by John Spencer
Warwick, Eng.: Helion / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2020. Pp. xxii, 216+.
Illus., map, notes, biblio., indices. $49.95. ISBN: 1912866277
A Revisionist Look at a Disruptive General
Long regarded as a disruptive politician in uniform rather than a proper soldier, due largely to the memoirs of some hostile former comrades, Henry Wilson (1864-1922) has been undergoing some revaluation by historians of late. Spencer, who has specialized in British military leadership in the era of the Great War, adds to this trend with a not uncritical look at Wilson’s influence on the war, particularly its final 18 months, and on its aftermath.
Spencer opens with a chapter on Wilson’s background and military career, including some commentary on the politics of the British officer corps. He follows with looks at Wilson’s critical prewar role in developing Anglo-French military cooperation, a matter furthered by his friendship with Ferdinand Foch, his war experiences through 1917, on the staff of the BEF, as liaison with French headquarters, as a disappointing corps commander, and as a “fact finder” in Russia.
Spencer then devotes several chapters to an in-depth look at Wilson’s role during the final period of the war. Wilson promoted formation of the Supreme War Council, which coordinated Allied efforts by creating a general-in-chief – Wilson’s friend Foch – and an inter-allied mobile reserve, making for quicker responses to German initiatives.
Going into 1918 Wilson attempted to alert Allied commanders to the threat of a German offensive in early 1918, the result of a series of wargames which he conducted, but he was ignored. The Germans did very much what the gaming had predicted, however, from March 21st into the late-Spring. Wilson had a hand in planning the proposed 1919 campaign, with its heavy reliance on tanks and motorized forces (though Spencer fails to address the likely logistical impossibility of the operation), and was involved in the Allied intervention in Russia, British demobilization, and military planning for a postwar world.
Spencer’s treatment of the Italian disaster at Caporetto is flat wrong, repeating the hoary tale that only the timely arrival of Allied troops halted the Austro-German advance, when in fact the Italians were holding on the Piave line when the first Allied troops crossed the Alps. In addition, the book would have benefited from more maps. But these are relatively minor failings.
A volume in the series “Wolverhampton Military Studies”, Wilson’s War is an important contribution to the literature of the Great War.
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