- The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War
Zabecki has produced what will likely prove to be the definitive account of the German 1918 "Peace Offensives." Zabecki demonstrates why Germany lost both world wars: the German military proved spectacularly innovative and adaptable at the tactical level, but incapable of connecting the tactical with the larger operational and strategic levels of war. Ludendorff was strategically and politically myopic, Zabecki argues. His offensives were devoid of concrete military-political objectives which could have advanced [End Page 1263] Germany toward victory. Ludendorff's grand "operational" scheme was to launch a tactical offensive in depth and hope that a good opportunity he could exploit would develop. Ludendorff's strategic goal of absolute military victory was equally flawed. The end result was predictable: despite the greatest territorial gains since the opening months of the war, the "Peace Offensives" left the German Army in an operationally inferior position and further away from strategic victory. The army had expended its remaining strength in overly ambitious offensives that were pressed well beyond any prospect of success and left it defending a dramatically extended front. Most seriously, the German commanders failed to identify the Allied center of gravity—which Zabecki demonstrates was the BEF. But Zabecki goes beyond simply dissecting German failures. Instead he argues that the critical Allied vulnerability was the logistical rail net upon which the BEF depended. This had two strategically vulnerable choke points—Amiens and Hasbrouck. Had the Germans focused on capturing these communications centers, it would have entailed "dire consequences for the British Army on the continent" (p. 317).
Zabecki's study emphasizes two larger themes that are pertinent today. The first is that the Germans won most of the battles during the spring 1918 offensives but lost the war. How and why this occurred is an instructive lesson that has contemporary relevance. The second is his emphasis on the fundamental continuities in German operational art and strategic decision-making between 1914 and 1945. Zabecki argues that operational thinking in the German Army between 1919 and 1945 did not fundamentally advance but remained essentially "tactics writ large" (p. 324). In the latter stages of World War II the Germans attempted the same kind of flawed operational solutions to strategic problems that had caused Germany's defeat in the Great War. Here, Zabecki parallels the failed 1944 Ardennes offensive with the peace offensives of 1918. Both operations were opportunistic tactical breakthroughs devoid of operational dimensions. In sum, Zabecki implies that tactical-technological innovation and adaptation can not overcome defects in the conduct of war at the operational and strategic levels. Undoubtedly one the very best books on the Great War to have emerged in recent years—and a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of modern warfare and how militaries can win battle after battle but still lose a war.