Book review: 'The Great War' offers a wonderful new interpretation of WWI

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, May 12 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

"THE GREAT WAR: A Combat History of the First World War," by Peter Hart, Oxford University Press, $34.95, 544 pages (nf)

Nearly 100 years after its beginning, World War I remains one of the least understood conflicts in history. For most Americans, the war remains draped in mystery, a vague and mostly incomprehensible prelude to the more dramatic and relatable World War II. The few things that perhaps do come to most minds about World War I are trench warfare, the Red Baron, the Western Front, and scores of incompetent generals ordering the flower of Europe's youth to an early death.

Peter Hart's new book, “The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War” does much to explain the conflict, and blows away many longstanding misconceptions about how the war was fought.

An author of several works on military history, Hart challenges many of the old notions that generals such as the British Sir Douglas Haig, the French Philippe Pétain and Ferdinand Foch, and the German Erich Ludendorff stupidly threw away lives because of their incompetence and lack of imagination. Rather, Hart paints a portrait of generals constantly updating and experimenting with their tactics in the hopes of destroying their enemies. The problem, Hart notes, is that both sides learned the lessons of industrialized warfare too well, and as one side evolved their tactics, so too did their enemy, resulting in a continuous stream of massive casualties.

The scope of this book is truly phenomenal. In addition to the Western Front, Hart covers the war in eastern Europe, the war in the Middle East and Mesopotamia, the Italian Front and the Gallipoli campaign. The chapters dealing with the war at sea are captivating and explore a subject not given its due in most books on the Great War.

This book offers much more than a mere overview of each theater, however. Few books on war manage to present the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war with the weight they deserve. They tend to favor the view of the generals at the expense of the fighting man, or vice versa. Hart expertly shifts between the generals' chateaus and the front line, illustrating both the bold plans for the offensive and the blood, determination and sacrifice that was required to carry them out. It does include some descriptions of military violence, and overall it's generally suitable for most ages.

Throughout this work, Hart includes letters and memoirs from those front-line soldiers who all too often were asked to make that ultimate sacrifice. One such letter was from Capt. Charles May of the 22nd Manchester Regiment, who wrote to his wife with a prayer to see her and their new baby daughter again. The next day the Battle of the Somme began, and May fell. Such letters, and Hart's brilliant, chilling narrative, bring home the immediacy and the futility of a murderous, four-year conflict that should never have happened.

Hart does favor the Western Front, however, and one would have liked to have seen more letters and texts from Russians, Austrians, Ottomans and others. This is a minor complaint in what is sure to be a standard work for years to come on World War I.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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