Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918

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ENDURING THE GREAT WAR: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918, Alexander Watson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2008, 288 pages, $78.00.

A wise historian once remarked that the Western Front of World War I was "war distilled." By that, he meant that the conditions of combat between 1914 and 1918 were among the most physically and psychologically demanding ever faced by fighting men. In addition to the miserable day-to-day condition in the trenches, the long, awful history of warfare has rarely seen such sustained, bloody combat as that of Ypres, Verdun, Passchendaele, and the Argonne Forest. How did armies, units, and individuals sustain themselves in such horrific conditions? The question deserves the attention of both historians and military professionals.

Typically, in attempting an answer to the question, one refers either to famous literature of the war (All Quiet on the Western Front, Goodbye to All That, etc.) or useful but dated surveys like John Ellis's Eye-Deep in Hell or Denis Winter's Death's Men. One is gratified, now, to see our understanding expanded through the publication of Alexander Watson's Enduring the Great War. Watson is a young research scholar at Cambridge University, and what makes his contribution so important is the original approach he takes to the problem and the extraordinary scope of the sources he uses to support his findings. His approach is a comparative one. Unlike Ellis and Winter, who focused only on the experience of British soldiers, Watson compares the coping strategies of soldiers in two armies, the British and the German. …