Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 35
Albert Palazzo, Seeking victory on the Western Front: the British army and chemical warfare in World War I, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2000, 239pp., illustrations, bibliography, index, rrp US$50
Reviewed by: Dr GARY SHEFFIELD, Joint Services Command and Staff College, UK, and King's College, London.
Two recent books demonstrate the extent to which the First World War continues to polarise opinion. One is John Mosier's The myth of the Great War. This is a book largely based on secondary sources that is sweepingly dismissive of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and which claims that the Germans won all the major battles only to be denied victory at the last by the intervention of American troops. The other is Albert Palazzo's Seeking victory on the Western Front, a work founded on Herculean labours in British, Canadian and Australian archives. Palazzo's conclusion is that 1914-18 was a time of profound change in the conduct of war. It was the BEF, not the German army that was "at the forefront" of this military revolution, and the application of British methods of warfighting led, slowly but surely, to victory on the Western Front. Palazzo's careful scholarship is impressive and his interpretation, unlike Mosier's, is convincing.
One of Palazzo's sub-themes is that historians have given credit for innovation to the German army while denying it to the British. He argues that the key German innovations in offensive tactics that many writers have applauded not only failed to bring them victory in the 1918 Kaiserschlacht but "actually assured their defeat". Palazzo is quite correct. By placing the cream of the infantry crop in elite formations, which then took heavy casualties in the assault, the Germans severely undermined the overall quality of the army - a mistake the British did not make. Moreover, the German stormtroops, after the initial attack, tended to outpace their artillery. This meant that they had to rely on their own resources, not the concentrated firepower which, as Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson (among others) have demonstrated, was the key to military success on the Western Front.
Palazzo's case is that the BEF's battles took a rather different approach, employing a series of phases in which the British achieved domination over the enemy, suppressing German firepower and degrading their morale. This was, according to Palazzo, intended to restore mobility to the Western Front as the preliminary to "decisive victory". The reality was that the constraints of Great War technology ensured that the BEF never quite delivered the knockout punch that had been anticipated, although in 1918 the cumulative pressure of the Allies amounted to "a decisive victory".
This is a conclusion with which I, along with many other historians, would agree. However, one can quibble with Palazzo's view that the British army lacked a doctrine, but compensated for this by having an effective "ethos". While his point about ethos is well made, the pages of Seeking victory contains enough material to demonstrate that the BEF did evolve and apply a "doctrine", albeit a semi-informal one, based on the pre-war Field service regulations.
Palazzo's most distinctive contribution lies in his focus on chemical warfare. He argues that chemical weapons were "highly effective" in achieving superiority over German firepower and attacking enemy morale. In large part Seeking victory is an attempt to revise the British official historian Sir James Edmonds' apparently authoritative view, that "Gas achieved but local success, nothing decisive; it made war uncomfortable, to no purpose". Palazzo contends that this comment, ignored reality and is indicative of Edmonds' defence of "the primacy of man in battle".
Palazzo possibly overstates his case a little on chemical warfare. Only once did the BEF use gas as a primary weapon, at Loos in 1915. The relative failure of this experiment demoted gas to the status of an auxiliary method, but Palazzo is persuasive that it was nonetheless effective and far more central to the BEF's way of fighting than most historians have previously admitted. He gives much detail on the mechanics of chemical warfare, analysing the weapons and munitions, and highlights the problems of production of munitions. This limited the effectiveness of the BEF's use of gas during the critical offensives on the Somme in 1916, and Arras and Third Ypres during the following year, although it was far from negligible. British chemical warfare never succeeded in escaping from memories of Loos, when it had promised much more than it actually delivered.
Even if one might want to add some caveats to Palazzo's discussion of gas warfare, his broader thesis is powerful and convincing. The BEF innovated, but anchored new developments in technology and tactics within the existing notions of war fighting. This, pace the Mosier school, gave the British approach a greater coherence than the ramshackle German one. Seeking victory can be recommended as an important contribution to the debate on military effectiveness in the First World War.