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Customer reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars

on 8 September 2014
I greatly appreciated the analysis of why the generals acted as they did - an appalling learning process. I also appreciated the accounts written by the men doing the fighting.
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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will be to sift out the books that add to the body of knowledge & steer clear of those that regurgitate old, sometimes out of date or discredited views.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.
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VINE VOICEon 2 April 2013
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.
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on 14 September 2014
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on 25 November 2014
Great history
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on 16 October 2014
great book, well worth reading
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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!
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on 28 June 2017
thank you
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on 13 June 2016
Good coverage from a British persepctive
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VINE VOICEon 7 April 2013
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.
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