Just Finished Reading: History of the First World War by Basil H Liddell Hart (FP:1930/1934)
First published as The Real War in 1930 before being updated and expanded in 1934 as A History of the World War this is a masterful overview written by someone who knew intimately the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front. After returning to duty after suffering from concussion he was wounded three times during the Battle of the Somme and gassed causing his return to England to work in a training unit getting raw recruits ready for the reality of trench warfare. Using his first-hand experience he brings the lives and deaths of common soldiers into focus on the Western, Eastern, Italian and Middle Eastern fronts producing descriptions that almost read like the best of novels – except the horrors portrayed here are real.
The layout is an interesting one. After briefly discussing the origins of the conflict – 50 years in the making and far too complex to analysed with justice in a general overview such as this he suggests – the author uses a broad brush approach on the salient factors in each year of the war before going into much more detail of individual battles or ‘scenes’ which deliver a blow by blow account of each confrontation. Covered in this level of detail are: The Marne, Tannenberg, First Ypres, Dardanelles and Gallipoli, Second Ypres, Loos, Verdun, The Somme, Jutland, Arras, Messines, Passchendaele, Cambrai and Caporetto. On another scale he follows the development of tanks, the War in the Air, submarine conflict and much else besides. It may not be everything you’ve ever wanted to know about WW1 but where afraid to ask….., but it’s close enough! It is honestly a great introduction to the global conflict treating the subject with the breadth, depth and gravity it deserves.
There are times, interestingly enough, where the author seems close to losing his cool. This is not the penmanship of a disinterested historian writing long after the events they describe. In parts this book is clearly personal in nature and in tone. The author is honestly angry and, as you read, you will probably become angry too. At one point I had to throw the book on my desk at work and take a few deep breaths. His description of some of the truly inexplicable and stupid decisions that resulted in the deaths of thousands can beggar belief. Time and again we see men being sent into battle in appalling conditions by leaders who had absolutely no concept of what they were asking their men to do. At one point the author quotes a high ranking officer, visiting the front lines several days after an attack on the German lines had spectacularly failed. On seeing the state of the ground he had ordered the men to cross he is quoted as saying “My God, we sent men out to fight in that?” To which the officer of the ground replied “Oh, it’s much worse ahead.” Time and again all sides were ordered to do impossible things and time and again they tried to comply. It’s hardly surprising that the French finally broke and refused to fight in large numbers. What is surprising was that such a rebellion took so long to emerge.
I have much more WW1 related reading lined up but I think I’m off to a flying ‘start’ (having already touched upon or around the subject earlier) with this excellent classic volume. If you are interested in this conflict – especially with the 100th anniversary just around the corner – this is definitely a book you should have on your list. I don’t know if it’s still in print (my copy is the 1973 edition) but even if it isn’t the effort to acquire it will be amply rewarded. Highly recommended.