Top critical review
A Hundred Forgotten Fortnights of the First World War
on 21 March 2018
“100 Days to Victory” sounds like another book about the final campaign on the Western Front in 1918, but it isn’t that. Instead, it is a selection of one hundred days from the entire length of the war, to which Saul David attaches particular significance. Do the sums and you can see that he misses out a whole fortnight for each day which he covers.
It sounds like a gimmick and reads that way, too. Why a hundred days and not two hundred, or even a hundred and seventeen? Why didn’t he just write a new history of the war? Well, I think part of the problem is that he has very little to say that is original. If you check his sources, he refers again and again to well-known authors, Mr Ibid being one of his favourites. There is no hint of plagiarism here, but there’s not much sign of original research, either.
So far as there is an individual selling-point at all, it is in the fact that several of Mr David’s relatives fought for King George V in WWI. I think that, if the author really believed their experiences were so compelling as to justify a book, he would have confined himself to those.
As it is, I don’t feel Saul David is much of an expert on the war. One example: the failure of British battlecruiser gunnery, which David treats as being a characteristic of the Grand Fleet in general. It was not, however. The battlecruiser squadron, a separate command under Admiral Beatty, was based at Rosyth, in the Firth of Forth, a place which offered no opportunity in wartime for gunnery practice. The decision to aim for a Nelsonian rate of fire, pitching shells pointlessly into the North Sea, as a supposed alternative to accuracy, and to adopt a suicidally cavalier approach to safety precautions was Beatty’s and was not adopted by the rest of the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow. David doesn’t appear to understand the difference.
What follow are just some of my objections to Saul David's book.
Niš, according to David, is in “central” Serbia. He should consult a map. The Bulgarian capture of Niš was facilitated by its proximity to the Bulgarian border.
David repeats the canard that the Somme offensive was undertaken to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun. By July, 1916, the French had already stopped the German advance at Verdun. Repeating this sort of tall story is possible for David only because of the contrived format of his book, fastening on certain days, such as the First Day on the Somme, and dealing much more vaguely with events on either side.
14th July, 1916: “At General Rawlinson’s insistence - and much against Haig’s better judgement - the attack began before dawn…”
But Rawlinson was right, so in what way was Haig’s judgement “better”?
If Mata Hari was born in 1876, how was she seventeen in 1895?
Messines: Plumer was unwilling to continue the offensive, until his artillery was redeployed. That’s an eminently sensible strategy, but David avoids expressing any opinion.
The introduction to 1918 encapsulates why this book is an absolute disaster. It’s hard to know where to start. David throws in a pretty inaccurate account of the Battle of Cambrai, which happened in 1917, as he acknowledges, but it doesn’t fit his daft straitjacket, so he doesn’t count it as one of his “hundred days” (which is just as well, since it was fought over two days). He still manages to get in a glaring error: the German counter-attack did not recover the territory lost to the first British assault, but conquered a similarly sized area adjacent.
How about these gems?
“The Americans’ immediate contribution was primarily maritime, financial and diplomatic.”
Yeah, well that would be three things, actually. Which one is “primary”?
“With Russia out of the war, the Central Powers were at last free from a war on two fronts.”
Oh, really? So the Italian front just evaporated?
“…new German “stormtrooper” tactics that used a thin skirmishing line, backed up by squads with mortars, flamethrowers and machine-guns.”
All those weapons were in the German armoury from the early days of the war. Surely David knows the difference between a “machine-gun” and a “sub-machine-gun”, which was an innovation of the time (apparently not, since he later refers to “light machine-guns”, which also are not the same as sub-machine-guns)? Incidentally, “Stosstruppen” translates as “shock troops”, not “stormtroopers”.
I do generally like Saul David's other work, but I can't understand what possessed him to attempt a single-volume history of the First World War, without bothering to do the massive amount of necessary research. Rather a lot of the time, even his secondary sources (the only ones he tends to use very much) are themselves relying on secondary sources, hence the ubiquity of Mr Ibid.