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With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 Hardcover – August 15, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Stevenson makes an important contribution to our understanding of the events of 1918. This is a major scholarly achievement, bringing together an analysis of the events of 1918 unlike any other book available. (Michael S. Neiberg, author of Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I)

Historian David Stevenson's meticulously researched book starts as the new Russian communist government makes a separate peace with Germany and her allies, releasing nearly a million troops from the Eastern Front. Allied losses during the previous three years had been catastrophic and while America had come into the war, its intervention seemed likely to be too little too late. Stevenson describes how Ludendorff's doomed offensive Operation Michael proved disastrous for the Germans. He pinpoints the American action far earlier than anyone had thought possible as one of the key factors that led to the Allies' unexpected but overwhelming victory in 1918. (Oxford Times 2011-05-26)

What David Stevenson achieves is a magisterial single volume synthesis of all the themes to deliver a punchy, incisive reboot of WWI history that is never a dull read...In saluting the unsung elements of victory, Stevenson ensures his big themes book is myth-busting in its small detail, too. (Charles Strathdee Warships 2011-07-01)

An immensely useful study, emphasizing the crucial importance of morale, political stability and trust. (Max Egremont Literary Review 2011-05-01)

While the Great War is hardly a neglected subject, its final phase has not previously been the subject of a single-author study that gives equal attention to both sides of the conflict. This book fills that void. Drawing on archival research in several countries, Stevenson explores the events and decisions that led to Germany's defeat in 1918, analyzing the reasons for Allied success and the collapse of the Central Powers. The strength of the book lies in his ability to weave together astute analysis of the antagonists' abilities and weaknesses, from food supply to finance, strategy to technology, and logistics to morale...Stevenson delivers on his promise to write a definitive account of the military history of the Great War's endgame. (Robert Gerwarth Irish Times 2011-05-28)

A magnificent and exhaustive account of the war's final year...Stevenson has a deserved reputation as one of the world's leading authorities on the war...Drawing on numerous original sources in French, German, Italian and English, Stevenson displays masterly scholarship and his prose is crisp and vivid throughout...A book that promises to be the outstanding military history published in 2011. (Tony Barber Financial Times 2011-05-27)

Brilliant and comprehensive...One of the many merits of Stevenson's book is his analysis of the sustainability of the war efforts of both sides in terms of the development and production of weaponry, food supplies, finance and morale, and the way resources interacted with, and weakened or strengthened, the ability of armies...What weight should be given to the failure of the German offensive as opposed to other, more long-term considerations in determining the defeat of the Central powers? A major debate among historians of the "total wars" of the 20th century concerns where the balance lies between the battlefield and the strength of combatants' economies in determining the eventual victors, and Stevenson's comprehensive study is a major contribution to this debate. (A. W. Purdue Times Higher Education 2011-05-26)

Stevenson brings to his study a formidable authority and mastery of the sources, and judgments that seem admirably measured and nuanced. (Max Hastings Sunday Times 2011-05-15)

Wide-ranging and clearly argued...This is, as one would expect from a historian of Stevenson's great learning and analytical power, a masterly study of the year that began with Allied demoralization and defeat, yet ended with the complete collapse of the Central Powers. Dragged down by the desertion of its allies, undermined from within by strikes, pacifist propaganda, mutinies and finally red revolution, Germany's tired, hungry and overstretched front-line armies were in no state--physically or psychologically--to resist superior Allied technology and numbers. Allied victory ended the war--but, as Stevenson brilliantly shows, it could have had a very different outcome. (Nigel Jones The Telegraph 2011-06-07)

The final months of WWI have been subjected to increasing attention by specialists. What has been lacking to date is a comprehensive analysis explaining why the conflict ended when it did. Stevenson complements Cataclysm, his political history of the war, with this definitive account of the final stages...The decisive counteroffensive, extending across Europe and into the Middle East, reflected above all the ability to manage resources at all levels, from a "superstructure of intergovernmental institutions" to the front lines of increasingly open, mobile warfare. Stevenson's detailed, lucid description of the development and maturation of that ability reflects encyclopedic mastery of published and archival sources while synergizing military, economic, political, and social-cultural factors. It is a professor's page-turner. It is also a door-opener to any reader seeking to understand the Great War's last stage. (Publishers Weekly (starred review) 2011-07-11)

A fascinating military narrative...One lesson of With Our Backs to the Wall is that a war ends less than "cleanly" when one side, instead of overcoming the enemy, mostly outlasts it...[A] masterly study. (William Anthony Hay Wall Street Journal 2011-09-17)

While most accounts of World War I focus on the precipitating events at the beginning, with the complex network of entangled alliances, Stevenson instead offers a "comprehensive investigation" into the final year of the war. He presents readers with an account that judiciously balances narrative and analysis, beginning not with Russian/Austrian posturing in the Balkans, but with offensive maneuvering on both sides in 1918. Stevenson also considers events on the home fronts, technological innovations that industrialized mass slaughter, and the economies of scale that withstood the strains produced by war. This is a monumental study deserving of a wide readership by scholars and generalists alike. (Brian Odom Library Journal (starred review) 2011-10-15)

Stevenson's book is a masterful, lucid analysis that does not simply tell the tale [of World War I]. It also considers in detail the factors of technology, morale, supply, economics, and politics that contributed to Germany's defeat. (Lawrence D. Freedman Foreign Affairs 2012-03-01)

Although the tragedy of the "lights going out" has been endlessly examined since the summer of 1914, the end of the Great War has received considerably less attention. Stevenson does much to rectify this imbalance in his brilliant new study, an analysis-cum-narrative of the epochal events of 1918. He draws on the most important academic studies of the war, personal memoirs, printed primary sources, and his own expertise, honed over almost 30 years of work, to craft a sweeping, comprehensive explanation of how and why the war turned, and turned so suddenly, from stalemate and even possible German victory to triumph for the Western Allies. Following two finely wrought narrative chapters detailing the end of the war, Stevenson examines in rich detail the "new warfare," personnel and morale, control of the seas, wartime economies, and the home fronts. In every area--the volume is superbly researched--the liberal-socialist hybrid systems of the West proved superior to the more traditional and authoritarian Central Powers, which exhausted their remaining resources in the reckless German offensives of 1918. (G. P. Cox Choice 2012-04-01)

About the Author

David Stevenson is Professor of International History at London School of Economics.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1St Edition edition (September 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674062264
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674062269
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #965,115 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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David Stevenson is one of the finest authors and authorities on World War I.

In this book, he provides a thorough and well researched analysis of what happened at the end of the war and why it ended somewhat with a whimper instead of a drive to Berlin which would have allowed the Allies to destroy Germany as much of Belgium and France had been destroyed.

While there are many reasons the war ended as it did, the primary reason was the massive and failed German offensives from March through July 1918. The first offensive named Michael, began on 21 March and concluded by 5 April. Initially, the Germans, attempting to defeat the British held sector and separate it from the French, achieved success and advanced well in the southern and central portion of the battle zone, but were not as successful in the north against Generals Horne and Byng of the British First and Third armies. The German general Ludendorf essentially went for broke and failed. His lead divisions were directed to push continuously, and they did so until they were burned out and destroyed. Overall, the attack was a failure for the Germans. They failed to defeat the British and separate them from the French, and they failed to reach Amiens. This was followed by the Battle of Lys in Flanders which was another German failure. A total of five German major offenses from March through July sapped the strength of the German army and General Ludendorf as well, with defeats of the armies and the emotional breakdown of Ludendorf. And while Russia earlier had been taken out of the war and immense numbers of soldiers moved to France, it was not enough to move the German army forward.

Ludendorf was wanting to accomplish a defeat over the Allies before the Americans started to arrive in large numbers.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an extremely valuable resource for anyone interested in the First World War, and even the origins of the Second. While there is much military history included in the book, its primary purpose is far more important. The author wants to answer the question as to why the war stopped when it did, with the 11/11/11 armistice, rather than continuing into 1919 or even 1920 as many observers at the time thought it would. As the author explains, there are many factors in addition to those occurring on the battlefield that played a role in determining this issue.

I should disclose at the outset that as fine a book as this is, I think it suffers from a major conceptual difficulty. That is to say, the book in parts is far too detailed and minute in analysis for the needs of the general reader. Of the 547 pages of text, and 82 pages of notes, I would estimate at least a third of the text could have been edited out without impacting on the value of the analysis for the general reader. On the other hand, I would rather have too much info than too little, and those already familiar with the war will be thankful for all the extra detail. As for myself, even though I am somewhat familiar with the war, I found myself skimming at various points.

To answer this question, the author (after a brief preface) summarizes in a 29-page prologue how the war had become deadlocked between 1914 and 1917. He then discusses the German General Staff plan to turn the stalemate around by launching five major offensives between March and July 1918. The only result was to exhaust the limited military resources the Germans had left without breaking through the Allies. Each of these five offensives is discussed in detail.
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As an amateur history buff I had a good sense as to why the Germans collapsed in the last four months of the WW I after winning the war for four years. Although they were winning the war for most of the four years they were never able to actually win the war. David Stevenson detailed why such a brutal marathon of madness came to such a sudden end and why the Allies did not take the war to what should have been the obvious conclusion -- invasion and occupation of Germany. Such a conclusion may have precluded the disaster that happened 20 years later but Stevenson does an excellent appraisal as to why that wsa not doable.

Simply put, both sides were totally exhausted. Economically, socially, politically, morally, psychologically, militarily exhausted. Both sides were strained to the breaking point and the Germans broke first. Stevenson argues on one hand that the German four major offenses of 1918 -- each with less success than the previous -- hastened their demise. Perhaps they would have been better off using the forces transferred from the Russian Front to strengthen their defenses and press for a stalemate in 1919. As more lives were lost -- now to include Americans -- maybe the two sides would have been forced to negotiate. But Field Marshals Ludendorff and Hindenburg rolled the dice, sent hundreds of thousands of Germans plunging into Allied positions. Although they achieved initial successes, pushed the Allies back, and caused an incredible strain upon the Allies the Germans were not quite able to achieved the strategic breakthrough that would win the war in 1918. They paid a huge price for their offensive gambles and got nothing in return. The German soldiers realized they were now dying for a lost cause and discipline collapsed.
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