Tag Archives: military history

Review: The Kaiser and His Times (Balfour)

The Kaiser and His Times.

This excellent biography could very well serve as the “companion volume” to the video Royal Cousins at War. We learn pertinent details of early German history, the Kaiser’s family background, his early life and development, and the history of his reign. The story of the Great War stays entirely out of the trenches, which adds a new depth to the studies of the researcher. The Kaiser’s stormy abdication process receives detailed examination, while his relatively uneventful retirement in exile is summarized in the penultimate chapter.

Amazingly readable, Balfour’s unique “voice” charms the reader into delving into page after page of political and economic details which, if written by an uninspired historian, would have been difficult to follow. The bon mots that sparkle in unexpected places of the narrative highlight the author’s insightful analyses.

Sixteen pages of photographs accompany the text (only two of which I can recall having seen elsewhere). A family tree chart and several appendices (statistical comparisons, parties in the Reichstag, notes on sources – several of which make interesting reading in themselves – and a biographical index) precede the adequate subject index. Also included in the back matter is an Afterword which updates the reader with how the passage of time revealed new sources of information and affected Balfour’s reflections on what he wrote.

In any analysis of responsibility for the Great War, these important points must be remembered:

  • that the only two Germanic personalities who most likely would have helped prevent such a catastrophe (Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Frederick III) were prematurely eliminated before they could have influenced European history in positive ways, and
  • an anachronistically-oriented megalomaniac was thereby left in charge of a vast swathe of central Europe, surrounded by sycophants who were only too ready to tell him what he wanted to hear, and enable him to bamboozle his way into (and hornswoggle his way, personally unscathed, out of) the war he had always desperately wanted to wage.

Balfour’s final chapter, “The Frontiers of Morality,” presents the challenge of sorting out the facts that figure into the apportionment of War Guilt. It’s a valiant attempt at an even-handed approach, but even the historian himself states at the end (via a French-language quote), “It explains, but does not excuse.”

In other words, the buck stops with Kaiser Bill.

Great history and biography: highly recommended.

NB: The book is out of print, so my copy was purchased from a second-hand-book seller, and I’ve seen both the 1964 and 1972 printings listed in the Indiana State Library system catalog; it should be available elsewhere through Interlibrary Loan. The 1964 printing has been scanned for loan from The Internet Archive.

The edition that’s pictured is the W. W. Norton 1972 paperback reprint of the original Houghton Mifflin 1964 hardcover. The copy I ended up with is apparently one that should have been recalled and pulped, because it was bound without the final signature of the text (pp. 405-436). This is not a case of damage to the book (such as pages having been removed or a signature having fallen out): it’s definitely a printing error on the part of the publisher, because the cover fits snugly over the existing pages, and there’s no gap between page 404 and the first page of the Appendices (page 437). I contacted Norton about the problem, and received permission to photocopy the missing pages from a borrowed copy.

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Review: Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory (Sheffield)

Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory.

“The [gentleman] doth protest too much, methinks.” The back cover blurbs praise this biography for being “objective and well-rounded” and “a balanced portrait,” but after two full readings of the book, I remain unconvinced that Haig was anything but a very lucky shyster.

The author is very obviously a staunch admirer of the man. What betrays this is that exactly the same kind of behavior that he condones in respect to Haig’s performance as a Corps commander under C-in-C French, he condemns in respect to Rawlinson’s performance as a Corps commander under C-in-C Haig. When he does criticize his hero, it’s mild, and often excuses are made for him, such as in one period when Haig’s shortcomings are justified on the basis of his recently having been afflicted with a diarrheal illness.

While lauding Haig’s supposed adherence to the notion of noblesse oblige on the part of an officer towards his men, Sheffield also cherry-picks the diary entries he quotes, leaving out Haig’s scathing and mean-spirited remarks about the performance of the “PBI.” Haig’s steep learning curve in regard to Rawlinson’s commonsense “bite and hold” is brushed aside, and the fact that towards the end of the war Haig was finally forced to use it – with much better success than in his years of pursuing the evanescent cavalry breakthrough – is camouflaged by calling the methodology a “step-by-step” approach, and insisting it was Haig’s idea all the time.

Haig was a consummate politician. He surrounded himself with people for whom he’d done favors (such as Gough and Rawlinson), so he could depend on them to bail him out when his own poor performance threatened his position – and then, when he was through with them, he sacked or sidelined them. Military men of democratic nations may have been enjoined to be apolitical in regard to the government of their countries, but a highly developed talent for back-scratching and double-dealing served the savvy Haig very well.

In other respects, the book has a deceptive title, because it treats the whole life and times of its subject, not just the period “from the Somme to victory.” The author excuses this because it’s “a revised version of The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army . . . (the change of title reflects the exigencies of commercial publishing)” – in other words, the book wasn’t selling under its original title. There’s a small central glossy section of photographs. Its in-text citations are collated in end notes, it lists “Sources and Select Bibliography,” and it possesses a tolerably useful index. The text has relatively few grammatical glitches, and no obvious typos, indicating fairly good editing and compositor work. It’s a hefty volume that presents well in hardcover with gold leaf printing on the dust jacket.

A reasonably thorough source of information about how Douglas Haig made a name for himself on the necks of his colleagues and the backs of the Poor Bloody Infantry.

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Review: World War I in Color (video)

World War I in Color.

Color still photography existed at the time of the Great War, enabled by a process that used potato starch, and it yielded spectacular results. You can see some fine examples in Hew Strachan‘s book (as well as at the site I linked to in that blog post).

But there was no color technology available then for motion pictures. The producers of this series of video programs felt that was a handicap to the latest generations (whom they characterized as “color literate”), who may not fully appreciate learning history that is taught exclusively in monochrome grey-scale or sepia tones. This was their justification for undertaking to colorize what they determined by their research in the archives to be the best Great War footage available.

At the time this project was produced, many of the film clips that were used may have been rarely seen, but since then other documentaries have accessed the same footage, so what you’re going to see is not necessarily going to be unusual. Some sequences took colorizing better than others, and as a whole, like other documentaries, there is a tendency to repeat scenes a little too frequently. Also as with other documentaries, the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add sound effects that would not have existed in the originals, for there was no soundtrack technology back then. (“Movies” did become “talkies” not long after the war was over, which encouraged some silent-film actors to retire, because they did not like how their voices sounded in recordings, and they feared adding speech to their performances would destroy the image their careers had built.)

The narration is professionally voiced, and the history being read is generally sound, but the writers seriously erred in attributing a “von” to Ludendorf’s name (his family was not of the nobility), and in suggesting that the Belgian people resisted the German invasion when they most emphatically did not: only the Belgian military took up arms, and the Belgian government warned civilians to turn in their own weapons to local government officials, and to avoid provoking the invading troops; nevertheless, the German army, afflicted with paranoid delusions at all levels, took out its fears and guilt complexes in fatal atrocities committed against some 6,500 innocents.

The archival footage episodes on the first two discs are arranged chronologically, with a few topically-treated digressions. The “bonus features” disc is nothing to write home about: a short talking-head segment with the filmmakers; a partly computer-animated special feature about tactics and strategy (the graphics look primitive, in comparison to that which is seen in “virtual reality” video games); and a slide show of biographical information, war facts, and a timeline. (The set that I acquired is second-hand, so it’s missing the printed viewer’s guide.)

Apart from the two errors noted above, this documentary set would make a decent enhancement to a homeschool history curriculum.

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