War, what’s it good for ? Absolutely nothing !–Edwin Starr
Some of you might remember from an earlier posting of mine, (“Library loot: Once again, it’s time to pillage”) that one of the books I recently grabbed from the public library was Norman Stone’s 2009 book World War One: A Short History. I think I was originally drawn to Stone’s book because as advertised, it is a short history of one of the 20th century’s most brutal armed conflicts. Although I should probably first read John Keegan’s well-received The First World War, since it’s been languishing unread in my personal library for several years, nonetheless I decided to give Stone’s book a shot. After finishing it earlier this morning at a neighboring coffee shop I’m glad I did. Stone has produced a well-written, concise and fairly insightful account of that horrible, preventable tragedy known as the First World War.
Stone, currently a Professor of History at Turkey’s Bilkent University, begins his short history of the war with a kind of “past is prologue” approach, taking the reader to signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. With the Russian army beaten and it’s government in the hands of the Bolsheviks, the victorious Germans and their allies agree to not only end hostilities with the vanquished Russians, but to recognize the “independence” of the former Russian territories of Finland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. Fast forward to today’s world and that arrangement, (following one additional world war and the fifty year reign of the Soviet Union), holds true today. Or as Stone puts it, “Modern Europe is Brest-Litovsk with a human face”.
That is where we are, now how did we get there ? Stone traces the war from the run-up, to the opening of armed hostilities in 1914, to the stalemate of trench warfare, to the tactical progress in 1917, to the entry of the United States and lastly the collapse of Germany at the war’s end. After finishing Stone’s book, I came away with a belief that this was a war characterized by massive failures. First were the political and diplomatic failures, the crimes of hubris and outright bumbling which put Europe’s most powerful nations on the road to horrific war, (forget “regime change”- with four empires destroyed by the war’s end this was “regime suicide”). Secondly, from a military standpoint were the massive failures in tactics and logistics. Each belligerent, especially during the first three years of the war on the Western Front, committed huge resources both human and material only to squander everything over a few yards of land. Only during the last few years of the war would generals learn from their mistakes and fully utilize the latest in military technology to their advantage. While some nations like Germany, France and Great Britain did learn from their mistakes; some like Russia and Austria never fully did and ultimately collapsed as nation-states. Some, like Italy, militarily performed quite horribly throughout the entire conflict, leaving a bitter feeling in the nation’s wounded psyche that would help set the stage for fascism down the road. By the late thirties unless you were a now-independent central or eastern European like a Pole, Finn or Czech; you looked back at this war as a horrible, preventable waste of human life. What’s it good for ? Absolutely nothin’.