Allied soldiers on the front line in France, 1918.

Allied soldiers on the front line in France, 1918.

1918: Year of Victory and Defeat

When the Great War broke out in 1914, the German imperial army was regarded as the finest fighting force on earth. Just four years later, it was crushed by Britain and its allies.

For most of the past hundred years, horror, sorrow and trauma have been the leading motifs of the First World War. They define how its centenary has been commemorated. On one level, this makes sense. Aside from the occasional inspiring story of self-sacrifice, only fools and knaves find much to celebrate in war and each generation has a duty to warn the next of its evil. Over the last four years, however, it has been easy to forget that this was not a war in which there were no victors. Few in Britain or France during the 1920s and 1930s, whatever their struggles, would ever have wished to exchange places with their counterparts in the states roiled by violence, revolution and worse that succeeded imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary and tsarist Russia. Better not to fight, but if you must fight, then it is better to win. In 1918 the British found themselves on the victorious side of the largest and most complex war to date. How did they get there?

This war was not won by Tommies in the trenches of France and Flanders alone, of course. Conflict raged on other fronts, too, from the battlefronts of the Atlantic, Greece, Mesopotamia and Palestine to the less violent but no less competitive struggles for economic, industrial, scientific, propaganda and diplomatic superiority. Farmers, factory workers and housewives, as well as sailors, soldiers and airmen, all made their sacrifices and played their part. Nor was Britain alone: it fought as part of two huge coalitions: an international alliance with France, the United States (who entered the war in 1917), Italy and others; and the imperial coalition of dominions and colonies. Nonetheless, in the course of 1918 it was British soldiers and airmen on the Western Front, working together with their Belgian, French and US allies, who broke the back of a military power that had inspired fear and awe around the world for at least half a century and which drove the German High Command to beg for peace.

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