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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

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.


smellincoffee said...

I was reading in the White War that the Italian commander had written a book on the virtues of the offense -- an army that kept pressing its attack, regardless of the terrain, would prevail. He literally wrote the book on tactics that were woefully outdated. I suspect there's some awful kind of inertia that overtakes campaigns of this size -- people can know they're making a mistake, but things are already in motion and stopping it seems too much a challenge, so they double down and hope a little more effort, a little more Faith in the cause, will see it through.

Three cheers for old books! I'll see if I have access to a copy.

CyberKitten said...

sc said: people can know they're making a mistake, but things are already in motion and stopping it seems too much a challenge, so they double down and hope a little more effort, a little more Faith in the cause, will see it through.

There did seem to be a lot of that in WW1. It was a failure to think differently. Indeed it appeared that if someone did come up with a different approach, or worse tried and succeeded with a different approach they were either criticised for it or even disciplined. The idea of the tank was heavily opposed for years before it became a reality - indeed it was opposed even after it showed its potential - and even the idea of increased numbers of machines guns was opposed at the very highest levels. I found such shortsightedness and basic lack of imagination hard to understand or credit.

sc said: Three cheers for old books!

For many years I thought old books = low quality books. How wrong I was! More oldies to come.... [grin]

Ellie said...

This sounds really interesting. I don't think I've ever read a WW1 factual/history book that engages on a person level. One to look up, I think!

CyberKitten said...

It's no longer in print (just quickly checked Amazon) but you'll be able to pick up a cheap used copy.

It's definitely worth a read. The author comes across as someone with a personal investment in the history without having too big an axe to grind. Having been there and done that his descriptions have a certain authenticity that is missing from historical accounts from authors in later generations. He writes really well too.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I've just added it to my wish list on Amazon, along with two of his other books. I don't know enough about the Italian and Middle Eastern fronts, plus you say he said WWI was fifty years in the making. I know of events twenty years back directly connected to the war. I'm interested to learn what else is connected.

CyberKitten said...

v v said: you say he said WWI was fifty years in the making. I know of events twenty years back directly connected to the war. I'm interested to learn what else is connected.

50 years from 1914 puts it around 1865 or so. The only thing that springs to mind immediately is the rise of Prussia and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. I'm afraid that my knowledge of European history around that time is.... limited.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

The beginning of German Nationalism comes when they beat the French. I can see that. If I remember correctly, Bizmarck lied and said the French were going to attack, to try and get the German provinces to work together against an outside enemy, instead of fighting amongst themselves and interfering with his plans for a united Germany. This would also be at the end of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, over-production, saturated markets, which leads to the Age of Imperialism, when everybody goes in search of other markets and resources, grabbing other territories. Shortly after the Franco-Prussian War, the division of Africa happens (1884), and Germany is definitely pissed that they don't get as much of Africa that they think they deserve, and go home to plot how to take land in Europe. That plan will come to be known as the Schleiffen a Plan. Okay, I tend to rattle on when I discuss history. Sorry.

CyberKitten said...

Thinking about things a bit more today I suspect the author may have meant events over the preceding 50 years in Austro-Hungary rather than Germany. But I can't really guess what - except maybe oppression of the Serbs - as I know precious little about the area.

More research (AKA book buying/reading) needed I think!

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I know that the A-H Empire grabbed Bosnia when the Ottoman Empire began losing control of its Balkan territories. The then ruler of the A-H Empire was not fond of the Bosnians, saw them as lesser human beings than the other members of the A-H Empire. The heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, though not well loved in his own family for marrying down to a woman the family never approved of, he was well liked by the people. He had spoken of plans to treat the Bosnians better and give them some autonomy when he came to power. The Serbians wanted that whole Balkan region under one pan-Slavic union, run by them. They wanted the Bosnians to break away and join them. If Franz Ferdinand ascended to the throne, they probably wouldn't, so the Serbs had Franz killed. That's what I remember off the top of my head.