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

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War — Reviewed by David F. Beer

The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War
by Peter Hart
Oxford University Press, 2013

There comes a time when war ceases to be an adventure and the young regard it cynically, disillusioned and disenchanted. I do not suppose any generation ever marched to war with the stars in their eyes as my generation did, but after the Somme and the even worse slaughter at Third Ypres there were no more stars.
Lt. Richard Dixon, RFA, quoted by the author, p.410

As the Centennial gets under way specialized books about World War One seem to be proliferating. Yet there's still a need for general introductions to the war, especially since the Centennial may well attract the attention of curious people who have little or no real knowledge of the conflict. Thus Peter Hart's The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War is a new and most welcome book for beginners, taking its place among other notable surveys such as those by John Keegan, Hew Strachan, G. J. Meyer, Jeremy Black, and others.

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The author's conviction that "no one human can master the Great War in its totality," stated in his Acknowledgements section, is a sentiment most of us will readily accept. Nevertheless, this 500-page history goes a long way toward giving the reader the feeling that, at least from a British angle, a pretty thorough description of the war has been presented. As Hart admits, he doesn't look at some of the more obscure campaigns of the war but focuses primarily on the Western Front, where, he feels, the most crucial action took place. Fighting on the Eastern Front and at Gallipoli, Salonika, Mesopotamia, and Palestine all have chapters devoted to them, however, as do important naval actions. Not having a very clear idea of the importance of Salonika and the Sinai and Palestinian campaigns, I was grateful for the lucid and insightful views of them that the author provided.

The book is organized into 19 chapters providing a clear chronological journey through the war. Both the Western and Eastern Fronts are given their own chapters for each year, as is the sea war. According to when they took place, the other campaigns mentioned above are also discussed. Hart's approach to the war is by no means that of the old "lions led by donkeys" or "butchers and bunglers" perspective. He does not demonize Douglas Haig or other leaders, but rather sees them as men who found themselves in new and demanding situations that forced them to make massive and costly decisions. They were also willing to learn — indeed forced to learn — from their mistakes or from altered circumstances. Hart frequently analyzes how the learning curve produced new combat methods and tactics on the Western Front and how each innovation inevitably produced a corresponding improvement in the actions of the enemy.

Although it's a lengthy read, The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War never becomes dull or stodgy. This is to a large extent because of the author's fluid narrative style and lively tone; at times I almost felt I was reading a rather fast-moving novel, whether on trench tactics, tanks, convoys, gas, or American "rawness." However, the book comes alive primarily due to the numerous quotes the author cites from the people who were involved. Nearly every page provides a relevant direct quote from a general, admiral, or even more frequently and movingly from diaries and letters of the men — British, French, Australian, American, German — who did the fighting. Some of the horrified descriptions of death in the mud at Passchendaele, for example, still vividly remain in my mind.

The Forgotten, but Important, Salonika Front

Peter Hart is Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum in London and so has access to large archives of original testimonies from those who fought in the Great War. He puts the material to good use not only in this book but also in his other publications such as The Somme and Gallipoli. A couple of slight caveats: while reading The Great War I found myself wishing the eight maps provided at the beginning of the book had been placed in their appropriate chapters, and I did trip over a number of typos which should have been caught by proofreaders. A significant plus is the number of telling photographs, many of which I had never seen, included in two different sections and which are, like the quotes, extremely effective in making the war come alive.

All in all, Hart has produced a clear, vital and sweeping history of World War One. His book will serve solidly as an introduction and reference for those wishing to become more familiar with this cataclysm. David F. Beer

1 comment:

  1. You have, or rather Hart has answered the age old question: Can there ever be a book that does justice in reporting the whole war? The answer is yes. This is an excellent read for someone who doesn't want to trip through endless opinions that degrade leaders or lessen the importance of one battle for another. Bravo!