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Customer reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

on 27 October 2012
The Making of the First World War
by Ian F W Beckett (Yale UP)

What we have here are twelve monographs on different aspects of the First World War, several of them explaining how various participants came to be involved, giving fine grain detail on the personalities and politics involved in each case, and where these ultimately led. Each chapter stands alone and demands fairly deep concentration and is effectively a lead-in to the `further reading' identified for each topic. In each case Beckett takes something to which the lay reader may have given insufficient thought and demonstrates its importance, for instance linking the failed internal politics of Turkey or the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Middle Eastern and Balkan crises and wars eighty years later. He also shows how particular acts and individuals can influence the entire history of the world. The `Making' is in an ongoing sense rather than, as I had assumed, merely how the war got started.

Professor Beckett is a professional military historian of repute, with several other works on the Kaiser's War to his credit, as well as work on other conflicts and on modern counter-insurgency operations. His modus operandi is to take the reader below the usual level at which each topic has been treated and expose him to the complexity of the historical and political process involved. In so doing he explodes a number of myths and glib assumptions that have become easy general currency. The chapters broadly track the war chronologically, as follows:

The Belgian flooding of the Yser, which sealed the north-eastern end of the Western Front and saved the Channel Ports;

Turkey - the consequences of the 1913 assassination of the Grand Vizier and the deficiencies of its political system - and, separately, the yawning Ottoman vacuum, Arab rivalries, Zionism, Weizmann, Balfour and the road to the Palestinian mess;

Australia and how Gallipoli became the Australian creation myth;

The British munitions crisis and the rise of Lloyd George and others;

The rising influence of the media and, specifically, of the British film `The Battle of the Somme';

The shambolic political structure of Austria-Hungary and how it stumbled into war and out again into collapse;

How the Germans invented and deployed unrestricted U-boat warfare and, separately, the deliberate aerial bombing of civilians;

How the Tsar mismanaged his way to defeat and obliteration and in so doing brought us Soviet Communism (with a little help from Germany);

Woodrow Wilson and his uninformed and unhelpful liberal idealism, and the commercial and demographic pressures from within the United States;

And, finally, how Ludendorff's lack of strategic vision helped Germany lose the war.

Not insignificant are the health problems affecting, for instance, Balfour, Wilson and Ludendorff; one can project from there to those affecting Churchill and, more significantly, Roosevelt in Hitler's War.

I have one really major criticism of the book - there are NO MAPS. It is perhaps healthy that the reader has to teach himself the geography of eastern Belgium or eastern Europe, but this book is no bedtime read. Instead it is a key work of reference as a base for further study of individual situations. Yale rather than Beckett may be to blame here, equally so for the bland selection of illustrations which are effectively one rather generic and (necessarily) black and white IWM photograph per chapter. For instance, a German aerial photograph of London is interesting but pictures of the Gotha and other German bombers might have been more to the point. Also, a number of assertions are either unsourced or quoted from secondary sources. I don't disbelieve what Professor Beckett writes but I would like the comfort blanket of exact citations, especially for direct quotations, particularly because a secondary source may have abridged material or taken it out of context. As it is, each chapter reads like the management summary of a much longer thesis - I wonder if twelve more books are in the offing. I will charitably assume that Yale are to be blamed for the grammatical solecism `Unlike on the Western Front ..' on page 56. The Woodrow Wilson chapter might have benefited from tighter editing and perhaps Beckett's reference to his manuscript being delayed sheds some light on this.

For naval material, for me Paul G Halpern's `A Naval History of World War I' is the starting point and I am surprised it does not seem to be referenced. In general I was surprised to see no nod to Michael Gilbert's `First World War' but Beckett's book list is otherwise satisfyingly vast.

These criticisms apart I have been favoured with a considerable improvement in my understanding of this conflict which wrecked so many lives and whose consequences are still with us today. It did me no harm that I had to concentrate to keep in mind the fresh cast of characters presented in each chapter. I might keep an eye out for other books by this author.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 May 2013
As the world's leading military historian Sir Michael Howard says this latest book by Professor Bekett is 'about the making,not just of the First World War, but of the entire twentieth century'.
Readers of this easy to read book will find it particularly interesting if they have a good knowledge already of the war. Bekett assumes a great deal of knowledge about the war and, therefore, does not spend time on details of strategy, battles or logistics.
It is estimated there are some 25000 books on the war plus numerous learned articles. This massive treasure trove will increase in 2014 when the anniversary of the war will be remembered in countless ways.
Bekett's book exposes the myth of Australian involvement at Gallipoli. With one exception he is the first to reveal the bias in the reports of Bean from Gallipoli. A prolific war reporter of this sector he was no lover of the British army. In extolling the virtues of Australians he was also guilty of not giving the soldiers of New Zealand their due.Professor Bekett also reveals that there was far more resistance to initial recruiting in Australia than is sometimes supposed.His criticisms of the 1981 film 'Gallipoli' are fully justified. This film is riddled with errors and delberate bias against the British. As Bekett says 'it is an entirely dishonest exercise'.
The author joins those who have already exposed the fake scenes in the 1916 film 'The Battle of the Somme'. It is amazing how many people have been taken in by this film which featured in the television series on the Great War because as Professor Bekett says a basic knowledge of the problems of filming on the battlefield in 1916 would have made it clear that many of the scenes could not possibly have been genuine.
Other chapters deal with Lloyd George and munitions, Turkey's entry into the war, Gotha bombing raids,the Russian revolution, Wilson's 14 Points and sumarine warfare. Each chapter is interesting although most of the detail has been well-known for some time now.
I suspect that the chapter on the importance of the deliberate flooding of the River Yser in October 1914 will be the one that will be new to many readers. Of great importance this act has received very little attention from scholars. The best account is still Paul van Pul's 'In Flanders Flooded Fields'.
As the author says 'the influence of the First World War is with us still'.
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I have always been a fan of Ian Beckett, and this book, a series of essays on aspects of the First World War is no exception to the excellent material he has produced previously. The material is well-presented and managerable to the ordinary reader. He draws some very useful conclusions and in most of the essays, related the past with the present, showing how relevant the study of history is to the understanding of present events.
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on 7 May 2013
Ian Beckett's latest account of the First World War is not a history of the conflict (something he is already provided in The Great War) or, despite the somewhat misleading title, an account of the origins of the War. Instead he takes twelve key events and explains their significance for the course of the War and for subsequent history. The book relatively little to say about the military side of the conflict and concentrates on the wider political and strategic issues. While some of the events he selects have been extensively written about, others such as the Belgium's decision to flood large parts of the country in the face of the German advance, are not well known, at least to British readers. The book provides a fascinating commentary of the Great War and emphases its global reach and enduring significance. Without devaluing the military history of the conflict, it provides a chance to look beyond the trenches at the forces which shaped the War and the ensuing world order.
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on 16 September 2013
The title is misleading ,as it is really a series of anecdotes , albeit interesting and well written . If you are really interested in the origins of the First World War , I strongly recommend 'The Sleepwalkers' .
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