on 4 June 2013
With the Centenary of the Great War fast approaching, together with the inevitable avalanche of books that will accompany it over the next six years, the challenge for the student of this conflict will be to sift out the books that add to the body of knowledge & steer clear of those that regurgitate old, sometimes out of date or discredited views. This is particularly relevant when it comes to looking at single volume histories of the war - with the aim of these books being the concise explanation of the key issues and events in such a way as to engage and inform the reader.
Peter Hart's "The Great War: 1914-1918", published by Profile Books in April 2013 is the latest entry to the field and comes at a particularly timely moment.
Hart is well known not only through the numerous books he has already written on the conflict but also in his role as Oral Historian of the Imperial War Museum - and it is this latter experience that enables him to add a level of personal connection with the combatants through their reminiscences and thereby bring a new perspective to global events.
While the actual sequence of events that lead to war are still the subject of debate, the case is clear in this book for the inevitability of war in August 1914 after decades of inconclusive conflicts and unresolved geopolitical ambitions. With none of the participants prepared to accept a reduction in their national "economic, political, military and imperial ambitions", the slide towards war was unavoidable.
Hart deserves credit for highlighting the often neglected role of the French in the early years of the war - their losses of 27,000 dead on one day in August 1914 in the Battle of the Frontiers is not widely known but should be to place British losses on the 1st July 1916 into context. The time bought by the French nation in the opening two years of the war at an appalling cost should not be under recognised - without that blood sacrifice, the war would have taken a very different course.
While Hart does focus on the major fronts with reduced emphasis on the more peripheral sideshows, this is entirely in line with his view that these had the greatest potential to win the war and therefore demand the bulk of the attention. A central tenet of his argument is that the war was only going to be won by defeating the main enemy, Germany, on the main front, the Western Front. Hart is correspondingly scathing in his criticism of those "Easterners" such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill for diverting scarce resources to what were essentially sideshows. Having said that, the book does not neglect the other fronts with Gallipoli (unsurprisingly bearing in mind Hart's previous two works on this fascinating campaign), Salonika, Palestine and Italy all receiving good coverage as does the war in the air and at sea. Coverage of the African fighting is missing but this omission is understandable given the ambition of covering the entire war in one volume.
The book provides a detailed narrative of the ways in which technology and tactics improved and adapted throughout the war leading initially to the successes of the opening day of the Cambrai offensive in November 1917 before coming to a logical conclusion in the form of the "all arms battle" of the Hundred Days campaign that began on 8th August 1918 and lead to the surrender of the German forces on 11th November.
Hart does belong to the "revisionist" school of military history - or possibly even post-revisionist - in that he generally holds the achievements of the senior commanders in higher regard than the discredited "butchers and bunglers" fraternity of historians - but, while acknowledging the concept of a "learning curve", Hart is clear that the opposition had their own learning curve and hence stresses the importance of who was learning quicker at any particular time. The learning curve was far from being a smooth one.
The book's illustrations are helpful in providing visual context, the maps are clear and concise and the notes and index are extensive. The lack of a bibliography with archival sources is unsurprising given the range of the book's coverage in terms of theatres and years.
Peter Hart's achievement in this volume is not only in providing a clear description of the war combined with a detailed examination of the significance of key events, but doing this while maintaining a very personal level of contact with the participants - and this goes from the individual soldier in the front line all the way through to those who were directing the conflict. Professor Gary Sheffield has described Hart as the "master of anecdotal history" - he is - but he is also a damn fine historian.
Highly recommended for all those interested in increasing their knowledge and understanding of the Twentieth Century's greatest conflict.
I suppose we could call this the first single-volume post-revisionist history of the First World War. Its author Peter Hart will be known to many readers thanks to his many previous and well-received works on the subject, most notably recently on "Gallipoli" and "1918: A very British victory". Attendees at Western Front Association and Great War Forum conferences will also know him as an entertaining, knowledgeable speaker who is not afraid to voice his opinions. In the main, these opinions hark back to the way the men of 1914-1918 saw the war - necessary, hard fought, bloody, wasteful and with respect for their leadership - rather than that of the revisionist school - of blunder, of lions led by donkeys and of futility - which later emerged and has become so entrenched. In "The Great War", Hart takes on the ambitious task of narrating the whole war from his viewpoint and succeeds in producing an engaging and pacy work that is enjoyable to read and may open many eyes to the realities of the conflict.
It is good to see (and given Hart's previous work, perhaps unsurprising) that the war beyond the Western Front receives fine coverage. The military operations in the key theatres of war are explained, for as the author says you cannot understand the Western Front without understanding the Eastern, and so on, although almost inevitably it is France and Flanders which receives most attention. Gallipoli, Salonika, Palestine, the 'white war' in Italy and the war at sea all come into scope and it is really only the fighting in Africa which is an engagement of any scale that is absent.
The writing is fluent and clear, and not academic in style although the research is clearly thorough and based on a wide range of sources. It is great to see that this steps into French, German, Turkish and other material from outside the UK, although we should not be surprised that time, budget and no doubt language are a limitation on just how far a man can go in delving into unexplored sources from overseas. Hart takes us from politics and grand strategy to the experience of the men in the trenches: this is primarily a narrative of military operations but there is enough coverage of the political for the reader to grasp why these battles were undertaken and the ambitions of the national leaderships that underpinned them.
All in all, a very good book and for £25 an absolute snip. Will it stand the test of time and take its place as a key work in Great War historiography? I am not sure. We are about to be deluged by new publications, timed to take advantage of heightened interest around the centenary and Peter Hart's work may find itself amongst lots of others. But it will stand out as a clear expression of a well-researched body of thought and an entertaining read. That may not be the case for all we are about to receive.
The book is completed by a number of clear maps and a selection of photographs, although some of these are familiar from previous publications. A lengthy set of notes and a good index complete it.
Peter Hart's reputation for writing incisive histories of the events of 1914-1918 is very well founded. His histories of the Somme, Gallipoli & the 1918 campaigns (amongst others) are some of the very best of their kind. And now, in this, his latest and most ambitious work, he applies his by now familiar approach to telling the story of the whole conflict.
But, if anything, in this work I detect an even stronger and increasingly confident narrative theme to his description of events. As "the master of popular history" (an oddly pejorative term in the hands of some), the author brings together the voices of senior commanders and political leaders through to the ordinary private soldier to give an overview of events throughout the course of the war.
What no-one will be left in any doubt about is that `popular' (that word again) versions of how the Great War was conducted are often completely wrong-headed. The significance of side-shows in romantic locations is often exaggerated but accompanied by a disastrous underestimation of Allied opponents, particularly of the Ottoman Turks, that made them feasible in the minds of ill-informed opportunist politicians in the first place.
Ironically, as irrelevant to final victory over Imperial Germany defeating the likes of Bulgaria truly was, these campaigns are rarely described as futile - the very word that defines many perceptions of where the war was truly fought, won and lost: on the Western Front. And no-one reading this work be left in any doubt about that.
The evolution of strategy and tactics is outlined clearly and succinctly; indeed, rarely can a work approaching 500 pages have been as fast-paced as this excellent work. It remains, though, a human document and the cost of war is never lost on the reader.
This is another outstanding contribution to the history of the Great War by Peter Hart. And possibly the first use of the word `embuggerance' in any similar work. Highly recommended.
on 11 August 2013
Anyone who wants to read an overview of the Great War, especially strategy and tactics, should look no further than Peter Hart's excellent book. He covers all the theatres of war except East Africa and his combination of narrative, analysis and personal testimony, from both sides of the wire, and from senior officers down to ordinary ranks, make for an engaging, informative and thoughtful read. That said, it could be a challenge to get to grips with the narrative when you are coming at the subject with zero knowledge, but that is only to be expected. This is not a "popular history", it requires a certain degree of concentration, but neither has it been written in a stilted style by an academic sitting in an ivory tower. Peter Hart demonstrates that he is very much a "hands on" historian with empathy for his subject, honed as much from interviewing veterans of many conflicts as from his academic research.
I have a reasonable working knowledge of the war fought on the Western Front, but knew next to nothing about other areas of the conflict. This book fills in the gaps and even if I still struggle with the detail, I do at least have an awareness of the bigger picture, including ordnance and munitions. I would rather, for example, Peter Hart gave me the opportunity to get to grips with the specification of a British Mark I tank, a Schneider CA tank and an A7V tank etc., even if my non-technological mind struggles to grasp the detail, than gloss over it just because it makes for an easier read.
Peter Hart makes no bones about the fact that the main arena was the Western Front, but he skilfully interlinks the crucial role played by the Navy, as well as the campaigns on the Eastern Front and other battlegrounds. It is difficult to escape commentary nowadays (informed or otherwise) about the brutality and, at times, ineffectiveness of operations on the Western Front, but this book sets background and context e.g. how the British Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig, was often hindered by Prime Minister Lloyd George and had to tactfully negotiate with the French Chief of General Staff, who was the senior partner.
Peter Hart evokes a feeling of profound sadness at the futility of "Easterner" side-shows such as Palestine which "was another example of fighting the Turks simply because they were there ... " He points out that: "As with Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and Salonika, Palestine proved to be a waste of resources. The strategic objectives ... could all have been achieved with a far smaller investment of precious resources ... as a direct result of the proliferation of sideshows the BEF would be starved of troops when it needed them on the Western Front during the great German offensives of 1918." All of which was largely in the hands of the politicians and beyond the control of the generals.
My heart bleeds as much reading about the siege of Kut as of the abominations on the well recorded Western Front. The same applies to the personal testimony of survivors of sea battles, such as Stoker Hugo Zenne on SMS Wiesbaden: "We floated between dead companions, dead fishes, hammocks and life jackets ... As long as one has a ship below oneself one hopes; but when one hangs in the water on a raft, the cold slowly rises from the toes and then slowly the limbs go stiff."
Peter Hart writes with verve and, at times, understated humour or irony which adds to the overall satisfying reading experience. Some of my favourite turns of phrase are:-
"Qurna was reputedly the site of the Garden of Eden, but conditions had deteriorated somewhat since those halcyon days."
"As a result, the British camp was disturbed every night by the persistent rattle of pot-shots from a conglomeration of archaic weapons that could have provided a brief history of firearms."
"But those who suffered worst of all were the Arab occupants of Kut - these truly were nobody's children as far as all sides were concerned."
"Mesopotamia was like a vast sponge sucking in British Military resources ... The whole Mesopotamia Campaign had become an object lesson in mission creep ..."
"Meanwhile, incompetence and corruption blossomed unfettered, while at the centre the Tsar was publically embarrassed by the adherence of the Tsarina Alexandra to the ludicrous cult of Rasputin, an unhinged religious mystic with a penchant for irreligious pursuits."
"Nivelle had convinced the politicians, but it would not be those august gentlemen that would be climbing out of the trenches on 16 April."
"This was an amazing venue for modern warfare, the jagged ridges of the great mountains liberally slashed by yawning chasms, the splintering rock magnifying ten-fold the effect of bursting shells to produce a flensing spray of deadly splinters."
"The British priority remained to secure the defence of the Suez Canal, but until towards the end of 1915 it could be fairly said that the Canal was protecting the troops rather than the other way round."
"To act directly, however, is not a necessity in the noble art of politics."
Having read this book once, I will return to it in stages between 2014 and 2018, revisiting the narrative year by year. I first became interested in the Great War in 1999 and the knowledge I have acquired since then has been as much via a process of osmosis as anything else. The more I read and listen to good historians (whether professional or amateur) the more it sinks in. Peter Hart is an excellent historian and if you have a thirst for knowledge of the Great War, this is the book for you!
on 3 July 2013
With the centenary of the Great War looming ever rapidly, interest will, and could said to have already, rise extremely quickly, and with it books, documentaries, films etc etc. One issue with the Great War, especially in the UK, is that by and large it is misunderstood, with many myths and even just basic inaccuracies that have been put forward and regurgitated by authors, the media, documentaries and others.
What this book does, and very timely too, just in time to reach as wide an audience as possible before the centenary, is describe, simply, the war. Not from any country's individual viewpoint (how many in Britain are aware of what happened on the Eastern Front, or indeed of any part of the Western Front not occupied by the French, who lost more men by the end of 1914 than we lost in the entire war?), or forcing an opinion, but simply putting the facts as to what happened, why it happened, and what the result was, interspersed with first hand accounts put into context and helping to illustrate the author's point or give further information as to what it was like to be on the ground. Many books on the Great War either focus on first hand accounts, or by giving a general overview and just describing units without getting a feel for what it was like to be there - this book manages to weave the two together very well.
I cannot highly reccommend this book enough for anyone interested in the war - I have been studying various aspects of the Great War for around six years now, but just several pages into this book I realised just how little of the conflict as a 'World War' I actually knew, and am extremely glad this has come along and re-educated me!
on 8 September 2013
There are no shortages of narratives on the Great War and most military aficionados' have expressed much trepidation about the imminent deluge of fresh titles launched to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Any title offering blanket coverage of over four tumultuous years of armed conflict faces a sizable challenge, for example the contemporary Times History of the War, originally issued in weekly parts, occupies almost a metre of my bookshelves. To succinctly incorporate in one 500 page volume, most of the Great War political manoeuvres and campaigns required the skill of a master of the genre - enter Peter Hart.
This accomplished author and excellent narrator needs no introduction, for he has an impressive back catalogue of military titles. In this his latest work, he delivers with great aplomb his typical incisive examination of the successes and failures of the armed forces of the British Empire, in the process rightly condemning the insulting `lions led by donkeys' myth. Also the unjustly maligned general Douglas Haig receives much empathy from revisionist historian Hart, and rightly so. The book also focuses impartially on the principal belligerents, their successes and failures endorsed with telling quotes from lowly soldiers and their bellicose leaders.
Without an understanding of the all arms world war, individual campaigns would appear incomprehensible, consequently from the outset; critically acclaimed Peter Hart takes you on a poignant journey of enlightenment. The first steps on the road to war are by necessity ponderous, until reaching the battle of the frontiers chapters when the book sets off and continues at a blistering pace. No stone remains unturned as Hart delves into the reasons and tactics behind each twist and turn along the road to Armageddon. Meticulously researched throughout, the Western and Eastern fronts are revisited as the years roll by, allowing the author an opportunity to continue the narrative and simultaneously explain the improvement in military tactics and weaponry. In the Gallipoli 1915 chapter, Hart himself no stranger to the peninsular, imparts on the reader the futility of a campaign doomed to failure. Hart sums up part of the Suvla operation in two chilling sentences "The 29th Division was slaughtered. Alongside them the 11th Division fared no better".
After the humiliating evacuation of Gallipoli the allies repeated their error by landing at the Greek port of Salonika, this disease ridden campaign, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Italy, and Palestine are each assigned a chapter. I particularly enjoyed the three annual chapters relating to the much overlooked war at sea where in common with other chapters, Hart delivers his trademark philosophical quote from a long passed veteran, regardless of nationality. The third sea chapter concludes with a thought provoking comment on the vanquished Germany Navy, "No one would ever know what might have been had they sought out battle in 1914 when the Royal Navy was at its most stretched".
The highly enjoyable work greatly benefits from eight clear campaign maps and excellent quality images including one of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig with his Army Commanders taken on Armistice Day 1918, the accompanying caption pointedly reminds readers these are the men that won the war.
I have no hesitation in recommending this highly interesting and meticulously researched work by this bestselling author. It is a worthy addition to his other titles including The Somme, Bloody April, Aces Falling, 1918: A Very British Victory and Gallipoli. What's more this fine book will only require 5cm (two inches) of your bookcase!
on 29 July 2013
I enjoyed Peter Hart's The Great War and would recommend it to anyone interested in military history. Hart provides an exception account though it does have some shortcommings. Hart gives a concise picture of the prelude to World War I. He explains the political situation in countries soon to be locked in global war. This introduction will allow those with little to no background in European history to be prepared to understand what lies ahead.
Hart examines the war plans of the major powers and explains why quick mobilization and attack were crucial. He discusses interactions between the various powers which showed that the Great War was not just an accident, but more like a volcanic eruption, building up and awaiting a point of release. As interesting as I found Hart's work, I would still recommend Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. Tuchman examines the prelude and beginning of the war in immense depth that will allow the reader to understand what is behind the statements presented by Hart.
Hart's narrative is embedded with excerpts from memoirs from first hand participants. The compelling selections provide an emotional experience that can be missed by simply retelling events. You get a glimpse of the chaotic struggle of modern warfare. However, with the amount of this content of this nature used by Hart, other details are skipped or shortened to compensate. For instance, Hart does not mention the brutal reprisals perpetrated by the Germans on the Belgian populous and he ignores the battles in the African colonies.
Hart dismisses the accepted belief that British performance at Mons was impressive. He makes a concerted effort to show that they suffered much more than inflicted. He presents many statistics and details that support his case. But his analysis is at odds with Barbara Tuchman and John Keegan's The First World War.
After relating the "Race for the Sea" which brought a close to chance to maneuver. Hart then transfers to the Eastern front. He describes the events in enough detail for one to understand what happened. However, I think Keegan provides more depth here. Hart also does not share many firsthand accounts on the Eastern front. It seems Hart's research on the Eastern Front is somewhat limited. While in my opinion, Hart provides a balanced perspective, the content of the entire book is dominated by the British experience.
Hart then discusses the naval buildup before the war. He examines the British and German naval strategies. Hart writes of several of the clashes between British and German ships. Hart provides a more thorough description of later encounters like the battle of Jutland. Hart also provides much insight to the role of the air forces during WWI. He discusses the uses of scout planes to direct artillery fire and struggle for power between German and British air forces.
Hart continues the story of the war in 1915 through 1918 taking turns from one front to the other. Hart is extremely critical of the British Prime Minister Lloyd George and the theatres of war that the Allies engaged in outside the Western Front. He discusses the failed effort at Gallipoli and stagnant position in Salonika. He also examines the British efforts against Turkey in Mesopotamia and Palestine. Hart explores these non-Western front battles in sufficient detail and examination. However, he follows these in their entirety in individual sections which makes understanding their relative impact and influence more difficult. While Keegan (except at Galipoli) does not go into the detail that Hart does in these campaigns, Keegan does explore them year to year together so the overall picture is more understandable.
Hart covers the final years on the Western front in more detail than Keegan. Hart explains the progression of tactics and weapons on both sides. This back and forth struggle for supremacy is one of the most noteworthy praises to the book. Hart is highly complementary towards the British General Haig. He associates much of the improvement in offensive tactics to Haig. Keegan condemns the offensives on the Western front by the Allies as wasteful destruction of their armies, while Hart portrays them as a necessary evil that are the only avenue to ultimate victory. While Hart presents a well prepared case, I still think the generals of the Western front from both sides were primarily misguided by their belief that their next great offensive would break the will of their enemy. In truth these great offensives caused more damage to the morale of their own troops than the defenders. France nearly capitulated after their own failed offensive in 1917 at Chemin des Dames. Russia fell apart altogether. I believe this shows a hubris in these generals that they would not have persisted with if they were closer to the combat. I would also point out that Germany had to expend significant resources to buttress her ally Austria-Hungary. Maybe if the Triple Entente had properly supported their new allies from the beginning then they would have been more successful in diverting German resources and reducing their own staggering casualties. Again despite my criticisms of some of Hart's positions, his book will be great addition to your reading list.
on 19 May 2013
Explaining the Great War, its causes, what happened, why and the aftermath is a complex and demanding task. The Great War by Peter Hart rises superbly to the challenge. The structure of the book, year by year, front by front is comprehensive and easy to follow. It is supported by excellent maps of all the fronts which allow easy cross reference with the text.
Peter Hart demonstrates a mastery of the subject but is able to convey the twists and turn of events and characters in a clear and convincing manner. A great strength lies in the stories within the story. The use of personal quotes bring to the book the raw emotion of war and what its participants, from generals to private soldiers, sailors and airman, thought and experienced at the time. The choice of photos follows the strong narrative set within the book, not only complementing and enhancing the text but almost acting as their own photo story book of the conflict.
It is also a book that avoids a single nationalistic perspective of the war. A book that recognises the contributions and sacrifices made by both sides, the wide range of countries involved and the complexity of war. The strategy and tactics used and how they developed are tracked across the war years. The political backdrop and the characters behind the scenes who drove conflict are interweaved.
The centenary of the start of the Great War is almost upon us.Numerous books will be written offering single perspectives on this all important conflict. For a balanced, comprehensive, accessible, clearly written and entertaining understanding of what happened and why, there is unlikely to be a better buy than this book from such an experienced historian and maturing author.
on 17 May 2013
This is the 3rd book I have read written by Peter, like the other 2, this book is brilliant. It takes you from the Western Front to the Eastern front and everywhere else in-between. I met Peter in person in Gallipoli, where as a self taught historian I was wandering around the battlefield, Peter invited me to join his group for the day and in that short time my knowledge of Gallipoli was broadened significantly. This is what Peter's book on the Great War will do for you, it will increase your knowledge and understanding of this brutal period in our history. If you know anyone who has an interest in the First World War this is the book for them. What it has done for me is highlight less well known aspects of the conflict, that I will now reach out and discover. Peter as always thank you for making history so enjoyable and easy to discover.
on 17 May 2013
`The Great War' by Peter Hart is a compact, comprehensive chronology of World War One that offers a clear and concise narrative, interwoven with personal testimonies many of which are sourced from the Imperial War Museum. The book is structured into small succinct chapters that encompass most aspects of the war providing students of this conflict with an overview of the events that happened on the Western Front, Eastern Front, Gallipoli, Salonika, Italy, Palestine and the war at sea. Some of these topics are new to me and I was completely hooked by Peter Hart's ability to convey the subject to the reader. It is written in the same style and spirit as the author's previous books and demonstrates consistent scholarly research. It is an enormous challenge for any author to write about an epic subject as the First World War within 500 pages, but Peter Hart has successfully written a book that is engaging and informative. He shows the horrors that the men who fought that war like lions, explains what they had endured on a daily basis, at the same time showing that their commanders were far from donkeys; they were under pressure to achieve results, to adapt to new technology as they strived for victory. This book will also appeal to new students of the conflict as an invaluable introduction to a vast, complex and controversial subject.
Peter Hart has met many veterans from World War One through his role as Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum. Now that the veterans have passed away, historians such as Peter Hart and another author Paul Reed (who has also interviewed WW1 veterans) have become themselves the last link to that generation who listened to their accounts from first hand and can now relay them to our generation today. The firsthand accounts of the participants are the heart and soul of the book which complements the easy to read commentary.
Peter Hart has established himself as one of the leading chroniclers of World War One of our generation in his ability to tell the stories of those that took part in this awful conflict. He has set the benchmark for other authors to aspire and I am sure that this book will be widely referred to in the years to come. I will certainly read the book again and will refer to the author's opinion and comments on the various theatres of operation of this war during my studies in the future. Congratulations to Peter Hart for producing another invaluable contribution to the study of World War One.