Book Review – The Great War by Peter Hart

The First World War is a virtually forgotten conflict in the United States. In fact, if there hadn’t been a World War II, I doubt many people would know it even took place. In The Great War, historian Peter Hart rectified this through an outstanding narrative history. He detailed many theaters of war on both land and sea. Utilizing primary sources including journals and letters from combatants on both sides of the conflict he gave readers a first-hand view. He varied his information in that he presented writings from generals in the high command to those of front line soldiers. This variety along with his detailed analyses greatly enhanced my understanding of the war.

This August will mark the 100th anniversary of the war’s advent making the book’s publication rather timely. The title came from the war’s original name. As Mr. Hart showed throughout the book, the First World War led to many military innovations. He described the devastating power of machine guns, tanks, aircraft and poison gas. These new weapons combined with outdated strategies led to casualty figures that still stagger the mind today.

…It is shocking to record that some 27,000 Frenchmen died on 22 August alone. This was an almost unprecendented slaughter in the long history of warfare. (Page 46)

He added the following observation of the same campaign.

French casualties during these failed offensives exceeded 200,000, of which over 75,000 were dead in just a few days of desperate fighting. (Page 48)

Of course, he cited the 57,470 casualties of which 19,240 soldiers the British lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. (Page 224)

Joseph Stalin once said that, “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Hart understood that. He populated his narrative with letters home from common soldiers who didn’t survive the war. He related the following from a soldier to his wife and infant daughter.

I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal – there is no room for it here. Also it is demoralizing. But I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water…My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours. (Page 218)

Captain Charles May wrote these words on the day before his death during the Battle of the Somme. “Small scale tragedies litter the history of war: sad reminders that the necessities of war ruin the lives of millions.” (Page 219) As horrible as this and other stories like it were to read, I appreciated the way Hart humanized the horrors of battle.

Hart also took a more modern view of the generals’ conduct during the conflict. The myth of the “chateau generals” has passed into popular folklore.  Hart explained how commanders such as Foch and Haig recognized the changing nature of warfare. They did their best to adapt their tactics to accommodate for it. I thought it very enlightening how the author pointed out that “the nature of coalition warfare” (or politics) forced generals to engage in battles that shouldn’t have been fought. It’s tough to blame the commanders who did the best they could in an impossible situation.

Hart presented commentary from soldiers and officers on both sides of the conflict. I thought his narrative would’ve been bolstered if he’d included sources from civilians. As he wrote, approximately 950,000 civilians died due to military actions during the war. Another 5,893,000 died from war-related famine or disease. (Page 468) I would’ve liked to hear non-combatants’ thoughts on this “war to end all wars.”

My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany fought for the Americans in the First World War. In fact, I have a photo of him with his company across from my desk as I’m writing this. Since a close relation of mine served in the conflict I’ve always been curious to learn more about it. As Pop Mike passed away fourteen years before my birth, I never had the chance to ask him. Whenever I visit his grave at Beverly Memorial Cemetery I’m in awe of the rows and rows of markers that dot the landscape. Crafters of foreign policy must make many decisions. Whenever I look around the cemetery I’m reminded of the high cost that incurs when they make the wrong ones. I thank Peter Hart’s The Great War for making that point terribly clear.

 

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