The First
World War

Michael Howard
There was a music-hall number in England, 1914, called Oh! What a Lovely War. And they weren't kidding. They thought that "The War to End All Wars" would be over in three months --- six at the most. That it stretched on for almost four-and-a-half years surprised everyone, and damn near destroyed the principals.

Sir Howard --- the author of the present tome --- tells us that because "the Great War of 1914-18 was fought on all the oceans of the world and ultimately involved belligerents from every continent, it can be termed a 'world war.'"

    But it was certainly not the first. European powers had been fighting each other all over the globe for the previous 300 years. Those who fought it called it simply "The Great War."

Pyrrus' "another victory like this and we are done for" should have been its theme. And it certainly screwed up the political landscape. For WWI destabilized Russia to such an extent that the Bolsheviks --- a minority of ingrown hotheads and madmen --- were able to subsume a whole sub-continent. It laid in the grave forever the elegant dance of distantly related cousins, brothers, aunts, grandfathers that had ruled England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Russia for the previous 300 years. It made possible the creation (and the pain) of present day Israel.

And it demonstrated for the first time the wonders of technology in blitzing innocents, whole cities, and the lowly soldier. The Kuwait/Iraq war --- which will no doubt come to be called Gulf War #1 --- provided us with a grisly reminder of such technology: gigantic earth-moving machines were called in by General Powell to bury an estimated 50,000 Iraqi soldiers alive --- most of them country boys innocent in the ways of defensive warfare.

Lord Howard is at his best on projections: when, for example, he reminds us how easily the outcome of WWI could have been very different. The Ludendorff Offensive in the waning days came very close to succeeding: for the first time, a direct attack on the front lines threatened to separate the British and French armies. It might well have done so if the Americans had not arrived in force, and if the citizens of Germany had not been so demoralized by the four bleak years they had lived through (the Reichstag was in virtual open revolt).

The author shows how the Germans, even when defeat was inevitable, refused concessions that could have terminated the war much sooner. Even as late as the Spring of 1918, the German High Command was demanding all of Alsace and Lorraine, protectorate status over Belgium, Poland, and the Baltic provinces, and a return of Austrian dominance in the Balkans.

The First World War is a short (140 pages) simple, unadorned summary designed to furnish background to university students who have a term paper due. The maps, seven in number, are excellent, but the text suffers from "Gilbertain Aphasia." This is a writing style generated by a new, simple-minded software called "the Martin Gilbert." It is programmed to instantly deliver history books in the blandest English possible. A book with the exact same title --- The First World War --- was published ten years ago and was one of the first to utilize this technique. It is cited by Lord Howard as "useful chronicle, heavily illustrated with anecdote and pictures." And lavishly steeped in ennui, he might have added.

For the real stuff about WWI, you are well off to pick up Gerard J. De Groot's eccentric but superb reading of the war, also published with the same title, The First World War. It comes from Palgrave.

For the smell, taste, and feel of what it was like to be in the trenches, get In Flander's Fields: The 1917 Campaign by Leon Wolff (Time-Life).

For the beginnings, read the marvelous The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and Theodore Wolff's The Eve of 1914. For the upshot, Margaret MacMillian's recently published Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World is a must.

For an eccentric and surprising overview of the sexuality of the war, among other things, read The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. Winston Churchill wrote a four-volume set on WWI, but it was described by one critic as being "an autobiography of Churchill disguised as history."

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