BOOKS: New Tales from the Trenches ; 1914-1918: The History of the First World War by David Stevenson ALLEN LANE Pounds 25 (729Pp) Pounds 22 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897

By Bourke, Joanna | The Independent (London, England), September 3, 2004 | Go to article overview
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BOOKS: New Tales from the Trenches ; 1914-1918: The History of the First World War by David Stevenson ALLEN LANE Pounds 25 (729Pp) Pounds 22 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897


Bourke, Joanna, The Independent (London, England)


The trauma of the First World War simply won't go away. Most of the men and women who fought during that conflict are no longer with us (in 2003, there were only 37 British Expeditionary Force veterans still living), but their experiences were crucial in forging the modern world.

Combat required individuals to kill and to die for their country and comrades. Lieutenant-Colonel JW Barnett was one of millions of combatants who found the trials of war almost unbearable. As he tersely observed in his diary of 29 April 1915, "Shelling continues... St Jean church blazing & whole village smashed to pieces. Gurkha jammed under beams in burning house. Had to shoot him in head as could not be got out. Horrible. Curse this war - it is murder. All fellows look done - drawn faces." Anyone writing the history of this worldwide cataclysm must be able to look men like Barnett in the face. David Stevenson, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, has written a history that does this, and more.

Reviewers are generally not given to hyperbole, but this history of the 1914-1918 conflict surpasses all others. It is tough, erudite, and comprehensive. Stevenson will have his critics. There is a numbing bloodlessness in the lengthy cataloguing of casualty statistics, and the men and women cowering under the barrages are eerily silent. Nevertheless, this book is a brilliant political, strategic and military analysis of the 1914- 1918 war.

It is the first truly global history of the conflict. In his precise, unadorned prose, Stevenson tells the story of a war that had no historical parallel. The German preference for a localised Balkan war or, failing that, a continental one, rapidly proved unrealistic. The conflict stretched to all corners of the earth.

Stevenson rejects a western European perspective. Between 1914 and 1917, as many men were fighting on the Eastern Front as in France or Belgium and, for a time, the Eastern Front was more than twice the length of its Western counterpart. Not surprisingly, in this global context, death came in many guises. In the Alps, soldiers froze to death or were asphyxiated at high altitudes, while in the Middle East and Africa they were scorched by the sun as they desperately sought to locate the enemy.

This was "total war", and Stevenson does not ignore its effect on civilians. His attempt to be comprehensive leads to a dizzying piling up of layers upon layers of facts, but the overall effect is momentous.

The book begins with a pertinent question: "Why still remember the 11th of November?" Stevenson provides many answers, but one of the most startling is dazzlingly simple: the cataclysm was man- made. Slaughter was deliberate governmental policy.

This is not to deny that citizens were initially keen to enter the fray. Except in rural Russia, opposition to war was muted. Every nation, including Germany, framed support for the war in terms of a righteous cause and a need to defend its own against external aggression. By themselves, however, popular attitudes did not make war inevitable.

The great powers needed the support of their citizens if they were to wage war, but they also needed the military hardware and the "will". As early as Christmas 1914, in both eastern and western Europe, the belligerent armies found themselves trapped in a ruthless new world.

With only one exception (the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line), the 475 miles of trenches on the Western Front moved barely more than five miles between 1914 and 1918.

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BOOKS: New Tales from the Trenches ; 1914-1918: The History of the First World War by David Stevenson ALLEN LANE Pounds 25 (729Pp) Pounds 22 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
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