The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War by Correlli Barnett

Barnett, Correlli. The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War. New York, NY:              William Morrow and Company, 1964.

Correlli Barnett in The Swordbearers has taken four commanders and explored four of the major events of the First World War. Barnett attempts to show how the commanders’ human character affected the war; Moltke during the Marne, Jellicoe during the Battle of Jutland, Pétain and the French mutinies, and Ludendorff during the 1918 offensive. He masterfully spins the tale of each affair while impressing upon the reader the commander’s strengths, weaknesses, and consequences of their actions upon it.

Barnett was born in England and educated at Exeter College, Oxford and also served in the British Army in Palestine. He is a military historian whose works run from the Desert Campaign in Desert Generals, to the Royal Navy in the Second World War in Engage the Enemy More Closely, and Bonaparte.

Part I, The Tragic Delusion, is the focus of Colonel-General Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke. Moltke, along with his unwanted promotion, was the reluctant adoptive father to Schlieffen’s baby. This plan had attached itself to Germany like a bloated tick, and no one, not even Schlieffen’s successor, had the wherewithal to rip it out. The momentum toward catastrophe began its downhill slide with the misinformation by the German Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky. It was believed that Sir Edward Grey had promised that if Germany made no acts of aggression toward France, that he could guarantee Britain’s neutrality. Bethmann-Hollweg’s glee encouraged the Kaiser to divert the army, a million strong, toward the east, targeting Russia. Moltke tried reasoning with the Kaiser, but his lack of oomph allowed Wilhelm II to stomp his misgivings to dust. Barnett uses Moltke’s own words to their best advantage. The reader gets a strong sense of his character, and yet occasionally he takes it too far, for instance when he surmises that “Moltke’s agony and humiliation were obvious to the others in the room.” (p. 8)

Moltke had been preparing for this conflict for nine years. He was vocal to the Kaiser about the need for more realistic training versus pageantry. Moltke could see where improvements were needed and work toward a solution. One might think that Barnett is overreaching when he writes that Moltke was devoid of ambition. However, in Moltke’s own words “I lack the power of rapid decision…I lack the capacity for risking all on a single throw, that capacity which made the greatness of such born commanders as Napoleon, or our own Frederick II, or my uncle.” (p. 4) He may have recognized he did not have such greatness as his predecessors, but he still moved his career in this direction. He may have wanted the glory, which is ambition, he just didn’t have the talent.

Barnett describes the trail of mistakes Moltke drops like breadcrumbs. Moltke should have appointed an army group commander for the right wing since he obviously never meant to leave Coblenz. August 20 was not a banner day for the O.H.L. The Master of Horse started the day by shooting himself. Then two armies from Austria fled back across the Drina River, and in East Prussia, three German corps were defeated. The Kaiser’s tantrums increased, and by evening Prittwitz phoned Moltke informing him of his forced general retreat behind Vistula. Moltke continued to hold fast to his position at Coblenz when he needed to get out there and see for himself what was taking place. Communications were wonky and did not serve well for updates. “Moltke and his battle commanders were like deaf men with poor ear trumpets trying to carry out a complex technical discussion.” (p. 52) Moltke’s battle commanders could have used a stronger leader. When they realized that they were ultimately left to their own devices, it became much harder to coordinate plans. Joffre had personal conferences with his commanders. Moltke took tea by the Rhine.

Admiral Sir John R. Jellicoe is covered in Part II, Sailor with a Flawed Cutlass. Jellicoe’s character assessment is presented quite differently than Moltke’s. Barnett takes the reader through the Battle of Jutland to assess the new Admiral in action. Barnett does give interesting detail of the lengths Jellicoe went to in trying to spare Admiral Callaghan the upset and embarrassment at being replaced at the dawn of war, and yet his pleas fell on deaf ears. Jellicoe may have always been looking toward the future but his ambition did not run toward callousness.

The new Admiral did produce a four-point strategy. First, that the British would be unchecked in the sea, another was to block food and raw materials in the hopes that they would starve the enemy into peace than to safeguard British army communications overseas, and the last point was to prevent any invasion on British soil. Barnett points out that one should remember that Jellicoe had no formal training in strategy. He was a man that knew the navy inside and out, and his knowledge made him Fisher’s best candidate.

Barnett brings Jutland alive. The audacity of Scheer’s planned trap may seem ludicrous as they were outnumbered and outgunned. However, the Germans had been practicing their long-range gunnery for fifteen years and the British only three. The lack of training showed. Communication was all but nil between Jellicoe and his men. The Jutland debacle was neither a win nor a loss, and yet for the British people, the disappointment was palpable.

Jellicoe was cautious yes, but never cowardly. Barnett does not let a single unfortunate order or decision, given and made, by Jellicoe go undiscussed. He repeats several times that any faulty leadership by Jellicoe was not his fault. The fault lay with the broken system of the past fifty years prior to Jellicoe taking the helm. Barnett describes the navy as having a “preoccupation with tradition rather than technology,” and as “an exclusive yacht club,” where only the wealthy and noteworthy could play. (p. 101, 181)

Barnett is convincing in his view that Jellicoe was a stand-up guy. For example, he made the decision to not chase after Scheer when he had the chance (more than once) because he was cautious, untrained, new to strategic thinking and his position. However, the author does not completely make his case that the last fifty years of Britain’s broken system were the sole blame for Jutland. Individual personalities have to play in the equation somewhere. What of Beatty? Was his rash, hero in the making foolishness also a product of the system, or just part of his personality? This also might be a good time to mention that Barnett seems to excuse some of Beatty’s actions due to his psychoesque wife putting his humors out of whack.

Part III, Travail, Famille, Patrie, delves into the thoughts and actions of General Henri Phillippe Benoni Omer Pétain. Pétain replaced Nievelle, who ended his career in ignoble defeat, and left his position with a monstrous load of clean-up. Fortunately for the French army, Pétain and his chef du cabinet, General de Serrigny were well chosen. Barnett shows how cleverly Serrigny guides Pétain through the pomp of G.Q.G. knowing Pétain found little use in sugar-coating his words. They were an excellent team. Pétain stepped into this new position during a very dark period for the army. Mutinies had been breaking out all along the rear with such frequency that concern of a Russian-type revolution seemed imminent.

First, Pétain changed the overall war strategy. No more large attacks, but mounting limited attacks to reduce the enemy’s reserves while incurring minimum casualties. Next, he dealt with the mutinies. Pétain did not waste time. He believed in finding the cause of the soldiers’ discontent and then fixing those problems. One problem had already been remedied, which was to stop throwing lives away needlessly. The changed war strategy helped. Another large problem was the soldiers’ R&R. Pétain ordered that every four months the soldiers would be cleaned up, uniforms and hair up to snuff, and allowed quick passage home to see their families. He understood that a soldier could not ever completely relax with gunfire and shell explosions. Pétain placed a large portion of the blame on the government for not controlling the bleak news the press produced that agitated civilians and soldiers. Civilians did not, or rather could not, understand the soldiers’ plight. Pétain was a soldier and felt deeply about the men dying in the protection of their country. Having put in motion the changes that did eventually save the army, he did not let the lead dissenters off lightly. They were arrested and tried for treason.

What Pétain was able to achieve in such a short time was impressive. He not only handled the mutiny but gave soldiers back a feeling of pride in themselves and in France. He also halted general offensives, and while sticking to the trenches, took “a twelve-month period of re-equipment, retraining, and organization.” (p. 240)

The last quarter of the book, Full Circle, ends with General Erich Ludendorff. In Barnett’s own words, the “…First Quartermaster-General, personified the restless energy and surging power of the German Empire,” but “he also personified its ugliness, its crudity, and its fatal unwisdom.” (p. 269) Ludendorff was not interested in backing down. He wanted unrestrained submarine warfare, but Bethmann-Hollweg still hoped for peace. Barnett writes that the peace proposal was unfortunately received by the new Prime Minister Lloyd George. Barnett believes that the power-hungry PM had no intention of considering peace, and found war “the most exhilarating of all vehicles to drive.” (p. 273) Barnett misleads here, never deliberating the arrogance of Bethmann-Hollweg’s proposal and the skepticism it produced in the allied arena. This is plainly a dig at George while unfairly misleading the reader. Barnett indicates that had Lloyd George not been PM the peace proposal may have worked, or at the least, been considered.

Germany’s problems always come back to the same root issue, a “fundamental geographical disadvantage.” (p. 274) Barnett covers this issue with a deft hand and readers will appreciate his take. He boiled it down to the basics. The only access Germany has to the rest of the world is the narrow North Sea coast. Germany was totally surrounded by its enemies, France, Russia, and the British Navy. To enable Germany provisions, which they needed to survive and continue the fight, submarines were their best shot. Ludendorff pushed for this and won. They commenced shooting everything in sight, but he didn’t count on what kind of a motivator this would be for the U.S.A., and on February 1, 1917, they declared war on Germany. Strangely enough, Barnett does not consider submarine warfare a miscalculation, but an “accident of German geography.” (p. 274)

Once the German government “became an unwilling and slothful front organization for O.H.L,” Ludendorff, as Barnett explains, turned the war aims almost completely annexationist. (p. 277) Barnett describes Ludendorff as a man with some aptitude, though his talent did not extend into the political arena.

Barnett, with great expertise, delivers on the Marne, Jutland, the mutinies, and the 1918 offensive. The detail alone for the Battle of Jutland is worth picking up this book. If the reader learns to ignore the author’s penchant for cinematic overkill that crops up here and there like “It was a war of religion without religion, of ideological fanaticism without ideologies; it was a war whose fuel was fear and crowd-madness…,” or even “Under his pickelhaube, bright, keen protuberant eyes stared out of a suety, pudgy face…,” the book is quite good. (p. 208, 269) Nonetheless, there is a critical issue with the author’s supposed thesis. It really isn’t his thesis. In the preface, Barnett claims that “the theme of this book is the decisive effect of individual human character on history.” (p. xv) In reality, Barnett argues that the outcome of each event discussed was not overly influenced by the commanders, but by the broken governments in each country. Years of fatal mistakes created a certain outcome, the commanders were just along for the ride.

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