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!