Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Over the Top: Alternate Histories of the First World War
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander

Over the Top: Alternate Histories of the First World War

Edited by Peter Tsouras and Spencer Jones
Frontline Books: 2014

One of the intellectual challenges and delights of reading history is imagining how past events could have followed different paths. What would have happened had D-Day failed, or the birth control pill had not been invented, or John Kennedy had not been assassinated? A literary genre, alternate history, develops these what-ifs into narratives.

A Decisive British Victory at the Somme?

The anthology Over the Top offers ten short alternate histories along these lines, each driven by a single change to the First World War's actual history. In one the Brusilov Offense is more successful than it was, as the Russian Empire defeats the Austro-Hungarian, and as a result the 1917 Russian Revolution never occurs. In another chapter, an argument between Kaiser Wilhelm II and General Moltke goes astray, and thereby the guns of August 1914 fire up a very different war.

The other deviant histories include a German breakthrough at the first battle of Ypres (1914); a British amphibious attack on the Ottoman port of Alexandretta; the Greeks joining the Entente at Gallipoli to seize Istanbul; Teddy Roosevelt elected president in 1912 and taking America into the war in 1915; a clear British victory at Jutland; a clear British victory at the Somme; plus an earlier and more massive deployment of tanks on the Western Front.

As this is an anthology created by diverse hands, each story differs stylistically and historically. I was especially impressed by the Greek alternate ("The Queen of Cities Beckons"), as it included an impressive mix of political details, character development, and military chronicle. The author also seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. "The Brusilov Offensive, 1916" offers a very plausible variation, and also pays welcome attention to the eastern front. Indeed, I was impressed that the anthology ventured away from the western front as often as it did, although the preponderance of work favors that well-trodden terrain.

Would a President Roosevelt Led
America into the War in 1915?
Several chapters impressed me less. The Jutland alternate seemed both minor in impact and a bit implausible, doing some special pleading to ramp up British performance. "From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond" underestimates the resistance to new technologies—in this case, the tank. But I enjoyed reading both for their clarity of writing and general command of their respective histories.

Most chapters contain nifty details that reward the careful reader, such as a 1914 battle in Bastogne: "the valiant defense of that minor Belgian town thrilled the German people and became legend" (14) (a poke at the WWII battle there). In "Germania Demanda Est" an American force helps defend Verdun, which is supplied not by the Voie Sacrée of our timeline, but along "Henry Ford Drive" (98).

Each chapter, or story, consists of several parts. The first and largest part is a narrative history which starts from the history we know, then gradually breaks off into a new timeline. That story is followed by a brief account of what would happen as a result. A short (one page) comparison with the actual historical record comes next, followed by an intriguing bibliography. I realize that "intriguing bibliography" often seems like a contradiction in terms, but what happens in each Over the Top chapter is the insertion of real-seeming but made-up sources. These are "references in the form of end notes that reflects [an alternate history's] own literature - the memoirs, histories, and other accounts that it would have generated." (xxix)

This expands the alternate history approach in an unusual way—and might be a snare for the "unwary" reader. It also allows some more imagination and humor, as in one note to the chapter where Teddy Roosevelt leads the U.S. into war:

See also Edward M. House, He Kept Us Out of the War: An Alternate History of the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (New York: Simpson & Sons, 2009), p. 22. This popular alternate history speculates on the twentieth century without American intervention in the Great War, particularly how the neutrality of a fictitious Wilson administration, elected twice in 1912 and 1916, allowed the victory of the Central Powers in 1918 and the subsequent naval war between the United States and Germany, 1928–9. (103 n6)

To be clear, that's an alternate history embedded within an alternate history. (I think the great American writer Phillip K. Dick first did this, in The Man in the High Castle). Note, too, the author, Woodrow Wilson's right hand man when it came to international diplomacy!

Physically, this book is very nicely done. Many black and white photos help flesh out the personalities sustained or changed in the stories. A generous and all too rare helping of maps lets readers track the divergences very nicely.

Overall, Over the Top: Alternate Histories of the First World War has much to recommend it. The deviations from history are thought-provoking, giving readers a good sense of just how many different ways the Great War could have gone, and shedding insight into strategic decision-making. It might not be suited to readers new to WWI, as the historical immersion presumes some knowledge, as does the book's imaginative power.

Bryan Alexander

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