How WWI Set the Stage for the 20th Century; NONFICTION - BOOKS

Article excerpt

In the collective consciousness of Americans, two wars seem to rise above all others the Civil War and World War II. Few Americans pay much attention to World War I, even though it set the stage for the rest of the 20th century.

After all, America put off entering WWI until past the war's midway point. And although the United States lost more than 53,000 fighting men, that figure paled beside the awful killed-in-action losses for the other combatants.

So it'll be interesting to see how well British historian and journalist Max Hastings does in American bookstores with "Catastrophe 1914," subtitled, "Europe Goes to War." His major theme: Germany deserves most of the blame for starting the war, and some revisionist historians to the contrary had the Germans won the war quickly, Europe would have suffered gravely.

In his prewar account, Hastings shifts skillfully between accounts of the mood in Europe's chancelleries and its street cafes. Once the war begins, Hastings shifts with equal skill between the strategic decisions at the armies' headquarters and the tactical consequences along the front lines.

We tend to think of WWI as a long, dreary hell of barbed wire and trench warfare, which it was but only after 1914. In the war's first trenchless months, mobility remained a possibility, with armies marching hither and yon. Still, as Hastings notes, "The technologies of mobility and communication lagged far behind the twentieth-century revolution in the destructive power of weapons." In other words, with machine guns and indirect artillery fire, armies could shoot a lot better than they could move or communicate. …


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