- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

Be thankful the 20th century mankind's bloodiest is over, and let us all pray for a better 21st century. The seminal event that fomented last's century's misery was World War I, and, therefore, it must be studied. Why was World War I critical? Because one can draw a direct line from World War I to most of the wretchedness of the last century.
Had the leaders the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Germany (especially the latter two) in July and August 1914 possessed a modicum of wisdom and maturity, that preventable war would have never occurred, and had it not happened the train of disasters that marked the 20th century would not have happened. No World War I:
No simultaneous collapse of the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires a disintegration still affecting Europe;
No Great Depression and the melancholy that prompted tens of millions to opt for security over freedom;
No Adolf Hitler and no World War II the bloodiest war ever;
No Russian revolution, no Soviet totalitarianism, no Joseph Stalin, no Cold War, no nuclear terror.
Everybody in government needs to understand the origins of World War I, the strategic and operational errors that governed its campaigns and tactics, the diplomatics that dragged Germany, Russia, Britain, and France into a war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the economics of total war (especially how each major power mobilized its society), and its war-termination failure. Fortunately we have recent publications to help us.
Hew Strachan is a world-renowned scholar. His The First World War: Volume I: To Arms (Oxford, $39.95, 1227 pages, illus.), the first of three volumes, will, when completed, be the prime source turned to for understanding the war economically, informationaly, diplomatically, and militarily. His outstanding chapter on "The Origins of the War" examines this topic by exploring the rich historiography of the subject, concluding: "… what remains striking about those hot July [1914] weeks is the role, not of collective forces [like imperialism, nationalism, xenophobia] nor of long-range factors [like the German Emperor's desire for a "place in the sun"] but of the individual… . [T]he statesmen of 1914 were pygmies, …"
The peoples of Europe marched "Willingly to War" (Mr. Strachan's second chapter). The author quotes Hitler to serve as a model for the general sentiment. On hearing that war had been declared, Hitler wrote: "I sank to my knees and thanked heaven from an overflowing heart that it had been granted to me the good fortune to be alive at such a time."Hitler's emotion was common among most of the combatant populations.
The author dissects the combatants' war plans, especially the German and French, and demonstrates how the war soon bogged down in the West in 1914. Mr. Strachangives more emphasis to other theaters Eastern Europe, the Pacific, Africa, the sea than other comprehensive histories.
What truly separates Mr. Strachan's book from other general treatments are his chapters: "Financing the War" and "Industrial Mobilization." Before Germany's armies collapsed, its home front died. In the climactic battles of 1918, the allies had more of everything to fight with, and their civilian populations (especially those in the United States) were better cared for. Mr. Strachan will discuss these aspects in later volumes, but he establishes an admirable foundation for such discussions in this volume. One quarter of this long text is given to economics and mobilization, in which the allies outperformed Germany and Austria. Buy this book.

Winston Groom (author of "Forrest Gump" and several well received nonfiction books) gives us a sickening whiff of rotting bodies and mustard gas in A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918, Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27.50, 265 pages, Illus.). This account of the four years of fighting over real estate smaller than Rhode Island in which hundreds of thousands died and other hundreds of thousands were wounded or permanently disabled by poison gas is well worthwhile for those who need to understand how wars too often get out of hand, demanding supreme sacrifice. Mr. Groom has an artist's eye for detail. He writes:
"To have been in Ypres at that time was as close as man will come to seeing the Infernal Regions. Picture it at night: a bleak hellish maw of mud and terror; the stench, the bodies everywhere of men and animals, since there had been no time to bury them; … It practically defies imagination that these horrors continued night and day, day and night… . on the German side of the line. Things weren't any better. Life in the concrete pillboxes was shocking. A dozen or more men at a time were holed up in each of the hundreds of blockhouses that dotted their defense area, unable to go outside because of the unending British artillery.
"Dead Germans decomposed in shell craters or fighting holes outside by the thousands, and attracted flies by the millions. They crawled constantly over the skin and food of the living, who simply sat there and endured it up to six days at a time, in the stark, waterlogged stench waiting for the next Allied attack. Diarrhea and vomiting were common, adding to the foulness. Because of the soil conditions, the pillboxes had not been constructed deep in the ground, so if a heavy shell landed near one, it was likely to tip over. If it tipped onto its entrance hole, which often happened, those inside were trapped in a slow, horrible death, because there was no way to rescue them." Flanders indeed was a terrible place to be.

Michael Howard, the dean of 20th century military historians, has written a valuable, if brief, incisive synthesis of World War I that is sound, spare, well written, and valuable. Reading The First World War (Oxford, $23, 154 pages, illust.) after Mr. Strachan and Mr. Groom found me nodding in agreement with Mr. Howard's judgments. Michael Howard has written valuable histories for 50 years, never writing a bad book.
Mr. Howard agrees with Mr. Strachan regarding the severe limitations of the German Emperor in 1914: "[I]t was the misfortune not only of Germany but of the entire world that at this juncture the House of Hohenzollern should have produced in Wilhelm II, an individual who in his person … characterized the contemporary German ruling elite: archaic militarism, vaulting ambition, and neurotic insecurity."
Mr. Howard takes us through all the major wickets from the assassination of the Austrian heir to the crown, to the guns of August, the western front stalemate, the other theaters of the war, the role played by the home front, the takeover of the Germany government by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenberg and General Erich von Ludendorf (and what they did not know about the subtlety of diplomacy and complexities of economics and mobilization were profound) to the decisive entry of the United States (stupidly provoked by Germany), and the failure of war termination. It is all here with admirable brevity and worth reading for its illuminations and sound judgments.

Alan Gropman is chairman of the Grand Strategy Department at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.


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