As I work on a new review of another World War One history, you get a retro review of another one, this time from November 15, 2013.
Review: 1914: The Year the World Ended, Paul Ham, 2013.
How useful and pleasant it is for you to read this book depends on where you are in your studies of World War One, and, specifically, how interested you are in its origins.
Novices in either study will be better served by any of the three general histories of the war I’m familiar with: John Keegan’s An Illustrated History of the First World War, Hew Strachan’s The First World War, Volume 1: To Arms, or Peter Hart’s The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. As the title hints, this is not even a history of the whole war.
However, for the intermediate student, this book is valuable. Displaying optimism and naiveté (at least in regard to American education), Ham says “every schoolchild knows the Great War was fought over … colonies, economic hegemony, nationalism, Alsace-Lorraine, Franz Ferdinand’s death and naval supremacy”, and he’s going to get us closer to a real understanding of the war’s causes. While Strachan’s book may tell you the interest rate of the third issue of Bulgarian war bonds, even he does not go into Ham’s level of detail about the Agadir and Fashoda crises and many other events and personalities. Others may talk about Germany’s infamous “blank check” to the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the latter’s ultimatum to Serbia. Ham gives you the whole documents. It may be a cliché among historians of the First World War to say it was the most complicated man-made disaster in history, but Ham makes a good case for it being true.
Ham starts in 1870 and over half the book is over before shots ring out in Belgium. He covers all the bases of war causes: imperialism, the erratic character of the Kaiser, developing technology, Germany’s fear of a strengthening Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s fear of decay, the vacillation of British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, social Darwinism, the swirling and shifting European power alliances post-Bismarck, and a whole lot more.
Ham is having none of the argument that the war was inevitable or the result of impersonal forces. Disasters don’t just happen. They are a series of events and choices, and Ham details those events and choices and who made them. Ham is out to show the responsibility of specific individuals. Two chapters in particular could stand in for the whole process. “Smash Your Telephone: Russia Mobilises” is a timetable of Russian mobilization and German responses with laziness and inattention and vagueness contributing to the disaster. Even delays of five minutes mattered. To read it is a bit like getting caught up in the Pearl Harbor movie Tora! Tora! Tora! – inevitable and inescapable doom played out in detail. The other chapter is simply an exchange amongst family members unable to stop their countries from going to war – family members who just happen to be King George V, the Kaiser, and the Tsar. Ultimately, he places blame, in descending order of culpability, on Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain, and France.
Ham is an impassioned writer not shy about making judgements. There’s nothing wrong with reminding readers that we are talking about the suffering and death of millions by highlighting some specific individuals. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking useful lessons from these events, even if just to trace an historical development back to the Great War.
It’s just that I question some of his claims on the significance of pre-war avante-garde art and that, after the war, the implicit claim that it was embraced by the public at large because it prematurely revealed truths they learned only in war or that German brutality in Belgium was a direct model for American conduct in Vietnam. And I could have done without the barely concealed sneer at the Edwardian values of “God, King and Country”. The war provided, before, during, and after, meaning in the lives of some. Some modern Westerners, besotted by the cant of international brotherhood and the disdain of nationhood, can barely conceive of a fight for blood and soil and revenge or that many more will fight for those than a secular welfare state. Indeed, socialists in Europe made that very decision on the eve of war.
Those looking for a combat history even of 1914 will probably be disappointed in this book. Ham cheerfully refers readers to other books to get the details on the Marne or Tannenberg though he does provide rough outlines. What he does capture in the combat sections, as well as the other sections, is the emotions of the time and his characters. A chapter on the rape of Belgium – including an answering of the charge it was greatly exaggerated – is well done. His use of quotes from soldiers’ letters and diaries effectively gives the feel of the war before the trenches of the Western Front are dug and the book ends. In a coda, Ham talks about the unknown soldiers, to whom the book is dedicated, of the war. Three million soldiers were listed as missing in the war, their bodies never found. But, since 2006, some remains have been identified with DNA work.
So, those seeking greater detail on the origins of the war will find this book worthwhile. Those looking for a quick, general history of the war’s beginnings and the battles of 1914 will want to look elsewhere.
I do have to comment on the pros and cons of the Kindle edition. Ham includes a lot of nicely detailed maps covering the Balkans, the phases of the Battle of the Marne, the Schlieffen Plan, Tannenberg, and the Western Front after trench warfare begun. However, on a regular size Kindle, some are just too small to be legible. I did not look at them on a larger Kindle or laptop, but I suspect they are legible at that size. Ham has several photos at the back of the book including of less common subjects like Schlieffen or Gavrilo Princep being hustled away after shooting the Archduke. The book also has a nice section of “searchable terms”. Since the Kindle edition has no page numbers, you simply highlight the terms you want and select the search this book option to find them in the book. (Though you can’t really use the format of names like “Asquith, Violet” as search terms.) There are also enabled links to digital archives.
More books on World War One are reviewed at the World War One page.