With the Centenary of the Great War fast approaching, together with the inevitable avalanche of books that will accompany it over the next six years, the challenge for the student of this conflict will be to sift out the books that add to the body of knowledge & steer clear of those that regurgitate old, sometimes out of date or discredited views. This is particularly relevant when it comes to looking at single volume histories of the war – whose success will come from supplying a concise explanation of the key issues and events that still engages and informs the reader.
Peter Hart’s “The Great War: 1914-1918”, published by Profile Books in April 2013 is the latest entry to the field and comes at a particularly timely moment.
Hart is well known not only through the numerous books he has already written on the conflict but also in his role as Oral Historian of the Imperial War Museum – and it is this latter experience that enables him to add a level of personal connection with the combatants through their reminiscences and thereby bring a new perspective to global events.
While the actual sequence of events that lead to war are still the subject of debate, the case is clear in this book for the inevitability of war in August 1914 after decades of inconclusive conflicts and unresolved geopolitical ambitions. With none of the participants prepared to accept a reduction in their national “economic, political, military and imperial ambitions”, the slide towards war was unavoidable.
Hart deserves credit for highlighting the often neglected role of the French in the early years of the war – their losses of 27,000 dead on one day in August 1914 in the Battle of the Frontiers is not widely known but should be to place British losses on the 1st July 1916 into context. The time bought by the French nation in the opening two years of the war at an appalling cost should not be under recognised – without that blood sacrifice, the war would have taken a very different course.
While Hart does focus on the major fronts with reduced emphasis on the more peripheral sideshows, this is entirely in line with his view that these had the greatest potential to win the war and therefore demand the bulk of the attention. A central tenet of his argument is that the war was only going to be won by defeating the main enemy, Germany, on the main front, the Western Front. Hart is correspondingly scathing in his criticism of those “Easterners” such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill for diverting scarce resources to what were essentially sideshows. Having said that, the book does not neglect the other fronts with Gallipoli (unsurprisingly bearing in mind Hart’s previous two works on this fascinating campaign), Salonika, Palestine and Italy all receiving good coverage as does the war in the air and at sea. Coverage of the African fighting is missing but this omission is understandable given the ambition of covering the entire war in one volume.
The book provides a detailed narrative of the ways in which technology and tactics improved and adapted throughout the war leading initially to the successes of the opening day of the Cambrai offensive in November 1917 before coming to a logical conclusion in the form of the “all arms battle” of the Hundred Days campaign that began on 8th August 1918 and lead to the surrender of the German forces on 11th November.
Hart does belong to the “revisionist” school of military history – or possibly even post-revisionist – in that he generally holds the achievements of the senior commanders in higher regard than the discredited “butchers and bunglers” fraternity of historians – but, while acknowledging the concept of a “learning curve”, Hart is clear that the opposition had their own learning curve and hence stresses the importance of who was learning quicker at any particular time. The learning curve was far from being a smooth one.
The book’s illustrations are helpful in providing visual context, the maps are clear and concise and the notes and index are extensive. The lack of a bibliography with archival sources is unsurprising given the range of the book’s coverage in terms of theatres and years.
Peter Hart’s achievement in this volume is not only in providing a clear description of the war combined with a detailed examination of the significance of key events, but doing this while maintaining a very personal level of contact with the participants – and this goes from the individual soldier in the front line all the way through to those who were directing the conflict. Professor Gary Sheffield has described Hart as the “master of anecdotal history” – he is – but he is also a damn fine historian.
Highly recommended for all those interested in increasing their knowledge and understanding of the Twentieth Century’s greatest conflict.