Books

The best single-volume history of the Great War yet written

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

The historiography of the Great War is stupendous, the effects of the conflict being so far-reaching that even today historians are finding angles hitherto unexplored that they can make books out of; or, at the lower end of the scale, they are content to retell the old story in a different way. What we have been short of in the English canon is a view of the war not just from the other side, but from all sides: it was, as Colonel Repington termed it, ‘the first world war’, and not simply four years of carnage between the British and the Germans.

Jörn Leonhard’s epic and magnificent work — unquestionably, for me, the best single-volume history of the war I have ever read — tries, with some success, to embrace everything. He draws largely on secondary sources, but it is the marshalling of facts and materials that is so impressive, and his knack of not including anything that fails to interest.

Leonhard is professor of European history at the University of Freiburg, but his book — almost 1,100 pages including the best part of 200 pages of notes and appendices — goes beyond Europe, to the Middle East, Africa and to the far-flung outposts of the British, French and German empires, and never makes the mistake of seeing the war as a self-contained event. He gives a rigorous account of the background to the conflict that has only been bettered by Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers; and devotes his last chapter to the conflicts that rumbled on, in eastern Europe and elsewhere, after the armistice had been concluded and, indeed, after Versailles.

Leonhard understands that, for all the hecatombs of men who fought each other, this was a politicians’ war: and he leads us around the chancelleries of Europe and beyond, to America, once President Wilson takes his country into the conflict in April 1917. He has a first-rate grasp of the German strategy and mentality during the war; but also of the steady disintegration of German morale under the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.


Germany should have won the war after its spring offensive of 1918. It had brought 36 divisions from the Eastern Front following the end of the war with Russia and the treaty of Brest-Litovsk; and Lloyd George, because he had lost confidence in Douglas Haig, had refused to send reserves to the Western Front, even though military intelligence reports were telling him of a likely German attack.

But after an initial assault that took the Germans to within 60 miles of Paris, and saw them overrun the few miles of the Somme battlefield that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives just two years earlier, the British and French pulled themselves together and stopped the advance. Worse for the Germans, they came up against two million American troops who, unlike their allies, were not battle-weary. As in September 1914, the enemy were driven back; but, unlike then, there were no reserves for the Germans to draw on and, as Leonhard describes, the news the soldiers received from home was of a society starving, tattered and near the end of its tether. Waves of men sought to be taken prisoner rather than have to fight on; political institutions began to collapse within the central powers; the will to fight evaporated.

This book is only a military history in passing, though it deals with all the necessary battles clearly and precisely. Leonhard describes how the various nations mobilised for war, and how those countries that had a taste of 19th-century liberalism — such as Britain — had to abandon it in favour of societies rigidly controlled by the state, in order to prosecute the war successfully.

He discusses how empires held up during the conflict: the hope among Indians that their contribution to the struggle would lead to some form of Home Rule would not be quickly realised, but the Austro-Hungarian empire, with its kaleidoscope of nations and ethnicities, could not survive defeat; Leonhard is especially good on the rise of Czech nationalism.

But then war changed every society, even those of the victors: in Britain it completed the emancipation of women, since without their work in munitions factories, as nurses and on the land the manpower to fight the war would not have been available, nor the weaponry, and the nation would not have been fed. Their demand for the vote could no longer be resisted. In Kenya, social mobility was enhanced for locals who joined the army; in French West Africa tribal chiefs tried to prevent their men joining up in order to ensure agriculture could continue to function.

Leonhard also writes of intellectual currents in the belligerent societies; how ideas of politics and identities were changed by the conflict. The rise of Bolshevism and the replacement of Russian autocracy by a form of savage gangsterism are shown as having an effect that seeped far beyond the boundaries of that country, and did so with great speed — though Russia’s departure from the war created a further opportunity for Polish nationalism. Despite, or rather because of, the death of liberalism, the war profiteer was invented, making vast sums of money out of the state’s need to manufacture the weapons of human misery. Germany sowed the seeds for its postwar inflation by getting into the habit of printing money rather than (as in Britain) taxing heavily to meet some of the extra cost of war.

Pandora’s Box has been translated from the original German, but into American, not English, English: and sometimes the book reads like an advanced PowerPoint presentation rather than a work of history. Yet the depth of his research and the denseness of the information and analysis he presents make the book compelling reading, and allow one to overcome the occasional stylistic horror. He dips into the letters and diaries of ordinary soldiers and civilians from both sides of the conflict to show the effect on those at the sharp end. It is not always what one might expect — a private on leave from the Buffs in 1916 noted in his diary: ‘Am beginning to long for trenches again, for I get fed up with civilisation.’

It is hard to think of an aspect of the war, military or civilian, that is not at least touched upon in these pages, and made part of an overwhelming synthesis; and the book is extensively illustrated too. It is not a substitute for the specialist works that exist on those aspects, of which doubtless there will be more: but it is the most formidable attempt to make the war to end all wars comprehensible as a whole.

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