I’m working on a review of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. That means you get an old review that, in retrospect, has a clunky first sentence.
This will be the first of three retro reviews on World War One histories in order to provide some context for The Sleepwalkers.
From May 12, 2013 …
Review: The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War, Peter Hart, 2013.
A concise yet emotional general history of WWI, an event, as Hart justifiably says, that was the most important event in the 20th century.
Hart does not attempt the comprehensiveness of volume one of Hew Strachan’s The First World War: Volume I: To Arms or even John Keegan’s An Illustrated History of the First World War. Hart explicitly confines himself to just the main theaters of the war thus there is no coverage of sub-Saharan operations or events in China, and he concentrates on the Western Front because it is there, he argues, that the war was ultimately decided and mostly by British efforts.
Thus one of the three things Hart particularly emphasizes is the folly of the “easterners”, generals and politicians, particularly David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, who wasted resources on pursuing illusive victory in other areas. That includes not only the notorious Gallipoli campaign but the mission creep of operations in Mesopotamia and Palestine after the vital assets of oil fields and the Suez Canal were secured.
Another area of emphasis is an attack on the clichéd image of the war: men going over the top, slogging across a shell ravaged land only to die by machine gun fire, bodies tangled in barbed wire, a stupid slaughter conducted for four long years by stupid generals, “lions led by donkeys” as the famous statement goes. In fact, Allied tactics did change in the use of artillery, how trenches were assaulted, how and when taken objectives were held, and the use of machine guns. The trouble is the Central Powers also learned and changed the way they conducted defense and assaults, and Hart does a nice job of tracing that evolution. British success at Neuve Chapelle in 1915 led to the tactics used in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. That famous disaster was not the result of British stupidity but inadequate artillery support and Germans changing their defense tactics, but the lessons of the Somme led to 1918’s Hundred Days that concluded the war.
The stunning success of the combined operations of aerial bombing and close air support, tanks, sophisticated coordination between artillery and infantry, and an evolution in the tactics and weapons used to assault German positions point to the lie of General Douglas Haig being a stubborn, conservative technophobe unwilling to innovate but just blunder to victory by sheer manpower. That is the third point Hart emphasizes: that many of the war’s generals did innovate and did their best in a challenging environment of alliance warfare and the strength new technology lent to defense.
Hart bookends his history with chapters on the political origins and consequences of the war making this an acceptable introduction to the war.
But the emotional power of the book comes from the extensive quoting of participants in the events from Count Franz von Harrach, a passenger in the car when Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated, to soldiers on the war’s last day. Enlisted men and officers, sailors and infantrymen and aviators, the Allied and the Central Powers all have their say from a French soldier commenting on the ant-like appearance of soldiers at Verdun to a British artilleryman slaying his horse at the Siege of Kut to men being gassed in a bunker to the horror of leaving comrades to drown in the muddy wastes of a shell-cratered battlefield, Hart brings the feel of the war home in ways many other histories do not. That makes this a worthwhile read for beginning and advanced students of the war.
I read this in galley form from the publisher so cannot speak to the quality of the index or maps, but the published product seems adequate in both.
More World War One books are reviews at the World War One page.