Twentieth-Century War and Conflict

Twentieth-Century War and Conflict: A Concise Encyclopedia
Edited by Gordon Martel
Wiley  440pp  £19.99

The purpose of this book, whose articles are drawn (updated, though not always the ‘further reading’) from Blackwell’s five-volume Encyclopedia of War (2012), is to provide ‘the essential information on the conflicts and concepts that shaped global warfare in the 20th-century and up to the present day’. The publisher hopes that it will be ‘accessible to students and general readers … an affordable and handy personal reference’.

The editor-in-chief, Gordon Martel, has set out to cover all the major wars and conflicts during the period, each entry of from 1,000 to 6,000 words, together with discourses on matters such as chemical warfare, ethnic cleansing, psychological warfare and women and war. It is a comprehensive survey, though the ‘Arab Spring’ and the phenomenon of Islamic State evidently did not make the deadline. Nor, surprisingly, is there any discreet consideration of social media, surely the latest weapon of war.

The narrative entries are very fine indeed, with excellent maps. The coverage of the First World War is extensive and complementary. The essay on the Italian Front, by Bruce Vandervort, is quite masterly, though elsewhere judgments are, perhaps in their brevity, startling. David Woodward’s assessment that the costly frontal offensives on the Western Front were the only way to win the war – ‘a cruel truth’ – is a commentary of despair, a sad abnegation of strategy and generalship.

There are some real gems. William Kautt on the ‘Wars of the Irish Revolution’, as the IRA’s battles with the British and among themselves between 1911 and 1923 are increasingly called, is wonderfully lucid and robust. Seumas Miller on ‘The War against Terrorism’ is measured, civilised and shrewd. Brian Farrell on the Malayan Emergency – in many ways the British army’s finest hour outside the two world wars – is outstanding.

‘Topics’ and ‘concepts’ are more problematic the more they tend to the abstract. ‘Chemical Warfare’ is straightforward enough, but Susan Grayzel’s ‘War and Sexuality’, a particularly long entry, tends more to op-ed, interesting though it is. ‘The study of sexuality is integral to the study of warfare, and vice versa’, she writes. I cannot speak for every staff college in the world, but I would be surprised if it were seen thus (yet, at least) by professionals. 

Some entries seem perfunctory. ‘War and Cinema’ gets eight pages, ‘War Photography’ nine, but ‘War Poetry’ only two and a half. James Winn deals with the poets of the Great War in but a page, then asks (as an editorial writer asked in 1943) ‘Where are the War Poets’ [of the Second World War]? He finds just three before going on to Vietnam and Bob Dylan.

This is, however, an accessible book, made especially handy by a good index and contents list. The reader who absorbs its variegated entries will gain a sure grasp of warfare in the 20th century, the bloodiest to date, and also of the 21st, which if less bloody looks like being no less conflict-torn. One hopes that the publisher has a second, further updated edition in preparation.

Allan Mallinson’s The Making of the British Army (2009) is published by Penguin Random House.

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