The Marvel of Three Years
The Marvel of Three Years
A Backward Glance at Britain's Great Achievement and a Confident Look-forward
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In this issue of The War Illustrated, bearing the date of Britain's entry into the conflict, the Editor deems it a privilege to be able to publish so heartening a review of the Empire's titanic effort in the cause of international liberty, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, unrivalled among men of letters as military critic and historian, presents to his readers in the following important contribution, expressly written for this Journal.
As loyal Allies we pool our sorrows and our joys, our victories and our defeats, with those of our friends. Together we stand or fall. It would indeed be invidious if we were to exclaim: "Here we have done well. There you have done ill." What has occurred may be no particular subject for self-adulation or for reproach since geography has ‘had much to do with the results. But none the less it cannot be denied as a positive obvious fact that whilst the general allied campaign against the Central Powers remains in a condition of equilibrium, the war as between Germany and her confederates on the one side, and the British Empire upon the other, has resulted up-to-date in the complete victory of the latter. Having accomplished this, and done our own proper task, we are now throwing out our whole strength in order to do all we can to help our friends that they also may share our victory.
It will nerve us in accomplishing this huge extra achievement if we bear in mind how complete has been our own individual success. Not one square yard of our huge Empire is trodden by a hostile foot. We, upon the other hand, hold all the oceans of the world, nearly the whole of the great German Colonial Empire, Mesopotamia from north of Bagdad to the sea, and the borders of Palestine, besides freeing ourselves from that tribute which we paid to the Turkish Government for our occupation of Cyprus and of Egypt. When it is added to this that we hold two prisoners for each man whom the enemy holds of ours, and four guns for each one that he has captured, it may well be questioned whether any three years of warfare since the days of Marlborough have been more completely successful. Our only serious setback, that of Gallipoli, was a victory not of the Germans but of the Turks.
That the total result has not crushed the enemy is due to the fact that our Allies have had to face difficulties which have handicapped all their efforts, and that these unavoidable setbacks have to be set against our great successes. All that we ever contemplated doing we have already done. In order to appreciate this we have to cast our minds back to the days before the war, and try to live again the hopes and fears of that period when we saw the danger creeping upon us and conjectured what part France and Russia would play, and what would be the extent of our activities should we be forced to join. That we should destroy or neutralise the German fleet was the first obvious task for our arms. We have not destroyed it, for it is inaccessible, but we have neutralised it up to date in a very thorough fashion.
Our second obvious task was to conquer the oversea German Empire. This also we have accomplished with the trivial exception of some outlying and unhealthy regions in East Africa. We have, of course, received some French and Belgian co-operation in these operations, and Japan's help was decisive in Asia, but the main part of the work has fallen upon our shoulders.
The third task was the blockade of Germany. This has been completely done so far as the navy is concerned, and only fails in entirely closing those neutral doors which are held partly open by international law. We could never have counted upon the work being done more completely than it has been done.
Finally it was contemplated as a possibility, though by no means a certainty, that we should land an expeditionary force to help to succour Belgium in case she were attacked. The outside figure which we ever imagined that such a force con!d reach was 160,000 men.
These four undertakings covered all that we could reasonably be expected to do, and each of them has been successfully accomplished. We have every right, therefore, to claim that if we regard the war as merely a contest between the German and the British Empires our victory has been complete.
But apart from those tasks which we might reasonably expect that we should have to do, others far greater have been laid upon our shoulders, and the method in which we have carried this unexpected burden has saved Europe from being under the rod of the Prussian taskmaster. It had been supposed in all previous calculations that France and Russia combined would be able to hold the German and Austrian power upon the land. When put to the test, however, it proved that our Allies had not fully understood the conditions of modern warfare, and that they were behind the Germans in nearly everything except bravery.
Russia from the beginning was grievously handicapped by her wretched railway system, her limited munitions,and her faulty constitution, which prevented cordial and assured co-operation between all classes. How far she was the victim of treason and how far of a manufacturing breakdown it is too early to say, but-after a year of war she would have been absolutely at the mercy of her enemies but for the supplies from Japan, America, and especially Great Britain, with British money paying freely for all.
"The Army never Strikes without Victory"
This was an unforeseen result ; but still more surprising was the case of France, which must, one would have thought, have had every possible warning which could induce her to*have her armies ready for the inevitable struggle. In manhood they could not be surpassed, and their field artillery was the best in Europe; but in some singular way they had: failed to learn all those military lessons of modern warfare which we, an unmilitary nation, had-long understood. -That this should be so presents an extraordinary problem to the critic, but there seems to be no doubt about the fact.
Heavy artillery in the field, which the Boer War had shown to be most necessary, and which appeared as a battery of sixty-pounders in every British division, was apparently unused by the French at the opening of the war, Invisibility was another great modern lesson, but the French infantry were in vivid blues and scarlets. The cavalry wore the helmets and cuirasses of the Middle Ages, which had long been discarded on account of their weight and uselessness by our troopers. But these. defects of equipment were small matters compared to the evil chance, be it bad luck or bad strategy, by which they began the war by losing not only their valuable iron fields at the Luxembourg frontier, but also the precious coal fields of French Flanders. Those were the two absolutely vital points of Northern France, and both were lost in the first three months of the war.
After that it is a mere truism to say that without Great Britain, which has always hung like a self-adjusting weight to control the balance of Europe, the Prussian scale would surely have weighed down that of France. All the chivalry and endurance of a land of heroes would have been powerless before the coal-fed metal forges of the Rhineland. So vast was the discrepancy between the forces of the Central Powers and those of our Continental Allies, that a miracle had to be effected in order to make the scale even. That miracle, a result never for an instant contemplated by anyone who had speculated upon the chances of the war in the days of peace, was the creation of an army which has in truth made Great Britain for the. moment the strongest upon land of all the opponents of Germany. It is true that she holds a line which is only a quarter of that of France, but it is not the distance held, it is the number of the enemy engaged and the effect of such engagements which is the test of efficiency. It is like some fantastic dream to think that in nearly every department of the art of war, from Staff work down to bayonet fighting, our Army has at present an easy predominance over that of the Germans. The Army never strikes without victory.
A student of the Battle of the Somme will find that it really consisted of a dozen well-defined battles, that of July 1st, of Contalmaison, of Mametz Wood, of Trones Wood, of Guillemont, of Longueval, of Flers, of Pozieres, of Thiepval, of Morval, every one of which ended in a British victory. Since then there have been the great victories of Beaumont Hamel (November 13th, 1916), of Arras and Vimy Ridge upon April 9th, and of Messines.
Mastery Won in all Branches — except Hiding
In each single case British valour led by British brains has driven the enemy, with loss of prisoners by the thousand, out of his selected defensive positions. Only in spade work are the Germans our superiors—and the art of hiding oneself more deeply than anyone else in the bowels of the earth, useful_as it is, is a strange merit for the arrogant Prussian soldier, and one which would have surprised "der alte Fritz." In aeroplane work, in heavy artillery, in our bombs, in our trench mortars, in our rifle grenades, in our "tanks," In our gas apparatus, in our musketry, and in our bayonet work we are the masters.
Above all, in our Staff work, in our- knowledge of how to cover our infantry, how to use the barrage, how to screen operations m smoke — in every finesse which helps the attacker to beat the defence, we are now the first in Europe. It is not I, a civilian, who say so, but it is, I believe, the considered ‘opinion of the most experienced soldiers. Sursum corda, then, if dark days should come, and the last struggle be fierce, for we have already made such a record that we need not be ashamed to hand it down to our children !