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Book Review: The Making of the First World War

The Making of the First World Warthe making of the first world war

by Ian F. W. Beckett

Yale University Press, 2013

The deluge of books on the First World War that’s sure to break upon readers during the 2014 centennial will no doubt be replete with volumes very similar to Professor Beckett’s The Making of the First World War, which takes twelve alleged ‘turning points’ in the war and examines them in light of how things might have changed if they’d gone differently than they did. This has always been a popular approach to a war that seems entirely composed of odd, unpredictable chances. Despite how often prewar governments and individuals talked of (and armed for) some unavoidable oncoming catastrophe, the Great War, especially in its initial stages, seems to lack entirely the Wagnerian feel of inevitability that charges every aspect of the Second World War. Instead, “if only” scenarios abound, perhaps most famously beginning with “if only the Black Hand hadn’t succeeded in assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.”

To his credit, Beckett doesn’t dwell on that first and most obvious example of a turning point, instead taking readers through a series of perhaps less well-known moments and developments, from the decision of the Belgians to flood the Yser, thus stopping the German advance, to Germany’s decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare in January of 1917, thus provoking the United States to enter the war. Beckett looks at the factors that led the Bolsheviks to triumph over Russia’s Provisional Government, at the shifts to the balance of power caused by Turkey’s decision to enter the war, and at the psychological impact of the creation of the Ministry of Munitions in 1915. In these cases and all others, his goal isn’t really to speculate on alternative outcomes but rather to probe the delicate vulnerabilities of the events that actually happened. It’s an admittedly fine line; every one of these chapters invites a certain very focused daydreaming.

Via subject matter, that is, not via prose: Beckett is an informative writer but a dry one – at times a parched one. Most of his chosen topics are inherently fascinating, none more so than the effect on British civilian morale of The Battle of the Somme, a documentary released in the summer of 1916 that included dramatic (faked) scenes of soldiers clambering out of their trenches and going ‘over the top’ into German machine gun fire. Beckett has some interesting things to say about the profound (and often overlooked) impression this film made on a war-weary populace – but the way he chooses to say those things is sometimes stultifying:

The response evoked in audiences was generally a mixture of pity and horror. Whatever Lloyd George’s intentions, the domestic reaction suggests that sacrifice on the Western Front was seen as immeasurably greater than that on the home front. Far more than censored letters home, censored newspaper reports, and perhaps veiled allusions in the comments by those servicemen on leave, film images conveyed a much greater reality than even the lengthy lists of casualties in the provincial press or acquaintance with those convalescing from wounds.

Pointing out that shopkeepers in Durham probably thought their sacrifices were less than those of young men running into mortar fire? Pointing out that film images (even fake ones) shown in hundreds of cinemas conveyed a much greater reality than veiled allusions made by individual servicemen? Pointing out that those servicemen were convalescing from wounds, as opposed to toothache? In this and in many similar passages, the reader will have the urge to edit and re-write, which isn’t exactly the urge writers want to provoke.

Fortunately, Beckett is much stronger on the personal side of his stories. Some of his character sketches work quite well at bringing the major players to life. Of Woodrow Wilson he tells us: “A shy and diffident young man – he did not learn to read until he was twelve – Wilson was imbued from the beginning with a strong Calvinist faith that gave structure to his life and also meaning to his rather simplistic view of right and wrong.” And of the fierce and morose German commander Erich Ludendorff he writes:

There was a certain glacial quality to Ludendorff, who often appeared arrogant, vain and rigidly humourless. An artist once told Ludendorff’s first wife, Margarethe, that her husband gave him ‘cold shivers down my spine.’ … What many also noted was the restless energy and an underlying nervous tension. He had the habit, for example, of rolling breadcrumbs at the table when concentrating or worrying. By the start of the spring offensives in March 1918, Ludendorff had taken only four days’ leave in two and a half years, and was also suffering from an exophthalmic goitre that had only increased his irritability. By mid-July he was also drinking heavily

Some of Beckett’s judgement calls succeed in sparking the kind of ‘maybe yes, maybe no’ inner debate that is one of the best kinds of historical thinking, and that’s a reason for WWI buffs to take up the book. This isn’t really narrative history (more a series of problems and their possible solutions), and despite its didactic tone, it’s not particularly a book for newcomers to the subject. Broader context is often sacrificed in order to bring the fragile variables of each turning point into faster relief. In doing this kind of ruminating on some of the First World War’s pressure points, Beckett has stolen a march on the dozens of such books that will be appearing this time next year. There’s a certain irony to the fact that it so often finds itself bogged down in the trenches.

 

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