Saturday, 13 August 2016

First World War - Martin Gilbert

I recently re-read Martin Gilbert's book First World War, and I found it sobering, if gripping.

This work takes the form of a narrative account, and it feels more compact than it really is, because the story is related in a largely "bite-size" format, within chapters covering clearly definable stages of the war.

For me, the book is imbued with its drama and poignancy by the inclusion of excerpts from the diaries and correspondence of a wide array of people who were involved in the conflict, or who were affected by it. It is possible to trace changes in their mood and attitudes as time goes on, as the realities and horrors slowly but surely sink in.  There are some anecdotes and stories here which should touch anyone's heart and conscience.

The style I would tentatively describe as moderate in tone, appealing to reason and a common sense of humanity. If anything, the restrained and matter-of-fact character of the writing succeeds by allowing the suffering and chaos to speak for themselves.

Due to the narrative format, the ebb and flow, and the fluctuations in morale and momentum, are vividly highlighted. Another effect of the author's diligence is to demonstrate the sheer magnitude of the struggle, and the diverse array of landscapes and cultures on which it impinged. The Balkans and the Middle East are prominent, and there is constant focus on the aspirations of nationalities and minorities for recognition in the post-war order of things.

The passages which deal with the build-up to the war are relatively brief, but they do convey the somewhat bizarre nature of events. Complacency and wishful thinking intermingled with the insecurity of those nations imprisoned by alliances. The diplomatic prelude also caused me to perceive that in some of the nations the decision-making process was confused and indistinct, with monarchs, politicians and military leaders overlapping.

It is disturbing to read of the harsh and repressive measures taken by "democratic" countries to crack down on, and suppress, protest and dissent during the war, even allowing for the exigencies of wartime. In addition, the callous attitudes displayed by some of the generals, and politicians, towards soldiers and civilians alike are disconcerting.

Some of the most illuminating portions of the book are the ones which encompass the periods in 1917/18 when the "Entente powers" were under real strain, specifically between Russia's collapse and the entrance of American forces into the field in meaningful numbers. The desperation and anxiety of those in power is palpable, and superbly brought across here, partly by the tetchy dialogue between the military leaders of the Western Allies.

A facet of First World War which enriches it greatly is the light which it sheds on the character and traits of participants at differing levels, with their varying temperaments, morals and intellects. Some of the quotes attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II made me shudder, as did the deluded thinking of some in the German hierarchy as the war neared its conclusion. They failed to clearly appreciate which way the wind was blowing.

Also prominent in my mind was a consequence of the war which is often overlooked. That is the sheer waste of natural resources, and the damage to the natural environment, which was brought about.

I think that humankind, or at least parts of it, have by and large learned, and progressed, in the past hundred years. However, books such as this one should be read by people of all backgrounds, generations and outlooks, as a cautionary tale, and as a stark warning and reminder.

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