Book reviews: WWI special

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 9 January 2014 in Culture
Hell to all that: In the build-up to the WWI centenary, Keith Simpson MP rounds up the best new books on the subject of a conflict that continues to underline politics and society

As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the first flurries in what will be an avalanche of books, covering political, military, social, financial and personal experiences, have slid into the shops. In many respects, the debate over the causes, conduct and consequences of WWI rivals those held in the 1920s and then the 1960s. With the easing of restrictions by UK government departments and the opening up of the archives of the old East European governments, new archival sources have become available. And the politics of the centenary have awakened an interest in regional crises, the failure of conflict resolution and the responsibility of leadership elites.

This roundup highlights some of the books recently published that address these central issues. Perhaps the most interesting and challenging of the present crop is David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster, £25). Reynolds, a Cambridge don who has written extensively on political and international history, addresses the parliamentary, cultural, military and social legacy of the war, and corrects many of the myths veiling it. How we interpret it today depends as much upon the post-war mood as what actually happened during its course. If you read no other book on the conflict, it should be this one.

The old notion of ‘war guilt’ which became associated with Versailles and Germany has endlessly been debated. Another Cambridge historian, Christopher Clark, has continued the debate with his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30). Clark places Serbia and the Serbian government at the centre of the crisis and argues that the Austro-Hungarian regime had quite a lot of justice on its side. He suggests that France and Russia were more implicit in the crisis than has been accepted, and that Germany was perhaps less of a villain than has been previously thought. A formidable piece of scholarship that has sparked yet more debate and controversy.

For Max Hastings, however, Germany’s guilt is firmly established, and he is contemptuous of those who reject the idea that it was unnecessary to stop the German aggression. A military historian, Hastings has established a formidable reputation as a writer who combines penning treatises on high military politics with combatants’ personal experiences. If Hastings is severe on German war guilt, he is ferociously critical of British and French political and military incompetence. For him, the war centenary is something for Britain to celebrate, not just commemorate. Try Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War (William Collins, £30).

Allan Mallinson is a former serving British army officer who has written some fine unpickings of military history. In 1914 Fight the Good Fight: Britain, the Army and the Coming of the First World War (Bantam, £25) he examines Britain’s military and political preparations for battle, and the early campaign of the British Expeditionary Force. A rather traditional interpretation of this British aspect of the war.

Interestingly, Jeremy Paxman, TV journalist, interrogator and pundit, has written several history books. In Great Britain’s Great War (Viking, £25) he approaches the conflict through the prism of family history, and is in awe of a generation that endured so much. This tome will form the basis of a Jeremy Paxman-fronted BBC documentary on WWI to be screened later this year.

Sean McMeekin, a young, revisionist historian, downplays the critical role of Germany in the crisis in his July 1914: Countdown to War (Icon Books, £25) and shifts the responsibility onto Russia. The author is an academic at Istanbul University and a student of Norman Stone. In many respects, this work is an extension of the thesis he first put forward in 2011 in The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard University Press, £22.95).

For those seeking a guide to the conflicting arguments over the origins of WWI that neither simplify nor obscure them, Margaret MacMillan’s magisterial The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Profile Books, £25) is the answer. This Oxford don, the great-granddaughter of Lloyd George, established her formidable reputation with her acclaimed Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War. Her book is based primarily on published sources, but she grips the main issues. Instead of re-fighting old debates, she argues that the origins of war depended upon choices made by Europe’s political elites – and sadly they were poor choices. She ranges widely over political, diplomatic and social events and concludes that earlier crises had just about been managed, led to complacency, and were set against a background of paranoia and war expectation.

The British Liberal foreign secretary in 1914 was Sir Edward Grey, best remembered for his quote, “The lamps are going out all over Europe”. Keith Robbins wrote a standard biography in 1971 and now Michael Waterhouse has written Edwardian Requiem: A Life of Sir Edward Grey (Biteback, £25). He covers the historical background of Grey’s period of 11 years as foreign secretary and the accusations of secret diplomacy, but fleshes out the details, particularly of his private life, affairs and preference to be in the country rather than Westminster. Unlike the present foreign secretary, Grey only went abroad once in his ministerial life.

Complementing this biography about Grey is TG Otte’s The Foreign Office Mind: The Making of British Foreign Policy 1865-1914 (CUP, £22.99) Based on archival research, the author presents a comprehensive analysis of the Foreign service as a “knowledge based organisation” with a collective mindset that shifted over time, but was crucial to its reactions to the crisis of 1914.

David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer, played a pivotal role in the British reaction to the 1914 crisis. Seen as a member of the radical wing of the Liberal Party, his decision to support the declaration of war after Germany invaded Belgium was crucial, as was his reaction to the immediate financial crisis, which is admirably covered by Richard Roberts in Saving the City: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 (OUP, £20). And this was merely a prelude to his rise to the wartime premiership. Lloyd George’s role has been extensively covered by historians like John Grigg and David Woodward, but Travis L Crosby has attempted to look again in The Unknown David Lloyd George: A Statesman in Conflict (I B Tauris, £30).

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