Bookwatch: The First World War
Vyvyen Brendon considers the latest books on the First World War.
Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918
By Roger Chickering
Cambridge University Press, 1998, £12.95 ISBN 0 521 56754 8
The Great War 1914-18
By Spencer C. Tucker
UCL Press, 1997 272 pp, £12.95 ISBN 1 857 28391 0
The First World War
By Stuart Robson
Longman Seminar Studies, 1998, £6.75 ISBN 0 582 31556 5
Have you forgotten yet? asked Siegfried Sassoon in the year after the Great War ended. Eighty years on, as the war passes from living memory, interest in 'those gagged days' is kept alive by a host of novels, films, newspaper articles, television documentaries, new museums and battlefield tours. And scholars still argue about the causes, conduct and results of a war which has cast such a long shadow over this century.
Roger Chickering’s book is evidence of a new emphasis for English language readers on the war from the other side of the trenches and the other side of Europe. Designed originally for American undergraduates, it deserves to be read widely among sixth-form and university students in Europe as well. Chickering says that 'Imperial Germany died as it had been born, in war'. Using a clear narrative style, enlivened by frequent quotations and anecdotes, he analyses how and why this happened. For an audience more accustomed to criticisms of Haig or Nivelle, he draws attention to mistakes of German military commanders. The Schlieffen plan was 'geared to the wrong century'; the Verdun offensive 'demonstrated the bankruptcy of Faltenhayn's plans'; Admiral von Holtzendorff's launching of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 was a 'leap m the dark' which 'ensured the country's eventual defeat', and Ludendorff's final offensive was ‘the product of wishful thinking'. Furthermore he suggests that notwithstanding the euphoric 'spirit of 1914' and the absence of mutiny, subtle forms of resistance and emotional disorder were as common in the German, as in many another, army.
The home front is woven into the text throughout. Chickering argues that, despite Germany's reputation for efficiency, it was unable to surmount the daunting challenges posed by protracted war, naval blockade and the superior economic strength of its combined enemies. 'Massive bureaucratic intervention’ often seemed only to accentuate the problems, as when the government tried to relieve the grain shortage by the slaughter of nine million pigs in 1915, only to deprive people of an invaluable source of food and manure. Deprivation and discord were intensified during the last two years of the war by the 'ruthless' Hindenburg programme and the political dominance of the army; the 'plunder' of occupied territories like Belgium and Poland did not bring sufficient relief. The end came when exhaustion on both the home and battle fronts made Germany unable to resist counter attack by combined British, French and American forces, who had more men and supplies. Chickering concludes that the war was not lost by the civilian 'stab in the back' conjured with by Hindenburg and Ludendorff' but by their own 'arrogant miscalculations' – a 'stab in the front'.
The meaty argument and rich detail of this book contrast with the plainer fare offered by another American academic, Spencer C. Tucker. He provides a straightforward factual account of the whole war, going through it year by year, front by front, battle by battle. Frequent sub-headings make the chapters easy to follow, if somewhat disjointed; the heading ‘Sixth through Ninth Battles of the Isonzo for example, is followed by a mere six lines of text. Separate chapters deal with other theatres of war, home fronts and the peace. Twelve good maps are included, as well as 34 pages of notes and bibliography. The book has no bias or even a point of view – though it occasionally betrays its American origins, as when 'The United States' forms the title for a section on the home front dealing also with Italy, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Despite its lack of discussion and analysis this is a useful reference book which should be in any sixth-form or college library.
The addition of a volume on the war to Longman’s revamped Seminar Studies is welcome. Stuart Robson's book has an attractive front cover adorned with John Nash's Over the Top and it ends with a stimulating set of documents ranging from Bethmann Hollweg's war aims to a dictionary of soldiers' slang. The text in between is based on a wide range of sources, as the long bibliography demonstrates. There are some illuminating insights. Professor Robson (of Canada's Trent University) makes a piquant distinction between early badly-planned disasters and later well-planned disasters, which were even more horrific. Such ideas are vitiated, however, by the writer's inappropriately flippant tone, typified by an early chapter heading which reads 'Oops! The Plans Fail'. Later we are told that Tsar Nicholas 'could not have organised a garage sale let alone an army'; that when the Lusitania went down with 'only' 128 American passengers America's reaction was such that 'one would have thought the Mayflower was sunk'; that the Hindenburg line was 'a battle zone with an attitude'; that 'both sides had too much Verdun'; that the Third Battle of Ypres 'had three acts with a spectacular preview before the curtain went up'; and that appeasement during the 1930s was a 'job action' (i.e. strike) in which 'the upper classes simply refused to provide their sons to uphold the interests of the state'. Readers who can stomach such tasteless morsels will find this a competent summary of the war and its impact, complete with five maps, short biographies and a detailed chronology.
Robson ends with a quotation from 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen, which is surprising in view of his earlier rejection of such disenchanted views as a myth perpetrated by 'junior officers from relatively privileged backgrounds'. In truth, the poetry of Owen and Sassoon is neither more nor less valid than the stoical letters and cheery songs of 'ordinary' soldiers'; all help to ensure that the Great War is not forgotten.
Vyvyen Brendon is Head of History at St Mary’s School, Cambridge.
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