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Review: The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War

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The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War
The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War by Peter Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War by Peter Hart is exactly what the title indicates, it is a combat history of the war. “In this book, we will look at the whys and wherefores of the military conduct of the Great War in an attempt to discern what was really going on, rather than attempt to reference every political, social, or artistic movement.”  Unlike other World War I histories I’ve read, Hart’s book focuses on the military aspects of the war rather than also considering the political and diplomatic aspects of the war. It’s not to say that things aren’t put into political context, Hart just doesn’t go into great detail. Instead we get the stories of the Western Front, Eastern Front, Dardanelles, the War at Sea, the Mesopotamian Front, and the Palestinian front.

First, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this book is distinctly told from a British point of view. Hart is careful to indicate that the British may have been in a supportive role to the French on the Western Front but he also leaves no doubt that he sees the British contribution as one of the key factors in the defeat of the Central Powers. He gives credit where credit is due but you definitely come away from the book with the idea that if wasn’t for the British, the war would have been a lost cause.

Second, I like how Hart uses current terminology to describe what was going on in World War I, which may make it easier for readers in this day to understand what was going on. He uses “coalition warfare” which the current day reader would be familiar with from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to describe how the relationship between the British, French, and eventually the Italians and Americans worked. He also used “mission creep,” which current day readers would be familiar with, to describe what happened in the Mesopotamian campaign. It just goes to show that concepts like coalition warfare and mission creep are nothing new under the sun; they’ve long been practiced, we just fail to learn from history.

“Direct quotes from the generals and admirals will show that there was usually a rhyme and a reason to their decisions, while evocative accounts from the men they commanded will show the terrible consequences of those orders for the men who had to enact them. In this, the book will reflect what they knew, or thought they knew, at the time, rather than offer insights vouchsafed by hindsight.”

This quote from Hart’s Preface sets up what for me was one of the central themes of The Great War. Throughout the book, Hart endeavors to tear down the “Lions led by Donkeys” line of thought that many have of World War I leadership, particularly when it comes to the leadership of the British Expeditionary Force. His arguments are framed within the evolution of tactics in a new technological age of warfare and the supportive nature of the BEF to the French Army within the framework of coalition warfare. In particular, Hart shows Haig in a much more positive light than other books I’ve read. It’s also worth mentioning that when it comes to the Sea War Hart treats Jellicoe much the same way, placing Jellicoe’s decision making within the global mission of the Royal Navy rather than just the mission off of the Western Front’s coast.

The quote above also indicates how the book is constructed. Hart makes excellent use of quotations from not just the general officer level but also from the field officer level and the NCO/enlisted levels of the armies. He describes what happens in his words and uses the quotations to give an inside look at the decisions being made by the generals and the effect those decisions had upon the men carrying them out at the front.

“Those with special interest in the more obscure campaigns such as the capture of Tsingtao… or the heroic German resistance in East Africa will find them omitted in favour of more detail on the dramatic key campaigns that still shape our lives today.”

This explains why there is little mention of what I guess Hart would consider the “periphery” of World War I. I would have liked to have seen the African campaign covered in the book because just as the Mesopotamian and Palestinian fronts directly impacted what is going on in the world today, you could argue the same for the African Campaign. The effects of Colonialism directly shaped the state of affairs we’re in today whether it was in the Middle East or Africa.

I would have liked to have given The Great War a four star review but it is another good military history book ruined by the mis-placement of maps in the Kindle edition. It actually has pretty good quality theater level maps for Kindle but unfortunately they’re all at the beginning of the book rather than located in the appropriate parts of the book with the campaigns being discussed. It really is inexcusable; it wouldn’t be done in a print version of a book, why do it in an electronic version of a book? If the print version of The Great War has the maps in the right place it is certainly deserving of four stars. As long as you keep in mind British bias, if you’re interested in a military history of World War I, I would certainly suggest this book as one to read as we enter into the centenary.

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