The Great War, by Peter Hart
A new military history of the first World War not only makes the conflict more intelligible but turns it into a gripping narrative
The Great War
Despite the lack of a subtitle, Peter Hart has written a military history, and a very good one it is. Brisk in style, and supported by vivid extracts from documents, as one would expect from the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum in London, it is immensely readable. It provides an essentially command-level account of the major campaigns of the first World War, by land and sea, though some of the more peripheral fighting (in east Africa, for example) is sacrificed to the battles, mainly in Europe, that determined the outcome.
Just enough of the political context is provided to explain the constraints within which the military operated, but this is the war as seen by generals and admirals. Hart excels not only at making it intelligible but also at turning it into a gripping narrative, which includes extensive and moving quotations from soldiers and sailors who bore the consequences of their commanders’ decisions and faced the realities of combat.
Hart does not duck some of the wider issues that are raised by the war. He writes from a tradition of British military history that for 30 years has sought to rescue the reputations of generals such as Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander on the western front for most of the conflict, and to show that the entire war cannot be summed up in the ghastly first day of the Battle of the Somme, when the British army suffered its highest-ever number of casualties.
The Somme lasted for four months and, the military historians argue, was part of a learning curve (their term) that continued for the rest of the war. By 1918 the British had mastered a new kind of industrial warfare, the nature of which no one had understood in 1914, and which, with tanks and aircraft, heavy artillery and integrated arms, tipped the balance against defensive trench warfare and played the decisive role in the final victory.
Such a thesis is at loggerheads with the idea of the war as futile butchery (and of Haig as the British butcher) that is summed up by the interwar “literature of disenchantment” (Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen) and expressed, for most people nowadays, by Owen’s haunting poetry. Yet the military historians, to their chagrin, feel that they have lost this battle and that Owen’s “pity of war” vision commands popular perceptions of the conflict.
Perhaps Hart’s book will contribute to a sea change in our understanding of the war during the years of the centenary. It has a lot to recommend it in this regard. Much of the “revisionist” British military history has been written in a narrowly national framework, whereas the fighting in the two world wars was, by definition, transnational and has to be explained as such, not least regarding the “enemy”.
While retaining a British focus, Hart manages to do this and provide a broader account. He devotes a good deal of space to the Germans and Austrians. Like many others, he argues that the Germans lost from the moment their daring military plan to knock out the French and then the Russians in an early form of Blitzkrieg failed in 1914. Given the forces ranged against them, they were bound to lose in the long term. This makes it crucial to understand how, in purely military terms, this remarkable army managed to postpone the evil day through four years of bloody but imaginative fighting.
Hart also makes a real effort to integrate the usually neglected French story. The French bore the brunt of the Allied effort for much of the war, and even before 1916, the year of Verdun and the Somme, had lost some 500,000 dead, or three-quarters of the British total for the whole conflict. Russia and the also often-neglected Italian effort receive equally welcome attention.
Only in 1918 does the “British victory” thesis begin to surface. Of course, the British (and empire) contribution was vital. But the French recovery after the 1917 mutinies was just as important, as was the promise of endless American reinforcements, which showed the German elites that they had run out of a future.
Perhaps the most important factor was that the western Allies learned just in time how to fight effective coalition warfare (as they would have to do all over again in 1942-5). Even then German defeat was also caused by the slow grinding down of economic and military attrition and was shrouded in an ambivalence not acknowledged by Hart. The German army was beaten, certainly, but not destroyed in the field. Only the recently arrived American commander, Gen John Pershing, had any appetite for continuing to Berlin. The victory parades took place in London and Paris, not on the Unter den Linden. The consequences were enormous. In 1945 the Allies would insist on “total surrender”.
And here we come to the limits of the learning-curve approach, even when applied more widely than to just the British army. There is a persistent aura of tragedy about the Great War, a term that Hart uses himself when enumerating its human cost. For the war enacted the transformation of the man-based warfare of the 19th century into the machine-based warfare of the 20th.
For much of its duration the generals grappled with an accompanying cultural revolution, groping for solutions that did not yet exist. That is why there could be no Napoleon. The generals were less in control than a command-level account suggests, and ordinary soldiers paid the price. Becoming aware of this caused the French mutinies in 1917.
Through the campaigns and battles described so well by Peter Hart, new and brutally violent forms of conflict were being born. This was the cost of fighting the war, and if the outcome did not live up to the sacrifice, the legacy was all the more bitter.
Some of the soldiers whom Hart quotes bear witness to this reality. This does not mean that the Great War was meaningless, as the “butchery” school would have it, but only that it will take other kinds of history before we can say what it really meant for the soldiers who fought it and for the families of the 10 million who died.
John Horne is professor of modern European history and founding director of the Centre for War Studies at Trinity College Dublin. He published The Blackwell Companion to World War One in 2010.