on 1 June 2000
Professor Stone's book on the fighting on the Eastern Front in World War One is one of the classic studies of the conflict.
However I believe, as does Professor Stone judging from his new introduction, that despite it's authority, the book has a weakness. Stone describes this as the absence of the private soldier.
Military history writing has moved on since this book was written and the absence of "character" from the descriptions can make the book a little dry. Sometimes I found myself re-reading sentences because of the skilful use of metaphor, but, also, I had to keep going back to try and work out which army was which. I have noted this in other works concerned with Russia (or invading Russia) from other periods, Napoleon, World War Two. It is like the distances are so vast that matters become inevitably confused. (They certainly do for the invaders.)
The fumbling on both sides is well captured here and the lack of any meaningful "objective" which leads generals to squabble amongst themselves and, more often than not, "trick" their superiors into committing reserves to their section of the front. The result of this method of doing war can be seen in the vast casualty figures.
Reservations aside, I would recommend this book to anyone seeking an overview of what is a neglected area (in comparison to the Western Front.)
on 30 December 2004
The book is written by a Cambridge and Oxford history scholar and professor Norman Stone and is perhaps the best single book on the Eastern Front during WWI. From reading the book it is easy to understand the author's enthusiasm for the subject when we see his degree of knowledge on the subject and all the details. Clearly the book was a work of love by the author.
Although the book is just a 300 page paperback it is not a quick light read. There are 300 pages of main text and 20 pages of sources notes on four basic subjects, i.e.; introduction to the politics and war preparation, the military battles (which is the majority of the book), Russian economics, and finally a short section on the Russian revolution of 1917. As I said it is not a quick read; it took me over three weeks to read and some parts I had to read twice. Some parts were excellent for inducing sleep - especially all those Polish names and Russian Generals. Having said that some parts are slow, one can say that it is an excellent book.
The crux of the author's arguments is that fate of the war on the Eastern Front was decided by poor Russian management of its economic resources along with a highly fractured and disorganized armed forces, not by and fundamental negative Russian economic factors. This poor Russian effort was further complicated by a weak infrastructure - especially railroads - in an otherwise fast growing Russian economy. Also, the Russians failed to recruit in large numbers, failed to keep pace with modern military developments, lacked officers in numbers, had poor training, and failed to develop good leadership, wasted many available resources, suffered from poor moral especially among the lower ranks, and in general failed to coordinate and properly plan military actions as for example between ground troops and artillery.
During the years 1906 to 1914 the Russians spent enough money to cause worry in Germany outspending Germany in some years, but the money was not spent wisely (examples were too many fortress guns and too much cavalry) and there were still basis problems in the character and structure of Russian forces including the officers and both the tactical and strategic planning. The Russians did have a few successes as we read, but not enough.
The first 43 pages is what I call part one and it covers various introductions by the author - with an update in 1997 - and then the military build up to the war including an economic and military analysis of Russia and to a lesser extent Germany and Austria in the period 1900 to 1914. By 1914 the war was already brewing among the different European colonial powers and is triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand visiting Sarajevo on Sunday June 28, 1914. Initially it is a war between Austria and Serbia but it quickly evolved to include the central powers of Germany, Austria, and Hungary against the so called "Entente" or other European powers including France, Russia, and Britain and its colonies. In August the German generals realizing that they are outnumbered strike deeply into France following the Schlieffen Plan, an attempt to land a quick knock out punch to France, with the intent of defeating France and then sending troops to Russia. But there the plan falters. Tthe German armies turned south before Paris in violation of the Schlieffen Plan exposing their western flank and they are stopped at the Marne. Then the First World War becomes trench warfare on the short Western Front in the fields of north eastern France. Far to the east we read of a series of battles on the Eastern Front over a longer and more complex geographic area of fields, forests, lakes, and mountains. The battles in the east are primarily in and around Warsaw, both to the north and to the south, but eventually cover the whole region to a line from Riga to the Carpathian mountains and Serbia, and eventually to Romania.
The second part about 150 plus pages is the hardest to read and the author attempts to guide us through each and every major Austrian and German battle with Russia, including the early battles in Poland, the winter actions, the retreat back towards Kiev, the Romanian invasion, etc. He goes into great detail and gives the names of all the Polish towns and rivers, and the many of the German and Russian generals. This was the slow read part of the book. He explains the actions with the help of a series of 10 maps (clear but small print) that show the detailed movement of armies, groups, divisions, etc. He explains who won what battle, why, and how, and how its impact on moral, future fights, politics, etc. He discusses artillery, forts, river crossings, supplies, shells, cavalry, movement by rail, food, prisoners, casualties, prisoners, moral, plans, tactics, etc. In all cases he gives lengthy detailed summaries of the various military leaders and their interactions and management.
We learn of the Russian General Brusilov and his many brilliant victories against German and Austrian troops, a sort of WWI Moshe Dyan but without tanks. In general both sides have mixed results, but the more powerful Russians are sent into a retreat by the better managed but smaller German army supported by their excellent rail system.
The next section covers the Russian economy, war production, economics, Russian finances, military recruiting, etc. This gives many insights into the state of the Russian fighting forces and economics up to 1916. By 1916 the economy is in trouble with high inflation, poor management, country to city migration, and the pressure of the war debt. This leads eventually to the broadly supported revolution of early 1917.
The final part is very brief but covers the lead up to the 1917 revolution mainly from an economics perspective, and then the author summarizes the take over of power by the Bolsheviks in late 1917 as the revolution of early 1917 leaves a power vacuum.
All in all an excellent read and impressive summary of this part of the war, especially on the economics, and he covers each and every battle.
Recommend highly 5 stars.
on 4 June 2015
An excellent introduction for the layman.
Addressing an oft-neglected period of of the Great War, Norman Stone provides us with a concise narrative of some of the war's most brutal campaigns. With an impressive array of facts and figures, he debunks the myth of Tsarist Russia being unable to wage total war, debunks the myth of Ludendorff as a military genius, and highlights how the February revolution of 1917 in Russia, was not brought about by mass conscription or severe food shortage, but rather a failure of the authorities to move food from the countryside to the city.
Stone also address another curious factor, the relatively static lines of the Eastern front. Unlike the Western front, the great expanse of the east provided ample room for manoeuvre and great break-through, but as Stone points out, the mobility wasn't there (the combustion engine was still in its infancy) and cavalry were next to useless at exploiting breakthroughs (modern firepower meant that even a squad off men could see off a cavalry troop)
The book suffers slightly from the author's inability to decide whether or not he's writing a military history of the eastern front, or a military history of the Russian army during this period, and this halfway house approach is evident in the latter chapters. Some more information about the Austro-Hungarians would have been welcome.
Despite this, this remains a classic of the genre.
on 21 March 2016
Very, very dryly written, with a heavy emphasis on facts, figures and a broad, strategic depth, Stone does the reader the courtesy of assuming a serious interest in his subject matter, and wastes no time with unnecessary fluff or redundant explanation, getting straight to matters of record, hard numbers, and clear sighted analysis.
The book is, at times, very slow going, and rightly so; it is a theater of war of dehumanising scale, scope and time, dominated by grand strategy and lengthy maneuvere.