With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918

Five readers question author David Stevenson on his latest book

With Our Backs to the Wall is a dramatic account of cataclysmic events during the final year of the First World War. Featuring new research, which throws new light on everything from morale to weapons to strategy to supplies, it shows how the overwhelming human and financial sacrifice of 1918 shaped the course of the rest of the 20th century.


As part of our new reader book club, BBC History Magazine asked five people to read With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 and put their questions to author Professor David Stevenson of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Here’s what they had to say…


I was surprised that the ‘Stab in the Back’ theory [that Germany was undefeated and had been betrayed by its own politicians] gained such wide popularity so quickly after the armistice. You write: “The Allied leaders underestimated the sheer derangement that was spreading in Germany, and the demonic energies unleashed by defeat.” If the Allied leaders had realised this, what would they, or should they, have done differently?

Chris Stuart, California

David says: They could have carried on the war into German territory and until German soldiers surrendered en masse. That would probably have helped to underline that Germany really had been defeated. But it would have meant a high further cost in Allied soldiers’ lives – probably tens of thousands. The Allied leaders made a deliberate decision not to pay that price. I think that decision was defensible. But it meant that it was all the more important to stand firm against German nationalist claims after the ceasefire and the peace conference, and that – unfortunately – was not done. The key failure here was not intervening in order to prevent Germany from rearming.


Why did the Germans fail to make use of the 40 extra divisions after the peace with Russia [in March 1918]?

Nick Britten, Kent


David says: They did use these divisions, but in order to hold the quieter sections of their line in order to free up higher-quality units for Ludendorff’s offensives. Generally the units from Russia were not used as attacking troops themselves. 


I was dismayed by the reaction, albeit a very human one, of what seemed to be gloating by the Allies at the end of the First World War. What are your thoughts on this?

Alison Lodge, Aberdeen


David says: The quotation you refer to comes from the French-language inscription on the tablet in the clearing where the Armistice was signed [It reads: “Here, 11 November 1918, succumbed the criminal pride of the German Empire. Vanquished by the free peoples it sought to enslave”].

I don’t think there was much gloating on the Allied side in 1918 – everyone was very well aware of how much the victory had cost. But many felt – and with justice – that the Germans bore most of the blame for what happened, because they had started the war, occupied French and Belgian soil, and carried out many atrocities. These atrocities were real, not just constructions of Allied propaganda. 


I found your placing of the British war effort in a global context really refreshing but where does your thinking about the British execution of the war now stand? Do you think Haig’s rehabilitation has gone too far and are any impressive commanders still being overlooked?

Simon Fielding, Gloucester


David says: I pretty much agree with the assessment of Haig in the recent biography by John Harris, Douglas Haig and the Great War. There is much to criticise in Haig’s strategy in 1916–17, and arguably he was saved by the German decision to attack in 1918. That being said, his strong points were more in evidence in 1918 than in earlier years.

He rightly pressed Foch to halt the August 1918 Amiens offensive once it ran out of steam, and did not try to batter away repeatedly on the same section of front. The talents of the other British Empire commanders are well known now – Rawlinson, Currie, Monash, Plumer, Allenby. I’m afraid I was unimpressed by what I saw in the papers from Sir Henry Wilson, whose judgement was erratic.


The Franco-British relationship is described in the book as a “strange one”. How did it develop during the course of the war?

Katherine Gibbard, Leeds

David says: This is a huge question. What I meant was that the Franco-British co-operation against Germany was quite recent (since 1906, really), and before that lay centuries of rivalry (with some exceptions, such as the Crimean War).

What is striking from the 1918 files is how much British officials still expected the French to be rivals again after the war, so the alliance was not permanent. The French leaders, in contrast, did want a permanent alliance with Britain, because they expected Germany to remain a threat. Their concern was more that the British were not pulling their weight, especially by not maintaining a large enough army. Already very apparent was the mutual suspicion that prevented a solid front against Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. I’m afraid I see the British as bearing the greater responsibility for that.


Next month

Next month we’ll be looking at City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire by Roger Crowley (Faber & Faber, 2011). If you’d like to ask Roger something about the book, please email Charlotte Hodgman with your question. We can’t promise to publish every question, but we’ll do our best.

It’s not too late to join the BBC History Magazine reader book club – find out more at www.historyextra.com/reader