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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A work of rare insight, 7 Feb. 2014
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This work is not a comprehensive look at the Great War but deals with four episodes, the Battle of the Marne, the Battle of Jutland, the Battle of Verdun and the German summer offensive of 1918.

What I especially like about the book is when Barnett looks at strategy rather than purely military tactics in the field. Barnett elaborates how a decisive British victory at the Battle of Jutland would have transformed the war, allowing more resources to the Western Front and also enabling the Allies to aid Russia with much needed weaponry and munitions, probably preventing her defeat and therefore the Russian Revolution. He also contends that the German High Seas Fleet should not have been built as it was large enough to drive the British into the anti-German camp with France and Russia but not strong enough to defend German trade and colonies.

Nevertheless, Jutland broke the spell of British naval invincibility gained at Trafalgar. Barnett claims that this was a judgment on British society and exposed Britain’s industrial obsolescence. Added to this, the Royal Navy no longer possessed 'the Nelson touch' i.e. adventurous initiative but instead was moribund with blind obedience to orders and dominated by birth and class (most of its officers came from the richest 1% of the nation). As Admiral Fisher noted: “We are drawing our Nelsons from too narrow a class.”

Barnett also notes the folly of separating military decisions from political considerations, understanding Clausewitz's dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He criticises the German war effort because was it being run in the latter years of the war not by the Chancellor but by Ludendorff and Hindenburg. Unrestricted submarine warfare made sense in purely military terms because it would enable (they believed) the British to be starved into submission. In political terms it was insane because it would provoke America into the war.

Barnett’s understanding of the wider picture, the rise and fall of nations, demonstrates rare insight. For since German unification in 1871, the Germans had been forging ahead in industry and capturing foreign markets from the French and British. Britain and France in contrast were steadily declining. Britain and France possessed vast empires overseas, a relic of a bygone time when they were more powerful than the petty German states. However the realities of power by 1914 had changed and the fact that the weaker states of Britain and France possessed huge empires while Germany had small colonies was an anachronism as it did not reflect the new power relationship. That is why Britain and France had a vested interest in the status quo and why Germany challenged it in 1914.

A fixed, static territorial status quo is absurd as it does not take into account the growth and decay of the power of nations. While German advance took place in economic and industrial spheres, Britain did not challenge it; only the political expansion of Germany roused the British into challenging German power. Yet this reflected the liberal illusions of the British, their belief that the natural state of the world was peace and the harmony of interests, with war as a disagreeable aberration caused by wicked persons. They no longer believed that war was but a violent expression of the ceaseless struggle between organised human groups whose interests inevitably conflict and where words cannot bridge the unbridgeable. They no longer realised that competition between states is constant, expressing itself in a continuum of diplomatic rivalry, economic competition, in threats of force, in the local use of force, in a limited war and finally in total war.

The decisive turning point of the war was American intervention. It was the threat of America’s huge industrial and military potential that made the Germans realise they would lose the war. The war had demonstrated that Germany was more powerful than any purely European combination of powers. What the politicians at the Paris Peace Conference had to work out was how to redress the balance of power in Europe by weakening Germany. Would Britain and France take the opportunity of constructing Europe into a single economic unit under British and French dominance, replacing Germany’s industries with their own? Unfortunately, this is what they did not do. They created a power vacuum in Europe, which they were not prepared to fill themselves, and imposed restrictive peace terms that they were also not prepared to enforce.

When Germany inevitably revived, the status quo was even more of an anachronism with the realities of power than in 1914. There followed the second war for German hegemony that the Allies could have prevented at Versailles.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very fine book about four WWI commanders, 15 Sept. 2013
F DEL POZO BERENGUER (El Puerto de Santa María) - See all my reviews
If you are interested in WWI and you think you know about it, then this book is for you. It is a book that makes you think. The analysis Barnett makes of each of the four characters that he mainly deals with (Moltke, Jellicoe, Petain and Ludendorff) is very insightful. I didn't know much about Petain, but the other three are scrutinised and they come across as more complex characters than I thought they were; not unidimensional, as they are sometimes portrayed. The part on Jellicoe, in particular, was the most interesting one. (I may be biased, being a naval officer). After having read the book "Castles of Steel" (Massie), which I thought superb, I now have a different view on Jellicoe. Massie's description of him is unidimensional: the prudent, competent, naval savant who knew everything and was more than prepared for his duties as C-in-C of the British dreadnought fleet. Well. Barnett goes much deeper than that, and everything makes sense, insofar as he is analysed as a naval officer of his time, with his flaws as well as his virtues.
But this is not just a book about personalities. Far from that. The battles that took place in which these characters played an important role are likewise analysed. The battle of Jutland makes a great read. Sadly, it is the only naval battle dealt with in the book.
I give it four stars and not five just because the part on Petain lacks the interest of the other three, but it is still worth reading.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking book about Supreme Command in WWI, 13 Feb. 2001
I. Jones "icj" (Liverpool UK) - See all my reviews
What was it like to be a Supreme Commander of your country's forces in WWI? Two German, One French and One Briton are examined in detail. After reading this, I feel a certain sympathy with Von Moltke, who launched the attack against Belgium and France in 1914. He was a man seriously out of his depth.
The book covers some of the most critical periods in WWI, 1914, Verdun and Jutland in 1915 and 1918. It explains some of the questions I have long had and for that reason alone, made it worth the money I paid.
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The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War
The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War by Correlli Barnett (Paperback - 21 Oct. 2010)
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