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Review: German Atrocities, 1914 (Horne & Kramer)

German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial.

This book is enough to give you nightmares.

With a thoroughness reminiscent of Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War, the authors of this scholarly work approach the evidence from every possible angle to determine the nature of German army conduct during the first month of the war.

The verdict: Yes, the German army committed atrocities against Belgian and French civilians, although a few of the claims made by traumatized refugees may have been exaggerated. Both the perpetrators and the victims of the atrocities are found to have suffered from different varieties and degrees of delusion, with the franc-tireur myth that motivated the German soldiers to react hysterically and barbarically being the one most deeply entrenched, both in the collective psyche of the German military (men, officers, and the higher command) and German civilians (in government and on the home front).

My personal assessment is that the upper echelons of the German command were more likely to endorse spontaneous harsh action by the lower level of the Imperial army against a perceived levee en masse or “People’s War,” because the last of the wars of German unification under Prussian rule were still a matter of living memory: the new German Empire could be seen as vulnerable to breakup should the other German kingdoms and principalities decide to rise against Prussian hegemony.

Moreover, many individuals among the troops who violated Belgian neutrality and invaded France certainly would have harbored some degree of guilty conscience over the campaign, despite the Emperor’s and the government’s loud and continual insistence that they were waging a “defensive” war. This feeling of guilt would have contributed to their edginess and propensity to overreact to any perceived threat, however spurious, while they were on foreign soil. Rationalization in defense of a guilty conscience knows no bounds.

In addition, some of the mutilations attributed to personally inflicted, malicious injury of civilians may be attributable to a personalized reinterpretation of the maiming sustained by those who were wounded by shrapnel or the flying remnants of high-explosive shells during the bombardment of cities and villages. Unprovoked, undeserved invasion conducted with artillery fire that caused physical harm and mental mayhem on a scale approaching that of a weapon of mass destruction would certainly be taken personally by the afflicted civilians, especially where women and children were concerned.

While most losses of hands or mutilation of breasts could reasonably be blamed on shellfire, the intentional severing of women’s hands by German soldiers could have occasionally occurred, motivated by pillage (the thieving of jewelry), although any such instances probably happened after the victim was already dead. Severing the hands of living children would have served no purpose (not even for intimidation), because the victims would have bled to death within minutes, and could not have been the refugees with bandaged stumps that were reported to have been seen.

The research includes a detailed examination of German obfuscation, counter-charges and cover-ups undertaken during the interwar period, in an effort to get out of paying reparations and accepting war guilt: the tactics of a strategy which eventually achieved temporary success, as postwar pacifism propounded its theories of futility, collective guilt, and appeasement – which ultimately backfired twenty years later. (NB: Although Hitler had repudiated payment of the reparations, payments were resumed sometime after the Second World War, and Germany finally paid off its punitive debt for the First World War in 2010.)

The book is illustrated with period artwork from newspapers, books and magazines. It concludes with appendices of raw data (with an extensive explanatory note), selected sections from the Hague Convention (IV) of 1907 and the Treaty of Versailles, and details from allied demands for extradition. The copious end notes include a table of abbreviations, and are followed by a bibliography and an adequate index, although both of the latter are printed in an extremely small font that requires the use of a magnifying glass.

The detail of the research can make a daunting read, but its psychological slant is thought-provoking and well worth the effort.


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Review: Bully Beef & Biscuits (Hartley)

Bully Beef & Biscuits: Food in the Great War.

“Iron rations” don’t sound especially appetizing, but you might just work up an appetite while reading this book.

Lavishly illustrated with period photos (all unique, as far as I can tell) and reproductions of advertisements, the author guides us through the entire period of the war from the gastronomic perspective. The book covers all of the theaters for which army feeding information exists, although most of the illustrations portray the soldiers of the BEF, with just a sprinkling of pictures of the French, Germans and others.

The author quotes extensively from unit and individuals’ diaries and from soldier letters sent home. He spends a chapter on home front issues in the UK, such as conscription of agricultural workers, the recruitment of females for agricultural work, and rationing. Also examined are the logistics of supply, as well as a comparison between officer and enlisted men’s diets. An interesting contribution to this history is the addition of one or more period recipes at the ends of all the chapters.

Significant points in the fighting histories of the units and individual soldiers who are quoted flesh out the text. Some of this background information seems only marginally relevant to the topic of the book, but I suppose the idea is to include some “human interest” material with the collections of menus and descriptions of meals that often don’t vary much. The rehash of some of the battles does pad the book, as do the huge number of photos and even the relatively thick paper stock on which the book is printed. If not published this way, the book may have ended up being a thinner and much lighter-weight volume.

The numbered end notes immediately precede an adequate index. It’s a hefty hardbound book that presents well, although it began to show a quality issue with the gluing of the signatures into the binding, such that in time, some pages could come loose.

A well written specialty study that supplies necessary information for the Great War novelist, and would make several good “aperitifs” (or supply a number of between-meal “snacks”) for an armchair general. Recommended.

NB: I bought this copy new (although at a significant reduction from the list price) from A Major Online Retailer, and was impressed by the care that was taken to ship it: tightly encased in bubble wrap, with the dust jacket enveloped in a Mylar cover such as may be found on library books (although the clear plastic was unevenly folded around the jacket, resulting in one short edge that kept coming loose as the slippery plastic worked its way upwards over the boards of the book during reading – not a big issue, and easily remedied with the application of a little tape). I don’t think the careful wrapping was the doing of the Major Online Retailer’s fulfillment center, because a new DVD and a new paperback book I’d also ordered were shipped loose and unprotected in the same box.

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Review: The German Offensives of 1918 (Passingham)

The German Offensives of 1918: The Last Desperate Gamble.

This is the second book by Passingham that I’ve read, and in it he persists with his sometimes puzzling use of vocabulary which makes the reader do a double-take and re-read the sentence, wondering if what was written was what the author really meant to say. He also adopts a breezy, slangy style that casts the pall of “pop history” over the topic, obscuring what would have been better presented as a serious analytical work.

It’s a slim volume that seems to have been generously padded to increase its length: The chapter titles are printed in an enormous font size, although it’s not a “large print” book. The author frequently interrupts the narrative with lengthy, large bold-print subtitles (often labeling only one paragraph of text), which are also listed in the table of contents, where they do little good because they tend to be “catchy” rather than helpfully descriptive. And how often do we really need to have a commander identified by his full title, full name (including additional birth names), plus his nickname, when the experiences of the forces under his command again become the topic of discussion? Some of those names take up most of a whole line of text. Occasional use of “gray space” also extends the length of the book, in boxes of text that purport to highlight technical or biographical information that break up page flow in the manner often seen in academic textbooks of much larger size.

The line maps are no better than most I’ve seen in all my reading. The relatively few end notes refer back to inline citations that, for the most part, are irrelevant enough to make the reader wonder why the author bothered to interrupt the text with them. The numerous appendices consist mostly of order-of-battle listings, with a table of German ranks and a redundant essay about German tactics and weapons thrown in for good measure. There’s a lengthy bibliography, but the index is superficial and inadequate.

The dramatic front cover photo of German troops in action and the high quality hard cover binding make an excellent presentation on the shelf, but what’s found within doesn’t match; indeed, the text points up the hyperbole in the back-cover description.

The book’s only redeeming feature is its nicely reproduced glossy center section of photos and other illustrations, although they’re not all unique. The photos of German children in uniform (dead as well as alive) may be disconcerting to some readers (discretion is advised for homeschool use).

I can’t say that I won’t refer to it again while doing research for my novel-in-progress, but there are better history books out there that cover the last year of the Great War.

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