Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Warbooks: The First World War, Martin Gilbert

Hey! I have a degree in history! I like to read! I like military history! Why not?

The First World War: A Complete History, by Martin Gilbert.

This very long work is essentially a chronology of the Great War, from the rapid escalation of tension before August 1914 to the problems of armistice in 1918 and how they affected state relations in the 1930s. Gilbert, better known as the official biographer of Churchill, manages to humanize the war here. He often makes all too real the nine million military dead of WWI through use of poems, quotes and letters written home by the men who died, as well as graphic recollections by nurses who served at the front (one image that stays with me is a hospital room full of nothing but amputated limbs).

It’s fascinating reading and broad in scope, but it does have its problems. First, the endless litany style does grate after a while. Second, Gilbert is intensely pro-Anglo-American. Thus he ignores all the fighting out of Europe, and while he mentions Japan once, fails to satisfactorily investigate why Japan entered the war, how her people felt about it, what her success or losses were, etc. Thus, too, he dwells on German "atrocities" during the war but elsewhere mentions several instances which make it quite clear that barbarism and selfishness were aspects of both sides. Finally, while arguing that superior Allied force was the deciding factor in the German capitulation, he fails to convince that internal revolution played a small part.

In all, it's an impressive feat of scholarship, and tremendously informative for those with little or no grasp of WWI. Its omissions might leave history neophytes with the wrong idea, however, if they aren't scared off by its great length in the first place.


Churlita said...

Have you ever read a book called Rites of Spring? It's kind of about how WWI affected the the birth of post modernism. It was also pretty well written.

Chance said...

No, but that sounds interesting. WWI had a huge cultural impact long after it was over.