Trial by Friendship

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David R. Woodward. Trial by Friendship: Anglo-American Relations 1917-1918. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 1993. Pp. IX+276. ISBN 0-8131-9084-3 (Paperback).


This book is a traditional political history in which David R. Woodward has meticulously researched personal papers and government archives to develop a narrative about the Anglo-American relations during the last two years of World War I. Woodward’s approach is to examine the differences between the two English speaking super powers from a neutral position. Therefore, his research seems equally exhaustive of the British leadership as it is for the American leadership. From this vantage point of the unbiased observer, Woodward is able to give us extensive insights into the tensions inherent in Anglo-American relations.

Although much of the book concentrates on military matters, this is a political history that uses the battlefields of France as its backdrop. Woodward is clear that the basic differences between the two allies came from fundamental different world views. Great Britain entered the war to protect its imperial ambitions and saw the threat on the eastern front to be just as grave as the threat to France and Belgium in the west. On the other hand, “America on the eve of World War I aspired to have its world influence match its unquestioned economic power without assuming the inevitable international responsibilities that would ensue and without developing the military means to support a global policy” (P. 7). America’s entrance into the war came only after German submarine warfare and diplomatic overtures to Mexico sabotaged Wilson’s plans for peace without victory.

Even though the U. S. declared war on Germany, Americans wanted to avoid entangling alliances with its European partners. Such alliances might bring America into the total conflict, and President Wilson was adamant that the U. S. had no reason to fight the Turks, Bulgarians or Austro-Hungarians. Those fronts defended English imperial ambitions and provided no reason for U. S. involvement. But, the American desire to avoid entanglements with the English and French created discord on the western front as well. When entering the war, the U. S. was woefully unprepared to offer military support. In spite of the weakness of its army and lack of arms and equipment, Wilson and General Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Force, insisted on an independent American army in France. Much of Woodward’s work details the continuing differences between American and British military leadership leaving little doubt that two English speaking powers deeply distrusted the motives of each other.

Woodward uses the tensions between England and America to help explain the dramatic changes in world power that happened after the armistice. Even though, Great Britain had carried the major burden of defeating the Central Powers, its armies were exhausted, and the country had become financially dependent upon the United States to carry on the war. Britain’s empire was weakened by its economic troubles, and America was well under way to replacing Great Britain as the English-speaking super-power.


Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

The extent of the research of David Woodward leaves little doubt about the author’s expertise in the political and military mindset of the leaders of the Anglo-American alliance during World War I. He has read the papers and diaries of over fifty of these decision makers in addition to combing official government archives of both Great Britain and the United States. He has found the fault line that divided the two great powers—their views regarding imperialism. The military bickering about the proper use of U. S. forces on the western front is important for historians of the great battles of the war, but Woodward keeps these differences in context of the broader historical trend—the emergence of the United States as a world power.

Because the United States entered the war as a world power without the desire for territorial expansion, it was able to profess a moral high road in which its interest in foreign affairs was the spread of freedom and democracy. This expressed lack of interest in territorial expansion drove a wedge between the two Anglo-Saxon powers because it contradicted the British ideal of empire-building and over-shadowed both countries’ strongly held belief that they were civilizing the world. These policy differences became evident with the United States’ reluctance to enter the war, and when it did, the Americans only waged war against Germany leaving Britain to fight the war on the eastern front without U. S. participation.

Woodward would seem to agree with Emily Rosenberg ([[Financial Missionaries to the World]]) that U. S. interest in foreign policy was its financial dominance. As England bore the brunt of the fighting after the withdrawal of Russia and the demise of the French and Italian armies, the British became increasingly dependent upon the U. S. to finance the war. With its army decimated by the war and its finances strained, the British were unable to recover their position as a dominant world power.

Woodward recognizes England’s decline, but his book is a sanitized version of the losses suffered by the British in which casualties are merely numbers and loss of power is a concept. In Robert Wohl’s book, The Generation of 1914 (Harvard University Press, 1979), the scope of the tragedy is much clearer. He captures the emotional devastation of England with an understanding of the war's psychological cost by stating, “More than one young man went to France convinced that we cannot but be thankful that we were chosen, and not another generation, to do this work and pay this price. This emotion could not survive the reality of the Western Front, a nightmarish moonscape where men lived underground like rats and died collectively like hordes of swatted flies; where death was impersonal and wounds unpretty; a desolate hell surpassing Dante’s worst imaginings” (P. 92). Furthermore, Wohl explains the importance of the loss of English power. “Like most myths, the English myth of a lost generation did correspond to a reality. It referred simultaneously to the severe losses suffered within a small and clearly defined ruling class and the difficulties that survivors from this class (and others below it) had in adjusting to the political and social realities of postwar England” (P.120). It is this kind of understanding of the war that Woodward’s research does not uncover leaving his account unquestionably accurate but unfortunately sterile.

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