Review: The Great War

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

The Great War: 1914-1918 by Peter Hart


Single-volume histories of the Great War are daunting to contemplate. The length of the conflict (four and a quarter years), the staggering toll of death (nearly 10 million soldiers and six million civilians) and the turgid horror of the battles require the historian to be thorough yet selective, erudite yet compassionate. In The Great War: 1914-1918 British historian Peter Hart combines military, political and human stories in a 650-page account that is informative and authoritative. He debunks myths, dispels illusions and gives voice to the soldiers who suffered in this vast slaughter.

The Great WarAbove all, The Great War is a story of war. The four-year conflict accelerated the evolution of weaponry, tactics and strategies. 105-mm howitzers, 5.9-inch shells, 13-inch-thick armour: like many of the territorial gains, the difference between life and death in the Great War was often measured in centimetres. Even uniforms changed, though in some cases far too late: during the first year the French army sent its soldiers into battle in the same conspicuous uniforms of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Having established the strength of the belligerents and their geo-political motivations, Hart moves back and forth between the western and eastern fronts, taking time to describe the war at sea and the campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, Mesopotamia, Italy and Palestine. Italy apart, these “sideshows” have one thing in common — British folly. The Battle of Gallipoli, for example, devised by Winston Churchill, need never have been fought, neither the sea battle nor the disastrous land invasion that followed this initial failure; the fragile army of the Ottoman Empire could have been beaten into submission in Suez and elsewhere. The Salonika Front in Greek Macedonia was comparatively less bloody, but no less foolish: more than 160,000 British troops caught malaria while idling in a campaign that, as Hart writes, achieved little that would not have come from victory on the Western Front.

It was in France and Belgium that the war lasted longest, where casualties were highest, and it is here that Hart achieves a haunting symmetry of politico-military history and individual suffering. ‘Small-scale tragedies litter the history of war: sad reminders that the necessities of war ruin the lives of millions.’

For the British, the nadir of the campaign came in the summer of 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Hart carefully points out that, terrible though the losses were, the idea that the soldiers were “lions led by donkeys” is a myth. ‘The British generals’ tactics were the best that could have been conceived at the time given a vibrant German defence that incorporated all the lessons from the fighting of 1915.’ As he does with all the great engagements, Hart weaves large-scale tactics with telling details. On the first day of the infantry attack, for example, German soldiers resorted to using their own urine to fill the water jackets of their machine guns, such was the relentlessness of the carnage.

The graphic horror of the Western Front gave birth to poetry that is still treasured in the British literary canon. However, the poets were not alone in their command of the English language. Hart quotes numerous front-line letters that not only shed light on the emotional wreckage of the troops, but also display a quality of writing that belies the apparent ordinariness of the writers. Knowing the risks that awaited him, the day before the Battle of the Somme began Captain Charles May of the 22nd Manchester Regiment wrote to his wife:

My darling, au revoir: It may well be that you will only have to read these lines as ones of passing interest. On the other hand, they may well be my last message to you. If they are, know through all your life that I loved you and baby with all my heart and soul, that you two sweet things were just all the world to me. I pray God I may do my duty, for I know, whatever that may entail, you would not have it otherwise.

The following day, May would become one of 19,240 British soldiers killed in the first 24 hours of this infamous battle. Over the same time frame nearly 38,000 others became casualties.

The defeat at the Somme owes more to German skill in defence than British incompetence in attack. Hart also stresses that the battle needed to be fought to maintain the Entente with France. Some might consider the commonplace nature of strikes in modern France and scoff after reading that French troops mutinied en masse in 1917 following the failure of the Nivelle offensive, but the staggering losses of the French army during the war (1.4 million dead) were compounded by the fact that the carnage took place within France’s borders, on wrecked French land and in hollowed French villages. The Somme was hellish, but the Battle of Verdun, in which French forces resisted a German offensive for nearly a year, ‘plumbed the depths of human misery.’

This war, ‘the single most important event of the twentieth century,’ is no longer living history. Fortunately, Hart has written a book that that brings it to life.

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