack is more expensi%*e

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