- Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918
For more than four years, millions of European lived and died in a narrow zone running from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The experience of the Western Front, in all its brutality, casts a long shadow across the twentieth century. In this ambitious and compelling monograph, Alexander Watson proposes to explain how the personnel of two enemy armies, the British and the German, coped with the stresses of combat. In the end, one of those armies buckled and collapsed under the strain. Watson, in seeking to understand this result, reminds us that such an ending was not foreordained.
At the heart of his study is an effort to study soldier behavior from a “psychological rather than sociological or military institutional” perspective (p. 5). Watson is interested in survival strategies, gleaned from experience in the particular conditions of the Western Front. His summary of the scholarly literature on First World War combat and his description of conditions at the front are masterful and lucid. Anyone seeking a brief guide to the state of the field could do little better than read the first two chapters of this book.
Watson concludes that “resilience,” for him the key factor in explaining battlefield performance, grew from soldiers’ perceived ability to assess personal risk. If they believed, however irrationally, that they could control their own fate at the front, they could go on fighting. Watson stresses the bonds between common soldiers and junior officers, who played a key role in maintaining resilience on and behind the front lines. He describes these relationships with considerable nuance, taking into account the different social dynamics of the two armies and the changes brought about by national mobilization and long lists of casualties.
To make his case, Watson deploys a remarkable and impressive range of archival sources, from letters home to tentative contemporary attempts to study battlefield behavior. He concludes that British and German soldiers had a similar set of motivations and coping strategies, but the growing material superiority of the Allies diminished German resilience while weakening the bonds between troops and their officers. The Germans stayed in the war in large part because of their operational superiority, but this asset became progressively less compelling as deprivation and a seemingly unending stalemate weakened German resolve.
It is here that Watson makes his boldest and most revisionist arguments and that he comes in for the most criticism. To begin with, the book is unbalanced, in large part because it is easier to find reasons why something happened–the collapse of the German army in 1918, than why something did not happen–the comparative durability of British resilience at the front. Ultimately, this book tries to explain what took place in the German Army between March and November 1918. [End Page 1357]
Watson targets Wilhelm Deist’s argument that the German collapse was a “covert strike,” claiming instead that it was an “ordered surrender” during which German officers led their men into Allied hands. This may have been true in some cases, but Watson’s own evidence raises as many questions as he answers. This is unabashedly a book about the Western Front, making the case that coping strategies evolved to fit the unique context of fighting in France and Belgium. However, nearly a quarter of the German divisions involved in the Spring 1918 offensives recently came from combat in the East, a front on which the conditions of warfare and the material balance were very different. These include the 241st Division, which Watson uses as an example. Surely, there was a learning process for such units, but we need to know more about how they became habituated to conditions in the West, and subsequently joined in the broader German collapse, than the rather cursory explanation of “war weariness and the feeling that they...