Norman Stone's history of WW1 is a deceptive little book. It's remarkably short (154 pages in hardback if you exclude maps, references and index), but it says an awful lot. Don't let the size of the book alone persuade you that it doesn't tell you much about the conflct.
Stone's narrative impressively takes in a wealth of factors that played out during 1914-18: he covers the build up to war, the military and strategic events that played out in Europe and beyond, the economic and financial concerns, the technological impact, and the final, cataclysmic events that set in chain the Russian revolution, the end of the war, and the bad peace that teed up a second conflct only twenty years later.
The material and analysis is actually huge in a book this small, and other historians would be advised to adopt some of this minimalism in their own writing. History written like this is interesting, informative and thought-provoking. Stone skilfully weaves the story of this terrible conflict into the wider historical canvas, drawing on events that shaped the war breaking out in the first place, and how what happened pretty much made 1939 all the more inevitable in the longer term. Another plus point, Stone doens't take a partisan view of things by looking at the events only from a Western - or essentially British - perspective.
More than a primer on the subject, or a slim addition to the canon. This should be on the syllabus for the study of history, not just because of the detail and intelligence of the content, but because it also teaches us how to interpret history, and how to write about it, skills sadly lacking in how history is taught in our schools today, and how it is often presented on television.
on 23 April 2008
The great merits of this book are that it is eminently readable, short (2 sessions at most) and very thought-provoking. Stone's key trigger event for the outbreak of war (the Italian annexation of Libya in 1912 leading the Balkan states to think that they too could throw off Ottoman rule, which in turn led to a stronger Serbia clashing with Austria-Hungary) had never occurred to me before. And Stone's one 'what if' moment in WW1 is not on the Western or Eastern front but on the Italian front.
But this book has flaws. There remain irritating inaccuracies (eg he refers to the infamous Zimmerman telegram inviting the Mexicans to involve 'the Mikado of Japan' in their anti-US alliance - this is not a term generally used by any reputable academic to describe the Japanese emperor). But the biggest and most jaw-dropping failure of this book is the way it glosses over the murder of over half a million - and possibly as many as a million - Armenians in 1915. Stone has always been an apologist for Turkey, which is of course where he lives part of the time, but to describe the Armenian 'genocide' (I use this word advisedly) as a "few massacres of deportees" (my paraphrase of his position) without giving any degree of the scale of the atrocity is shocking in my view.
on 18 November 2012
The best thing that can be said of Norman Stone's history of World War One is that it is very short. It covers the causes of the war and each year of the war in one chapter each. When you compare this to other one volume histories of the Great War with their tiny ant like print this is a definite advantage.
Unfortunately though rather than doing his best to just summarise the events that took place Norman Stone still tries to put forward his views and his interpretations of these events. The result reads like a series of history essays arguing a particular individuals point of view.
This is not helped by Norman Stones writing style which I have seen criticised in other reviews. He tends to let sentences ramble on until they become somewhat muddled. I found myself often having to reread some sentences, trying to break them down into the component parts. Thankfully as this is a short book I was willing to persevere but I would be reluctant to buy anything longer written by the same author.
Despite its short length I would not reccomend this book to anyone new to the subject of World War One due to the points I've mentioned. However, if you are already familiar with the subject it does provide some interesting arguements and a useful refresher of the major events of the war. I'm still waiting for a really good one volume history of the Great War to be written.
on 16 November 2010
This is a very good book by Professor Norman Stone about the Great War. The book gives you a good overview of the catastrophic events which took place between 1914-1918. Stone is a controversial historian, with a range of pithy opinions, but he writes beautiful prose which is well worth reading. Stone reveals key information about important turning points on the Western Front and Eastern Front throughout the war. The book would be very beneficial to A'Level History students studying the Great War, first year undergraduates or anyone who has a passing interest in this horrific and terrible conflict. This is a fresh overview of the Great War, with a range of funny and controversial opinions from Stone and a sweeping analysis of how and why the Germans went from a strong position at the beginning of the war to signing the armistice in November 1918. It also has good information about the collapse of the Russian army on the Eastern Front and the role the Turks played in the Great War. Norman Stone writes with passion, verve and wit on this tragic subject. Terrific stuff. 5 stars
on 1 July 2015
This was my choice for Economics book club, and I thought that it was a great choice as it is short, controversial and provides many topics for debate. Here are my notes:
I thought that this was a great book club book: short, erudite, opinionated, full of colourful anecdotes, and controversial opinions. That said these strengths as a book club book mean that it is unbalanced. In particular he is unafraid to voice opinions which appear insufficiently supported by his evidence, and I fear that as a Russian scholar and specialist of the war on the Eastern front he places too much emphasis on the role of Russia in the causes and outcome of the conflict. At a strategic level he demonstrates how war is a mixture of game theory and applied economics. In his reading of history one of the causes of the war was German mercantilism (i.e an incorrect view of how economic growth occurs), and the outcome of the war was determined by which side could bring its resources to the battlefield fastest and supply them there. In summary, I really enjoyed this book. It taught a host of things I was unaware of, and there is a lot to discuss.
• He gives a very clear narrative of the conflict and its causes. Ultimately he lays the blame on German fear of Russia: “The military were now banging the table: Germany could win a war now, but if she waited a further 2 or 3 years, Russia would be too strong.”
• I enjoyed his discussion of logistics, and of how the war of 1870 was largely determined by the greater efficiency of the German railway system. Railways play a big part in his narrative, I particularly liked his discussion of the Austro-Hungarian railways and how these had been deliberately set up to impede trade throughout the Empire, and now made troop movements difficult.
• Economics. The strengths of each nation are shown to depend on their ability to husband and deploy their resources. I liked the discussion of German food shortages and how price controls on grain led farmers to feed it to their pigs, as there was no control on meat prices.
• British exports surged during the war. This whole discussion of the British economy is fascinating and goes against everything I had previously read. Britain increased its exports in order to pay for the war, but this required skilled labour that diverted resources away from the battlefront. 1916 was the only year in recorded history when the British sold more goods overseas than they bought.
• He presents a very succinct over-view of the strengths of the various armies that concentrates on measurable statistics such as levels of training and equipment, rather than more woolly concepts such as military prowess, e.g. The 50 Austrian divisions received less money than the British 6. Again, war boils down to economics.
• Brusilov offensive. Very good description of the problems posed by trench warfare, and how the Russian commander Brusilov was the first to find a way of surmounting them by attacking on a broad front so that the enemy reserve forces are unsure where to deploy.
• The Italian Front. I knew nothing about this, and his descriptions of the horrific treatment of Italian conscripts and the mismanagement of the Italian army are very powerful.
• His firm conclusion that the Germans wanted war and planned for war seems to be based on very tenuous evidence. The diary of the secretary to the Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg shows that the Chancellor was back and forth to Berlin when the German government was meant to be on holiday and above the international crisis. This is very weak evidence that they were secretly planning for war. Bethmann Hollweg is quoted in a private conversation as stating that: “Russia grows and grows. She has become a nightmare.” But there is a huge difference between private prejudice and public policy. Norman Stone does not present enough evidence to back his assertion that the Germans were solely responsible for the war.
• Due to his desire to give a clear narrative he neglects to explain why certain decisions were made, and ignores counter-factuals. For instance, Germany’s adherence to the Schlieffen plan of invading France through Belgium is ascribed simply to stubbornness, but surely there must have been some discussion about the relative merits of the cost of changing their invasion plans versus bringing Britain into the war against them. Throughout the war Germany showed a lack of flexibility, and a moral certainty that was extremely costly to them (unrestricted submarine warfare, atrocities in Belgium, the Schlieffen plan). This demands some explanation.
• As a lecturer at a Turkish University he gives Turkey far too much emphasis as a cause of the conflict: “A Russian nightmare was a German in charge of the Straits, and the arrival of that German military mission at Sirkeci station in December 1913 marked the beginning of the countdown to war, eight months later.” Really? Where is the evidence?
• He gives a very clear linear reading of history, but some of his logic is unclear. For instance, “During the Italian War, in 1911-1912, the Turks had closed the Dardanelles; there had been an immediate economic stoppage in southern Russia. To get security at the Straits was a vital matter for Russia, and early in 1914 the Entente Powers forced the Turks to grant a status close to autonomy to the partly Armenian provinces of eastern Anatolia.” (p.15) How does forcing Turkey to grant Eastern Anatolia autonomy ease international access to the Dardanelles? The logic is not clear, and no clarification is given.
• He has a tendency to throw out facts off-hand that require some context and explanation, which he neglects to provide. “poison gas, banned by the Hague conventions, but justified [by the Germans] for the weaseling reason that French rifle bullets also released a gas on impact.” Eh? Did they? Explain?
I really enjoyed this book. Its strengths are its clear narrative and firm conclusions, and any quibbles I have are a result of its brevity and its consequent need to ignore caveats and extraneous detail.
Norman Stone is a bit of an academic rascal given to tweaking noses and thumbing his own so it is pretty much guaranteed that much of what he says in this highly readable book will annoy somebody somewhere. I remember A J P Taylor putting my great-uncle in a dreadful bate in much the same way. This is a short history but it is not a standard history. The first precludes any explanation of deviation from the second. If you want to know what others think then you will have to read their books too.
Because Stone's knowledge is considerable he can distill and analyse in ways denied to lesser historians. Working at this level, far above the detail he works without a safety net. I imagine entertaining counter-blasts are currently being prepared in the sacred groves of Academe.
As a lay reader the whole book was great fun, its brevity permitted it to make interesting comparisons that are missed out in the richness of (say) Strachan. I would recommend it to all who enjoy entertaining history in the manner of a tutorial, but perhaps not to those who prefer detailed history in the form of a thesis.
on 22 May 2011
I bought this book to get a better understanding of the events of WW1. I think most people have some sort of understanding of what occurred, but I came to the realisation that I'd never really read a full overview of the entire conflict. I decided to go for this account because the reviews gave the impression that it was a fairly concise, readable narrative of the war.
Overall, I was very impressed. Everything is clearly covered in simple chronological order. All of the main events are described and, although it is quite brief, I didn't feel this was to the detriment of my understanding. Clearly if you want a deeper analysis of the war then a longer volume would be required, but for a basic overview I found this perfect.
Although the main emphasis is on keeping a readable narrative going, I thought the level of analysis was also very good. The author isn't afraid to put forward his opinions on why a particular event occurred and he doesn't shy away from attaching blame to certain indviduals or crediting others for successes. As with any history of this nature, there will always be debate over these subjects, but for me the correct balance was struck between dealing with contentious issues and making it an accessible read.