The First World War (2): The Western Front 1914-1916 (Essential Histories) Paperback – 25 Jan 2002
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About the Author
Peter Simkins worked at the Imperial War Museum for over 35 years and was its Senior Historian from 1976 until his retirement in 1999. Awarded the MBE that year for his services to the Museum, he is currently Honorary Professor in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, a Vice-President of the Western Front Association and a Fellow of the Royal Historial Society. Peter Simkins is the author of numerous publications on the Great War, including the book Kitchener's Army (1988), which was awarded the Templar Medal by the Society for Army Historical Research,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The author's opening section on "the road to war" is excellent and carefully weaves together the wide diversity of factors that led to the outbreak of the First World War. While the author's assessment that "the primacy of Germany's responsibility for war in 1914" is obvious based upon its preparations of an offensive war plan, the guilt of other actors (such as Russian cultivation of Serb ultra-nationalism that led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is alluded to but not exposed. The section on opposing armies, while brief, is also excellent. The author includes ten maps to support his narrative: European alliances 1914-1916; the rival war plans; the battle of the frontiers; the First Battle of Ypres; the Battle of Neuve Chapelle; the Battle of Loos; the Western Front 1914-1918; the Battle of Verdun; the Somme Offensive 1 July 1916; and the final phase of the Somme offensive. The author's English bias is evident in the maps, with five of ten maps focusing on British battles but only one on a French battle; even the map on the 1914 Battle of the Frontiers fails to depict the doomed French offensive in Lorraine. Given the importance of the Battle of the Marne, a map should also have been included on that subject over a relatively minor battle like Neuve Chapelle (which was important in English eyes, but otherwise no more significant than the many failed French offensives in 1915).
The author's narrative of the fighting in 1914-1916 is clear, concise and often insightful. While Simkins notes the standard criticisms of the German Schlieffen Plan - logistical weakness and Moltke's weakening of the critical right wing - he also notes that the Germans failed to adequately address Belgian resistance: "what really harmed their plan was the need to detach some five corps from their right wing to invest Naumur, Maubeuge and Antwerp." As Simkins sees it, the Germans put inadequate forces into their main effort, then diverted too many forces from that weakened effort on secondary tasks, then loss their nerve due to a puny Allied counterattack on the Marne. Simkins also views the German decision to revert to the defense on the Western Front in November 1914 - instead of finishing off the depleted BEF - as "a huge mistake." Aside from ignoring the exhaustion of Germany's own troops at that point, Simkins exaggerates the value of the BEF remnants in the fall of 1914, which were perhaps 5% of Allied troops on the front. In fact, the original BEF was essentially destroyed by this point and the Germans had no ability to destroy the dozens of new divisions being raised in England, Canada and Australia. After detailing the various offensives of 1915, Simkins concludes the narrative section with accounts of the two great set-piece battles, Verdun and the Somme. The discussion of the Somme is adequate, but fails to convey the "mission creep" in the German plan that caused a deliberate attritional battle to transform into a major bloodletting for both sides. On the other hand, Simkins' discussion of the Somme follows the standard British line, that while losses were high, the offensive succeeded in "gutting" the German army of pre-war regulars and thereby contributed to victory later. In reality, the Somme was an expensive failure that "gutted" the BEF far more than the Germans and it was the combination of having to fight both Verdun and the Somme in 1916 that really strained the Germans. The only real omission in this volume is the lack of any real detail on the air war (e.g. the "Fokker scourge").
The final sections in this volume are paeans to British sensibilities about the First World War. The section, "Portrait of a Soldier" details the experiences of a 19-year old British private who served only six months in the period of this volume. Certainly highlighting one of the "Old Contemptibles" of 1914 or one of the New Army "Pals Battalion" members would have been more representative of the British war effort in this period. This section is followed by "Portrait of a Civilian" which - surprise, surprise - covers a British female auxiliary. Obviously, no attempt was made to balance this volume with French or British perspectives. The section on home fronts does provide three paragraphs each on Germany and France, but this is relatively an afterthought. Overall, this volume is an excellent summary of the first two years of the war on the Western Front, albeit for an Anglo-centric perspective.
Despite the large amount of information, the author successfully covers all the main battles with just the right amount of detail. Each major event is nicely segregated with its own sub heading (e.g.: the Battle of the Mons, Winter of 1914-1915, the Second Battle of Ypes, etc.). This "Fighting" chapter is written in chronological order and the reader should have little difficulty in following the progress of the war.
The book has numerous black and white photos that bring clarity to the text. The reader will get a good appreciation for the conditions in the trenches and the types of weapons used. The book also has ten 2D tactical maps. Although the maps lack detail, they still provide a good, high level view of certain engagements.
The chapter on "Portrait of a Civilian" is uniquely interesting. It focuses on a British woman named Winnifred Adair Roberts. This chapter not only gives a view of the British home front but also a perspective on how women were viewed in society at that time. To some degree, World War I helped emancipate British women in much the same way as World War II did for American women.
Bottom Line: this book is well written and easy to read. The author did a great job of compressing a great deal of information into the limited space available in these books. The information is presented in a clear format that is easy to follow. The reader will certainly get a better understanding of the first half of this war.
In rapid fashion, Simkins sketches the road to war, the opposing armies and their respective war plans, and how those war plans played out in the opening weeks of the war. The narrative then settles into the prolonged stalemate of of trench warfare, including the massive bloodlettings at the Siege of Verdun and the extended Battle of the Somme. Simkins closes with two featurettes, one on a British private soldier and another on a woman's auxilliary member, before forecasting the epic 1917-1918 struggle on the Western Front.
Simkins' narrative is supported by the usual excellent Osprey selection of photographs, maps, and graphics. Presenting two intense years of military and political developments in under 100 pages inevitably leads to simplification. Although Simkins surveys a complicated story fairly well, there is no attempt to wrestle with controversy or alternative points of view. "The Western Front 1914-1916" is a decent introduction for the general reader and highly recommended to that audience.