The Great War and the Making of the Modern World

The Great War and the Making of the Modern World
Jeremy Black
Continuum   352pp   £20

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With Our Backs To The Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
David Stevenson
Allen Lane   736pp   £30

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The First World War continues to be one of the most dynamic fields of study for historians of the 20th Century. In Britain we are not yet free from the cardboard cut-out ‘lions led by donkeys’ approach, but the two excellent books under review show how much more there is to the debate. The author of the first, Jeremy Black, is hugely prolific, with over 100 books to his credit. The Great War and the Making of the Modern World is typical of his work. Although he is not primarily a specialist historian of the Great War, Professor Black has a very wide knowledge of the literature; he sets the conflict, too often seen as a European war with some extra-European elements bolted on, firmly in a global context; and he makes some very perceptive observations. He has also made some effective use of primary sources, particularly soldiers’ letters and diaries. Typical of Black’s breadth of vision is his depiction of the dismemberment of the German empire by the victorious allies as the final stage of the partition of the African continent: other recent historians have also emphasised the imperial nature of the conflict.

Black also argues that in Britain and Germany ‘a patriotism of national exceptionalism’ emerged. In the latter case this was born of the erroneous and pernicious lie that Germany had not been defeated on the battlefield but had been ‘stabbed in the back’. For Britain, this was a product of the notion that the victory of 1918 showed that, despite economic difficulties, the country remained a major international power. This is a very interesting idea, but unfortunately Black does not develop it to its full potential. Neither does he give much space to the military consequences of the fighting. For all that, the book gives crisp and incisive chronological chapters in which narrative is blended with analysis. The final chapters, which deal with the book's subtitle, the making of the modern world, are of very high quality.

The title of David Stevenson’s With Our Backs to the Wall is taken from Douglas Haig’s famous order of the day issued in April 1918 at a critical moment in the German offensive. Although appearing to be on the verge of defeat in the spring, from the late summer onwards the Allies took the offensive on the Western Front and inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the Germans. Having already written the best single volume history of the war, Professor Stevenson has now produced the best analytical account of the climatic year of the First World War that I have read. Although he devotes several chapters to telling the story in a straightforward manner, the meat of the book lies in his forensic examination of the factors that led to victory and defeat. Stevenson discusses aspects such as military intelligence, technology and logistics, and in a particularly important chapter, ‘The Human Factor’, matters such as morale and manpower. It is all too easy when discussing such a vast subject to lose sight of the role of the individual, but armies – and for that matters states and empires – are composed of people, with fears, families and emotions. Arguably, the clinching factors in the Allied victories of 1918 was the ability of their soldiers to overcome the travails of the spring and the collapse of German military morale in the autumn.

However, Stevenson is not narrowly focused on the Western Front. He devotes a chapter each to maritime aspects (securing the sea lanes was an essential precondition for victory), war economies and the home fronts. A book that covers both tactical developments and gender issues is an extremely ambitious enterprise, but Stevenson makes it work. Specialists will have their quibbles – I thought he underplayed the importance of the link between improved Allied logistics and operational success, for instance - but this does not detract from the achievement.

As the year 2014 grows nearer, the trickle of books published to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will grow to a flood. These two books will be tough acts to follow.

Gary Sheffield is Professor of War Studies at the University of Birmingham and the author of The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (Aurum Press, 2011).

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