There are many, many ways in which history can be recounted. Over the last few decades, the trend in reporting history has taken a decidedly Marxist tone. From the rulers and their deeds the focus has shifted to the ruled and their lives. From the grand palaces we have moved to unearthing modest homes; and in war, from generals and their schemata of battle we have moved to the foot-soldier’s letters to his family back home.
This history of WW1 predates this red-shift of historians’ affections. There is little personal, less emotional, and nothing of the proletariat in it. It is written by a military historian, and in his scope lie the grand war-plans of the Field Marshals and the Crown Princes, the whirling, sweeping moves along fronts miles broad, entire armies described as pawns on a chessboard spanning a continent that was awash in blood by the end of the “Great War” but stubbornly refused to learn a single lesson from it.
Within the limitations described above, this book is a marvellous read indeed. It is, arguably, unmatched as a military history of WW1, written by one of the world’s most eminent military historian; close enough to the actual events to have eye-witness accounts while at the same time far enough to be less clouded by nationalistic or other flavours. For a student of the history of war this book reads like a pot-boiler, full of action and larger than life characters facing each other in situations that stymied the smartest among them. Each major chapter in the war has its own section, described like a set-piece that stands alone. The set-pieces are grouped together into chapters with a preamble which provides a bird’s eye view of the entire action.
The pages are awash with action, moves and counter-moves, feints and strategic retreats, mad dashes across ravaged terrain and dogged resistance in hellish trenches. Every major action of war is detailed in technical, tactical, and strategic detail. It elevates the war to the heroic struggle, the paean to mankind’s endurance, the lofty epic that, for centuries, has been the popular vision. The focus is on the leaders, the generals and the commanders, and the great struggle of wills between them. But in a way, by concentrating on their actions, Liddell Hart exposes them for they are – mortals; with a few more medals than the other.
You will marvel at Foch’s nonchalance and confidence while the Germans are within sniffing distance of Paris; at the British General French’s (yes, really)incessant swaying between extremes of fanciful hope and premature despair; at the refusal of both sides to look for alternate ways out of the trench deadlock, at the resistance to modern technology – be they aircraft or tanks; at the utter daftness of Brusilov and the other Russian generals in forcing ill equipped, demoralized men into battle with such an organized enemy; at Hindernberg’s lack of a long term goal for his short-term tactics. Page after page makes you realize just how much sheer, dumb luck matters in war, at times more than all the astuteness, vision, preparation and courage of an entire nation.
There are omissions, of course. Precious little is mentioned outside the main battleground of Europe (and the Middle East in the context of Turkey). And there is no talk of the colonial armies put into use by the Empires on both sides of the conflict. That the human angle is absent was mentioned at the start of the review, of course.
In the end, the sense you get of the Great War is that of the author as a bird soaring above the European battle lines, calmly observing the ebb and flow of armies and their fortunes; too far removed to smell the smoke, see the mud or taste the blood.
But with all its faults, it is a masterpiece of what it sets out to be, a complete military history of a Great War.