A Book to End All Books

Article excerpt

Byline: MAX HASTINGS

THE FIRST WORLD WAR VOLUME I: TO ARMS by Hew Strachan (Oxford [pound]30) IN the past few years, some remarkably silly books about the First World War have been published, some by shameless academic sensation-seekers.

Reviewers have battened eagerly onto nonsense about Britain 's responsibility for the whole business. All manner of shaky new theories have been advanced, in the struggle to find something new to say, and to sell.

Well, that game is over, or certainly should be, with publication of the first volume of Hew Strachan 's Oxford history of the conflict. This deserves to rank as one of the most impressive books of modern history in a generation. It reflects 20 years research, and mastery of the literature of many nations. Who could fail to be impressed by a bibliography which includes such works as "Afigbo, AE, The warrant chief;indirect rule in south-eastern Nigeria 1891-1929 (London 1972)"?

The book addresses every aspect of global conflict diplomacy, politics, finance, industry, battle on land and at sea, in Europe, Africa and around the world. It is determinedly non-Anglocentric. How many British historians of the period, never mind students, know that the French had to keep 200, 000 men in North Africa throughout the war, suppressing internal revolt?We read of German colonists in Cameroon manufacturing their own ammunition to sustain resistance against the British, of Japan as the only belligerent successfully to pursue coherent war aims, of JP Morgan 's fantastic wartime financing operations, of the German attempt to raise Jihad in Islam, which offers bizarre echoes of John Buchan 's Greenmantle.

The authors of some recent big-selling First World War books have revealed an embarrassing lack of understanding of mat-

ters military. This has damaged their credibility, if not their royalties.

Strachan, by contrast, displays his authority on strategy, tactics, ordnance, logistics. More even than scholarship, his good sense and repudiation of sensation command confidence.

There is no loose talk here of "blame "for the war as an absolute. He paints a convincing picture of the powers stumbling towards Armageddon in a fog of ignorance.

The Kaiser 's Germany did not want war, but postured and gestured with a recklessness which conferred a heavy historical responsibility. By 1914, "the alliances had become a major vehicle for the expression of a great power 's status ", and thus alliance solidarity became the prime mover for dragging the world into conflict. German political clumsiness contributed mightily to war, but "there was no attempt by the Germans in July 1914 to manage events ". As ever, and surely rightly, the cock-up theory of history prevails.

Throughout Europe, there was astonishingly little prewar contact between soldiers and politicians. Even those military men who perceived the likely horrors and duration of a conflagration failed to convey their expectations to national leaders or to the public: "The popular image of war proved insufficiently awful for deterrence to operate . . . Popular enthusiasm played no part in causing the First World War. Yet without a popular willingness . . . the war could not have taken place. "Strachan rejects the argument that economic rivalries between the European powers made war inevitable. …