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Review: The Real War, 1914-1918 (Hart)

The Real War, 1914-1918.

The cover shown is of a later reprint of the 1931 reissue of B. H. Liddell Hart’s 1930 History of the First World War, the quintessential Great War history. It’s organized like an academic textbook, with a Preface and two introductory chapters that prepare the field of study; units dedicated each year of the war, within which chapters labeled as “scenes” provide detailed analyses; and an Epilogue that functions as an overall summary.

Because it was written in the middle-interwar period, it avoids the speculative baggage of post-Second World War hindsight. Hart also stays out of the 1917 Russian revolution, a topic into which many modern historians digress.

Despite its thoroughly methodical organization, it doesn’t read like a textbook. Liddell Hart writes with the engaging voice of a true storyteller, which may have much to do with his book’s enduring popularity with several generations of readers. He hits his stride at the middle of the book, in “The Growing Pains of the Tank” (‘1916 – The “Dog Fall” Scene IV’), a chapter I can only describe as the most eloquent writing I have ever read on the topic.

The copy I read was the 1931 printing (obtained from the public library), and its being such an old copy with fragile pages, all its maps had been torn out and lost, so I can’t evaluate them. Each chapter is given its own bibliography, and the back matter also includes a very detailed index.

It cannot be considered to be the last word in the accuracy or impartiality that’s generally expected to be exhibited by academic historians, but its authenticity can’t be questioned. It’s available in many reprints, and I will be adding a copy to my own Great War research library. Recommended.

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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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Review: The First World War (Strachan)

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The First World War. 

This single-volume history of the Great War is apparently the companion volume to a television documentary series. It’s well written, especially the section “The Tools of Victory” in the final chapter. I enjoyed the author’s voice and writing style; in particular, how he showed his sense of humor, and his occasional use of very short sentences to grab the reader’s attention when introducing a new paragraph, or when making a point.

Nicely executed line maps of the theaters of war preface the text. The book is heavily illustrated with black-and-white photographs, and although many of them are of a small size and dark enough to frustrate a reader interested in seeing details, they are almost all unique, making a valuable archive for the researcher. An excellent feature is the central glossy section of rare, genuine color photographs from the period (not colorized), which had been produced using the potato starch technology discussed in this article in the online Smithsonian Magazine. There is no bibliography, but the end notes are well documented, and there is an adequate index.

Unfortunately, I cannot give Strachan’s The First World War an unqualified recommendation, because of the following issues:

The first is the presentation of the book. This edition is a sturdily bound hardcover that should be able to stand a lot of use as a reference work; however, the dust jacket leaves much to be desired. In addition to its being an amateurish composition, the photo chosen for the cover falls somewhere on a spectrum that runs from poor taste to outright insensitivity, because it seems to portray a French soldier in action, at the moment of his wounding or death. After all my years of research, poring over hundreds of battlefield photographs in order to get a feeling for the times and places and events, I feel inured to gruesome sights of the shell-shocked, wounded and dead (sometimes long-dead), but the placement of this picture smacks of a discomforting disrespect for its subject.

My second and third gripes will be familiar to my regular readers: the issue of War Guilt, including the Kaiser’s role; and the character of Douglas Haig. The author of this history is one of those who take the stand that none of the belligerents was really “responsible” for the war; he scoffs at the idea of Germany’s having distinct imperialistic aims for a war of conquest from the beginning (he does not even mention Fritz Fischer’s comprehensive research in this area); and the little he says about Kaiser Wilhelm II is a bit too soft a treatment for my taste. Haig is also handled with kid gloves, with very little said about his true beliefs (which are revealed in the man’s own diaries), as well as a startling assertion of his “loyalty” to his subordinates, when details documented elsewhere provide contradictory evidence.

Finally, the author’s statement, “Given that the United States was itself a community made up predominantly of immigrants, Wilson’s presumption against multi-ethnic empires was arrogant and naive,” exhibits an utter misunderstanding of the role of the immigrant in the United States of America. Immigrants voluntarily came to the USA to leave behind the oppressive conditions they lived under in the “old country,” in which most of them were subjects of monarchs, not citizens of nations. Their goals included becoming United States citizens with fundamental rights that were not abridged because of their ethnicity. This is in distinction from multi-ethnic empires whose laws generally favored a dominant ethnic group, which resulted in universally discriminatory political and socioeconomic classes.

There is no doubt that during the early 20th Century there was widespread stereotyping of ethnic groups that often became overt prejudice, but as time passed, assimilated immigrants and their descendants began to move out of the segregated ethnic zones they had originally inhabited (such as “Little Italy,” Chinatown, Polish neighborhoods, and “company towns” built for French coal miners), and into the general population. Only two ethnic groups still encountered widespread difficulty with assimilation in the 20th Century, partly due to the persistence of their segregated settlements, and partly due to mismanagement of their legal status during the 19th Century: indigenous Americans (who had been displaced to reservations by immigrant settlers), and blacks (many of whom were descendants of slaves who had been imported early in United States history, and whose legislated rights were abrogated by former Confederates reacting to conditions imposed on them during post-Civil War reconstruction). Otherwise, ethnicity in the USA assumed a different role, as naturalized immigrants and their descendants identified themselves as Americans of a particular descent, as manifested by their surnames and the cultural traditions they chose to retain (typically religious, food, or festival-related, not political).

I can speak from experience on this subject, because my ancestors came to the United States at the very end of the 19th Century and during the first few years of the 20th. My grandfathers were immigrants, and my grandmothers were first-generation Americans born to my immigrant great-grandparents. I knew several of my immigrant ancestors, who refused to reminisce fondly about life in the Old Country (which tended to be nasty, cold, brutish and short), adamantly maintaining that that was the past, and they were Americans, now.

Enough said. Read Strachan’s The First World War for its factual information value, and to enjoy a style of telling history that’s not as stuffy as many history books end up being written.

 

 

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