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Not forgetting the horses’ indigestion

World War One: A Short History
by Norman Stone

8 August 2007

12:52 PM

8 August 2007

12:52 PM

World War One: A Short History Norman Stone

Allen Lane, pp.pp. 157, £16.99

The appearance of this volume is an important publishing event. It is the first book in ten years from one of the outstanding historians of our age. Its brevity and unflamboyant presentation are deceptive. Those who have admired Norman Stone’s work in the past will not be disappointed — it is full of surprises and provocative statements. Coming from an expert on Great War Russia who has now settled in Turkey, the balance of the book is tipped refreshingly away from the conventionally favoured Western Front, and much more towards the Russian, Balkan, Asia Minor and Italian Fronts, though the Middle East (unexpectedly), Africa, and more far-flung parts do not get much attention.

Looking at the lessons of the war and the peace that followed, Stone regrets above all that Germany was humiliated and economically broken while continuing to believe that she had not been defeated. The Allies should have destroyed her army and occupied the country, as after the next world war, which was the consequence of their failure to do so.

Norman Stone was one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite interpreters of history during her time of power — not that his views were predictably Conservative. He has never been one of what sloppy minds call ‘the establishment’. Early in this book he comes close to agreeing with Lenin (via a different route) when he says: ‘The governments that went to war all made out they were acting for national defence. But it was Empire they had in mind.’ Had it not been for this imperialist agenda on Germany’s part and her aggressive foreign policy, which he believes directly caused the war, the prospect of her economic dominance was not such an unattractive one then, in his view, nor should it be so regarded in the EU of today. ‘There is much to be said for a German Europe,’ he asserts, citing the inventiveness and capability of that country and its geographical position, suiting it to be the trading and modernising centre for the Balkans and Eastern Europe in particular.


Not unexpectedly for those who have read Norman Stone’s Eastern Front, 1914–1917, with its brilliant analysis of the Russian economy and the logistics of industrialisation and war supply, his World War One is particularly strong on transport, integral to warfare; he describes, for instance, how in 1914 German problems as they approached Paris were compounded by lorry breakdowns and indigestion suffered by the horses pulling the ammunition wagons. He gives the same attention to technology: ‘by 1914, not only was cavalry useless, but the destruction of fortresses in Belgium was possible, through the invention, by Dr Ferdinand Porsche, of a special traction for extremely heavy (30.5 cm) howitzers’.

He neatly sums up the failure of either side to achieve a victory on the Western Front, and at sea, at Jutland, as a problem of communications — ‘enormous weight but a hopelessly limited capacity of control’ — and spots the moments when some clear-headed generals (in his view a rare breed before 1918) actually got strategy right. In his view ‘the most brilliant victory of the entire war… in the sense that brains and determination overcame material weakness’ took place at Riga on 1 September 1917 where artillery bombardment was used by the German army not to smash Russian defences but chiefly to neutralise command systems and the movement of reserves.

There are admirable and pithy summaries here of confusing matters such as the various peace feelers put out during the war and the offensives on the Russian and Western Fronts (Nivelle’s in spring 1917, for example, Stone disposing of the myth of mass executions for mutiny). For a book that crams so much important material into so small a space there is a surprising number of memorable asides. On the carnage of the Somme battle in 1916: ‘The names of the war memorials of Eton and Oxford and Cambridge and Edinburgh go on and on (to the credit of New College, Oxford, and Trinity, Cambridge, they include German and Hungarian names).’

Inevitably, the book invites comparison with A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History. Taylor’s book is still in print, and has not lost its lustre, though it belongs to its period, the Sixties, and did much to influence that generation. It started with a huge advantage — the first world war had been in eclipse, but was just coming back into fashion, assisted by Joan Littlewood’s satirical revue, Oh! What a Lovely War. For a while new scholarly books on the war were slow to appear, the public papers on the period being only just released. Taylor, a Macaulay of his time, dominated the field. Today, by contrast, Stone’s book appears alongside dozens of challenging histories of the same war, and, undeservedly, is more easily lost in the crowd. Besides, Taylor was allowed excellent photographs on every page, with opportunities to amuse his readers with captions such as ‘Lloyd George casts an expert eye over munitions girls’. Stone’s publishers might consider an illustrated edition.

Both books are bold, provocative and witty. Taylor has been called ‘the last Shavian’ — like Shaw he frequently flung out perverse views to provoke attention to supposedly deeper verities. As a scholar, Stone is generally the more scrupulous of the two historians, yet despite a strong streak of cynicism in Taylor I cannot help finding more human feeling in his work. Au fond, Stone’s history is a tale of machines, systems and leaders, while Taylor’s is one of the people who were their victims, and his closing sentences are therefore, to me, more moving. On the other hand his optimism seems less convincing now: with many historians of the Sixties and Seventies, he believed that the war, though terrible and largely unjust, was valuable in destroying undesirable ancien régimes and bringing about social reform. Save in the case of Turkey, Stone sees no such improvement through ‘regime change’ — and that bleaker conclusion seems closer to the truth.


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