World War One: A Short History
By Norman Stone
(Basic Books, 240 pages, $25)
The pacifist’s preferred term for any war is “senseless,” but more troubled observers would be hard-pressed to apply such a judgment across the board. Even seemingly senseless wars are fought over something in the end. World War I, or the Great War as it was originally known, often seems as close to being about nothing as any war can. Perhaps that’s because its various causes— nationalism and empire and a dangerously embedded alliance system—don’t resonate in contemporary minds in the way that ideas like independence or emancipation or the fight against totalitarianism do. It doesn’t help, either, that on further examination the war seems inextricable from the idea of honor, another discredited abstraction. Those who see the war as meaningless, though, generally refer to its justifications, not to its results. The war left an unholy litany of consequences, starting with millions dead and winding like an intrepid virus through history’s immune system ever since.
Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, makes for a difficult reckoning because the book’s subtitle is so apt. In fewer than 200 pages of text and seven chapters—one for each year of the war, plus an introduction and conclusion—Stone breathlessly subsumes so much history and scholarship that the general reader (for whom, presumably, short histories are intended) may feel that he’s missing the war. It raises the question of whether such compressed accounts are the best guides for readers coming to momentous subjects unacquainted. They tend to be written, necessarily, in a kind of shorthand. Still, Stone is able to pack an enormity of information into the smallest space, and with a remarkable eye for detail. We see soldiers drowning in puddles at Third Ypres in 1917, commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele: “Wounded men who had crawled into shell-holes for safety found that the rain caused the water in them to rise and rise, so that they could see their own deaths by drowning approaching, fractions of an inch at a time.” We see the Italian general Luigi Cadorna, whose disastrous character and judgment helped sink the Italians at Caporetto, and who “even adopted the Roman practice of decimation, shooting every tenth man at random in a regiment that had done badly,” including a father of seven for being last man in formation because he had overslept. We see Germans pushing lorries at Amiens with wheels made of iron or wood because of a rubber shortage; the wheels break up and damage the roads, slowing their progress.
The wonder is that Stone is able to create a narrative of this sweep and brevity while also providing such evocative descriptions. He excels as well at aphorisms, which tend to emerge suddenly out of a thicket of detail. British general Sir Douglas Haig, in command at the horrific Battle of the Somme, was “the best kind of Scottish general, it was said, in that he killed the most Englishmen.” And Stone isn’t all smoke and cannon. After relating the bloodbath that was Verdun, he matter-of-factly concludes that “in a sense it broke the French army, or at any rate strained it to such a degree that the country never really recovered: France’s last moment as a Great Power. When she did fall in 1940, this was partly because her people did not want to go through Verdun again.”
Except in his introductory and concluding chapters, Stone focuses mostly on the decision-making and tactics of generals rather than of political leaders. And as in most World War I histories, they don’t fare terribly well. Stone cites C. S. Forester’s postwar novel, The General, which described the western front’s military leaders as “trying to hammer in a screw and, when it resisted, trying to hammer it harder.” He saves most of his praise for an eastern front general, Aleksei Brusilov, whose Brusilov
Offensive constituted one of Russia’s few shining moments in the war. He credits Brusilov with being among the first to understand the need for new tactics, particularly the need to attack in smaller units and hit strategic targets, especially enemy reserve forces, simultaneously with assaults on the front lines. The ever-hapless Russians failed to build upon Brusilov’s successes during the rest of the war; the Germans, never missing a trick, adopted them in due haste.
Stone’s devotion of nearly equal space to the fighting in the western and eastern fronts might surprise general readers but not those who know that his major work is the definitive The Eastern Front 1914–1917, which he published in the 1970s. “The Russians should have made it obsolete a long time ago,” he writes with typical pungency in his source notes, which alone make the book worthwhile. Unlike some recent historians of the war, like Hew Strachan and John Keegan, Stone does not expound much on the war’s sweeping, debilitating legacy. He does point out that “in four years, the world went from 1870 to 1940,” referring to how military technology—and modern medicine—made amazing leaps during the course of the fighting (by the last year of the war, just 1 percent of wounded men died.) And he notes crucially that at the war’s outset, Western civilization stood at its high-water mark. It even had an end-of-history-like tome to anchor its complacency, à la Francis Fukuyama: Norman Angell’s 1910 book, Great Illusion, which argued that the European powers had so much common economic interest that the idea of war was unthinkable. Prosperity and comity had rendered war obsolete.
Four years later, the West marched off to slaughter. We never regained Angell’s optimism, and who can blame us? It’s been a slow, steady, but relentless decline in purpose, conviction, and cultural vigor. And now, with falling birth rates in Western nations, cultural vigor is beside the point. The saddest part is that the West, unprompted, chose to destroy itself, starting with this miserable war. Perhaps even more than the horrific human cost, this realization that the cataclysm was self-willed must have played a role in stripping the West of its idea of itself and in time, rendering so many of us dubious, ironist—and childless.