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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

High Command in early 1918

Old Tom

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I hope this is the right place for this topic, it was going on 90 years ago.

I happened on a copy of ‘The Maurice Case’ in a charity shop – a good buy at £1! In case I’m not the only one who was not aware of Maurice; he was a Major General, Director of Operations in the War Office under General Robertson the CIGS for much of the war until ‘sacked’ for publicly criticising the government. It has caused me to think about aspects of the direction of the allies’ effort which have been outside my main interest of tactics and equipment. There seem to be a number of different interpretations, in the books I have read, of what went on at the highest levels from December 17 to March 18. May I try to provoke some comment?

My superficial summary of events is as follows:

A major German attack was anticipated, but neither the allied government nor commanders could agree on how to set up a sufficient reserve to counter such an attack. The BEF and to a lesser extent the French were not experienced in defensive operations, although they had the German model as a guide.

The BEF and the French Armies were short of manpower following the 1917 offensives. Both the BEF and the French had reduced the number of infantry units per division. American forces were not yet available in significant numbers.

Governments had set up a committee (Versailles) to direct their war effort, but the CIGS considered this unworkable as it bypassed the War Office. Both he and Maurice left the War Office, albeit for different reasons.

The BEF extended their line by relieving French formations and the extension, 5th Army, was thin on the ground compared with the other armies of the BEF as the C in C considered it less important than the remainder of his line.

The main German attack fell largely on the 5th Army which was forced back and lost many men and guns but prevented a breakthrough. The Army Commander, Gough, was sacked.

The allies appointed a ‘de facto’ supreme commander and the series of operations leading to the German request for an armistice began.

I find myself ‘out of my depth’ when trying to appreciate how the higher direction of the war evolved and why, for example, why a supreme commander, and staff, was not appointed much earlier e.g in 1916 when the BEF ‘new armies’ were deployed. Was it simply that Britain had no recent experience of continental wars.

Old Tom

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A highly complex question and one which has not been settled to everyone's satisfaction. Both of the CiCs of the British army were given a very difficult task. They were to conform to French wishes but were to remain responsible for the British Army. That was from the start of the war. Sir Henry Wilson advocated a joint command of some sort from very early on. I expect that Haig thought he could best carry out his task by retaining independence of command.There was always close cooperation between the French and British commands. The main thrust of the Allied strategy was led by the French except for III Ypres. Even the Somme was originally to be a French show with tbe British playing a supporting role He accepted the committee in the early part of 1918 and was instrumental in putting Foch in overall command when the situation grew critical. . Haig and Foch had already agreed to aid one another and it was only when Haig saw a real danger of Petain breaking contact and falling back towards Paris, that he called for Foch to be put in overall command. He knew that Foch would not follow that movement.

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