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Book Review: Hundred Days

By (February 15, 2014) No Comment

Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War Ithe hundred days cover

By Nick Lloyd

Basic Books, 2014


The standard narrative of the First World War’s concluding months – Allied and German powers pointlessly slogging it out until, in sheer weariness, they settle down to an armistice – is so entrenched in the popular imagination that Nick Lloyd’s new book Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I is often a refreshingly jarring reminder of things that should never have been forgotten. Lloyd is a Senior Lecturer in military history at King’s College, London, and his great-uncle Tom Cotterill died in the Hundred Days, the final sprawling offensive of the war (more famously, so did Wilfred Owen, in November 1918 on the Sambre-Oise canal, thereby robbing the world of who knows how many decades of fatuous versifying); this always-fruitful admixture of personal and professional motivations has worked wonders in Hundred Days, making it one of the few truly noteworthy WWI books to issue in the centennial flood from the presses of the Western world in observance of anniversary of the war’s beginning.

The narrative of the war’s beginning is likewise entrenched: bright-faced lads marching off to war expecting to be home by Christmas, facing endless, bloody stalemate on the Western Front instead, in such enormously bloody sign-post confrontations as the Somme and Verdun. The summation of that beginning – the fruitless stalemate of no-man’s-land – very soon drifted over the whole stretch of the war itself and has settled on it like a low-lying fog. Lloyd acknowledges something of the urgency of that scene-neatening right at the start of his book.“The war had destroyed old certainties, killed millions, and this meant that the end came as a blessed relief and saw only muted celebrations,” he writes, “It was over. That was enough.”

But Lloyd is right to point out that “it was over, that was enough” clouds the very real and brutal significances of those final days, the numbers for which are arresting as always:

Other writers have claimed that the war was effectively over by the summer of 1918 – meaning that the Hundred Days was not especially important – but that remains a narrow and selective approach dependent upon hindsight. The Germans may have lost the war by July, but the Allies had certainly not won it and there was much still to do, as the staggering toll of losses reveals all too clearly. Between 18 July and 11 November the Allies sustained upwards of 700,000 casualties while the Germans lost at least another 760,000 men.

In these final months of the war, the fighting was ferocious, and despite the typical narratives of the Western front, that fighting had a very clear, very discreet result: the Germans were repeatedly defeated. They struggled with valor (“Whatever the Americans thought about the British or the French, they soon acquired a healthy respect for the Germans,” Lloyd writes, “for their ability as soldiers; for their ruthlessness; for their professionalism wherever they fought”) on battlefields like those of Amiens and the Somme, but they were steadily driven back from their earlier territorial conquests, steadily driven back to the heartland of Germany.

Lloyd fills this narrative with colorful characters very skillfully drawn (his book’s extensive delving into original archival sources helps a great deal in this regard), and he sets the whole story against its pitiless backdrop very evocatively described:

The Western Front was a lottery of life and death, with shellfire and bullets, gas and grenades, taking life every day. Skill and judgement, experience and wisdom, could help in evading death in the trenches, but most killing was random with no way of predicting when it would come: the fall of a shell that would slice a man in two or leave him horribly wounded in no-man’s land; the thud of a sniper’s bullet that killed one man but not another. There was no logic to it, no obvious rules of survival, and this is what caused men to break down.

The lessons of the Hundred Days were obvious even while they were being taught, and the foremost of those lessons was the harshest: against the rest of the West, Germany could not win. German commanders increasingly put out feelers to the Allies about some sort of measured, dignified surrender, but as Lloyd points out, “Germany’s ruthless bid for European domination and her puritanical search for total victory” had only succeeded in uniting her foes against her and inclining them toward vindictiveness; “It was too late to beg for a compromise peace now.”

The pointed, punitive shape of that peace would come back to haunt the West in less than a generation (Lloyd quotes the outraged comments of a certain Austrian NCO to particular effect), “echoing through history like the aftershocks of a great earthquake.” Hundred Days is a bracing re-dramatization of the horrors that were most fresh in the minds of all concerned when those days were over.