Tag Archives: WWI

Book Review: The July Crisis: The World’s descent into War, Summer 1914

“The spring and summer of 1914 were marked in Europe by an exceptional tranquility.”
Winston Churchill 

The July Crisis: The World’s descent into War, Summer 1914 by Thomas Otte is the history of the events leading to the First World War. Otte is a professor of diplomatic and international history of the 19th and 20th century at the University of East Anglia. He has written books on diplomatic history and China, as well as publishing numerous essays in academic journals. 

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to read and review Cambridge University Press’ Cambridge Honors the Centennial of World War I which featured an excerpt from this book. Otte takes a very detailed look at the events leading to the First World War. It starts with an unprecedented period of peace in Europe interrupted with an assassination in Serbia of the Archduke of a toothless Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The Emperor Franz Josef cut short his vacation on the news, only to continue it from his palace. He had little love for the archduke and his wife. The funeral was attended by immediate family, the officer corps was forbidden to salute the funeral train, and neither were buried in the imperial vault. The Emperor was not interested in war and was joined by the Prime Minister Tisza, however, Foreign Minister Berchtold and Chief of the Army Staff Conrad wanted an immediate and punitive war. No one in Europe wanted war except Austria-Hungary foreign minister and chief of staff. 

Although no one wanted war, there was a sense of paranoia between the nations’ militaries. Although no one want to go to war, I received the strong impression that no one really wanted to stop the war either. With each power in each alliance looking at its interests and security there was no consensus. The alliances were different from the alliances of the cold war. The Warsaw Pact and NATO were entangling alliances. The difference was that individual members did not act out on their own. East Germany would not have invaded West Germany on its own initiative or even mobilized its forces on its own initiative. Alliances were controlled (at least in theory) by the will of all member nations. The alliances of World War I acted to drag an ally nation into war rather than prevent it. 

No nation wanted to appear weak even though two were very weak at the time: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Russia was beginning to modernize and war was not what it needed. France had come to accept the loss of Alsace Lorraine. Germany was a growing industrial power with no need of a war. England sat outside the alliances and examined its own interests. War would be detrimental. If Germany won, England would have a new neighbor across the channel challenging its supremacy at sea. If Germany lost, France and Russia would be suspicious England’s motives. Although relations with Germany were growing, perhaps England made its decision earlier. The invasion of neutral Belgium is cited as England’s reason to enter the war. Although bound by treaty to protect Belgium, there was no requirement for military action. Diplomatic condemnation would have been sufficient under the treaty. Germany although in an alliance to defend Austria-Hungary in the event of a Russian or French invasion was under no obligation to make war against France or Russia if Austria-Hungary decided to start a regional war. 

It seems like history set up roadblocks to this war at every turn. Rather than stopping, countries ran through these roadblocks, not dead set on going to war, but almost a laziness to stop the war even with all the opportunities. World War I was a war that should not have been fought. There was opposition at every turn, yet despite the opposition, war came and change the world forever. Otte does an outstanding job of detailing the diplomatic and political road to war. Extensive use of footnotes and a wide selection of source, including primary source material make this the definitive study of the origins of World War I. The war was much more than an assassination and alliances. Otte takes the reader deep into the process that lead to war. A must read for diplomatic and political historians. 

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Book Review: Collisions of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914

It was what Austria wanted, a great and mighty nation surging over a small country, the ruin of Serbia which it pursued systematically by steel, fire, by pillage and incendiarism in towns and villages, and also by extermination, by the massacre of the Serbian people. 

Collision of Empires by Prit Buttar

Collisions of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914by Prit Butar is history of the first year of World War I from the little talked about eastern front. Butar is a graduate of Oxford in medicine and served in the British Army as a doctor. He has written two other historical books and a novel. 

When asked about World War I most people with some history background will mention the the assassination of the Archduke in Serbia and Russia leaving the war. Almost everything else involves the the Western front: The German invasion, trench warfare, no man’s land, and the eventual German defeat. What is missing from most people’s understanding is that the country that started the war — Austria-Hungary, and the country that was the reason for the declaration of war — Serbia, are rarely mentioned after the assassination. Butar concentrates his effort or the Serbia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary (with the Germany concentrating its efforts to the west). 

If anyone was expecting a short war it was Austria-Hungary. It was dead-set on punishing Serbia regardless of what the rest of the Europe wanted. Austria-Hungary was the pit bull with it teeth permanently locked on Serbia’s neck. The pit bull, however, had no teeth. Of the nations involved on the Eastern Front, only Serbia fared better than expected in the opening of the war. 

One point that is mentioned Austria-Hungary itself. It claimed to be a great empire, but in reality it was not. It was two kingdoms with two different citizenships. Each was mostly independent in internal matters, but shared a common foreign and military policy. Austria-Hungary was made up of many nationalities with little common interest. Unlike Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary had no single dominant ethnic group. It is difficult for a nation to rally around a flag when everyone has their own flag. The Habsburg Empire was essentially held together by memories of their glory days. If the Ottoman Empire was “The sick old man of Europe”, Austria-Hungary was not far behind. 

Collision of Empires is an excellent study on the mostly forgotten Eastern Front of World War I. Diplomacy, strategies, and the opening battles of the war are covered in this text. It is well researched and cited. This forgotten part of World War I is not only where the war started, but also the area most changed by the war. New countries were formed, empires fell, millions died, refugees crossed borders, and revolution began in Russia.Collision of Empires is a must read for any WWI historian or anyone with an interest in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. 

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Book Review: Those We Forgot: Recounting Australia’s Casualties of the First World War

Those We Forget by David Noonan

Those We Forgot: Recounting Australia’s Casualties of the First World War by David Noonan is a re-examination of Australia’s human loses in World War I. Noonan became interested in the war when he read over one hundred letters his grandfather wrote from the Western Front. He retraced his grandfather’s service in France and Belgium. That interest grew into a PhD in History and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. 

War is chaos and record keeping in chaos is not very accurate. Noonan examines the official numbers of Australia’s war dead and compares that to his research. Last year I read Steven Casey’s When Soldiers Fall which covered US losses from WWI to Afghanistan. There are very similar problems in both books. The biggest problems concern what is a casualty? There is no standard definition. Is it death, disabling injury, temporary injury, prisoner of war, illness, food poisoning, desertion, all of these, a combination of these? 

Noonan uses statistical methods to come to his results which are more accurate than the official records. The research finds some surprising information, such as venereal disease was a major problem in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force). Australian forces separated from home far away did not have the luxury of crossing the channel on leave to rejoin loved ones. Many who joined did not embark many were discharged for a variety of reasons before deploying. 

Shell shock was another matter. If it was recorded, it had to be evaluated whether is was physical or psychological or even real. It may seem strange that it might not be considered a combat injury, but remember that Gulf War Syndrome was questioned as being a real ailment. World War I also had the first stages of the Spanish Flu outbreak, various diseases from life in trenches. Suicides and deaths after the end of the conflict, but caused by the conflict are also studied and accounted for. 

Noonan uses samples and statistical data to complete a more accurate count of casualties. Although he is successful in giving a more accurate count not all the book is statistical data. He examines individual service files and provides a very good background into the medical and casualty reporting in the war. Although it is impossible to account for everyone, Noonan’s work goes a long way in accounting for many that were forgotten. 

Thank you to the Melbourne University Press for making book to readers and reviewers on this side of the Pacific.

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Book Review: Cambridge Honors The Centennial of World War I: A Selection of Excerpts from Cambridge University Press

Cambridge Honors The Centennial of World War I by Thomas Otte, Jay Winter, Br...

Cambridge Honors The Centennial of World War I: A Selection of Excerpts from Cambridge University Press by Thomas Otte, Jay Winter, Bruno Cabanes, and Santanu Das is a collection of summaries from other Cambridge books on the topic of World War I. 

Cambridge Honors looks at the war though other published works and covers it in themes that are mostly missed in other works. Thomas Otte’s excerpt is from July Crisis (a book I have for review from Cambridge University Press). Here coverage centers on Franz Ferdinand and Sophia’s trip to Sarajevo. It takes a look at The Black Hand and other groups actual intentions and plans before the assassination. It also covers the security of the event and gives a detailed account of the assassination attempts along the route the archduke traveled. 

Jay Winter presents an edited look at his collection: Cambridge History of the First World War (A three volume set I would love to add to my collection). The war is examined through the works of three generations of historians. He also brings to light aspect of the war not usually thought about. Such issues as infidelity on the home front as well as in the brothels off the front lines. There is a high percentage of married men fighting the war. One statistic states, of the Viennese men who died, 70% were married. The war produced many widows and in Germany unmarried mothers were allowed to change their title from fraulein to frau to free themselves and children of the stigma of illegitimacy. There is also an idea that men joined the war to leave family commitments — England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand did not have conscription, but plenty of volunteers. One source of this idea is the cold letters home, but one soldier explains in a letter to his wife: 

No doubt all my letters must seem cold and formal but you will understand that every letter has to be censored by own officers [sic] and of course one cannot be too loving under the circumstances. 

other reasons could be the environment as noted by one soldier:

We are walking on top of dead bodies, parapets have been made of cadavers on which we rest; and in front of the parapets, just as in the surrounding fields, there are piles of dead bodies. 

Bruno Cabanes in The Great War and The Origins of Humanitarians, 1918 — 1924 covers one of the major consequences of the war: refugees. After World War I, countries ceased to exist, and people had fled the war and were unable to return home. Of course there is the huge numbers of people fleeing the internal conflict in the Soviet Union. One point is made the German Jews, who had successfully integrated into german society, feared that Eastern European Jews would harm their status and opposed immigration. Cabanes makes a point I never really thought of before. Prior to 1924, the world was open to everyone. There were no passports. You boarded a train or boat and could go as you please. It was not until after the war that governments tightened down on travel and keeping track of “their people.” To help with the problem of refugees The High Commission of Refugees was established as an international organization. Fridtjof Nansen created a plan to create legal papers for paperless refugees, known as the Nansen Passport. To further complicate matters the Soviet Union, in 1921, denationalized thousands of former nationals, essentially leaving them without a country. 

The final section covers The Cambridge Companion of the Poetry of The First World War edited by Santanu Das is another book worth owning. There is a wide range of poetry from the trenches, to the family at home, and the intellectuals. The war, all wars for that matter, can be summed up by Charles Hamilton Sorley:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

World War I changed mankind forever. Cambridge does its usual excellent job of documenting history and the details that many leave out. If you cannot justify all the books in the collectionCambridge Honors The Centennial of World War I: A Selection of Excerpts from Cambridge University Press offers an excellent summary. The introduction covers what the war did and how it became the trailhead for the 20th century. Without World War I, Lenin would have been just another disgruntled refugee spouting political theory in a Zurich coffee shop. That, in itself, is something to think about.

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Book Review: The Backwash of War

The Backwash of War by Ellen N. La Motte

The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse by Ellen N. La Motte is the account of an American battlefield in nurse in French hospital in Belgium. The stories of her experiences were so horrifying and bad for moral the book was banned in the United States until 1934

When he could stand it no longer, he fired a revolver up through the roof of his mouth, but he made a mess of it. The ball tore out his left eye, and then lodged somewhere under his skull, so they bundled him into an ambulance and carried him, cursing and screaming, to the nearest field hospital.

These are the opening two sentences of the first of fourteen stories. The story goes on to explain that since he failed in his attempt he was to be nursed back to health, using valuable medical supplies, and when he was well enough, put up against a wall and shot. 

What La Motte witnessed scenes like this and others that makeJohnny Got His Gun seem like a child’s book. La Motte does not seem to have an agenda like many anti-war writers, but wants to bring to light the realities of a romanticized war. Medals were handed out much like candy. It was for the benefit of the morale of the civilian population, that when they saw a soldier walking the streets of Paris missing limbs they would notice the Coss de Guerre pinned on his chest. 

Other stories tell of the stench of the hospitals where gangrene and meningitis were winning many of the battles. “A Surgical Triumph” is a very disturbing story on a wounded son of a hairdresser. Modern advances in medical science saved this soldier’s life and it is a triumph for the medical community, but is it a triumph on a personal level. 

La Motte removes all romantic notions of war as seen from the eyes of a nurse. She tells of the soldiers, medical staff, and the generals who make frequent rounds handing out medals in extremis. Despite motorized ambulances and a serious attempt to take care of the wounded, WWI was a miserable for anyone wounded as it was for anyone in the trenches. History tends to soften our views of the past. In this year, the one hundredth anniversary of World War I, the re-release of La Motte’s book will remind readers that no matter how glorious war is made out to be, there is a very dark and tragic side to every war. 

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Book Review: Achievement: The Righting of a Great Wrong 1914-1918

Achievement The Righting of a Great Wrong 1914-1918

Achievement: Righting the Great Wrong 1914-1918 by Ian W. Hall gives a contemporary look back at the First World War in plain language. Hall was born in northern England in 1935 and served as a junior officer in the Royal Signals. After the military, he worked for thirty years in personnel management in the chemical, engineering, and construction industries. Since retiring, he has concentrated on writing.

Achievement presents a different history of the war from the British perspective. Instead of a chronological listing of events, Hall is topic driven. In “The Approach March” he takes us back in time to set the stage for the war: politically and militarily. Another chapter discusses army organization and the operations, and another the German perspective of the war.

In Achievement the overwhelming point was how unprepared everyone was for the war. Britain an island nation put its military spending into its navy. It needed to protect itself from European aggressions and protect its far flung empire. It did not have a real standing army in country. The author jokes that the British loved their army because it was overseas and not causing problems inside the country. Kaiser William (Willie as the author calls him) was doomed by buying into the idea of a naval arms race with Britain and the Schlieffen Plan. The naval race because it was planned on the idea that Britain would not react to the growing German navy, and the Schlieffen plan because no plan ever lasts beyond initial contact with the enemy.

There is some humor in the book like describing Russia’s value to France as an ally: Russia was a basket case nation in terminal decline; as an ally no more use than a busted flush to a blind poker player. 

He also makes light of the Czarina’s military experience in her convincing the Czar to take charge of the military. In England, the King or Queen was in command of the navy and parliament in charge of the army. That explains why the army was so ill prepared equipment wise for the war . There was a point that each artillery gun was limited to firing four shells a day. British logistics also takes up an entire chapter in the book and gives an good look at its evolution. Meanwhile, the navy was all dressed up with no place to go in this war. Just as confusing to the outsider was that America’s military is lead by the president, but only congress can declare war.

One item that was repeated a few times in the book was one advantage the British soldiers had over the Germans: grenades. Although the German potato masher grenades looked cool, they were awkward. The British grenades, Mills bomb, were fairly close to a modern grenade. A steel shell filled with explosives. Once detonated, the steel shell became shrapnel and had a ten meter kill zone. What gave the British the extra advantage was the grenade was roughly ball shaped. Most British soldiers played cricket at one time or another and learned to throw a ball accurately (the same can be said of forces of the empire too). Throwing a grenade accurately was the same skill, unlike the Germans trying to throw a can with a stick attached to it.

In this year of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I many books have been published and luckily I have been able to read a fair number of them. This book is different because it is the first that has not been written by someone with a PhD or even a master’s degree. The only education listed in the author’s short biography is grammar school. This is an educational and enjoyable book on World War I. The fresh perspective and plain language make it easy to read and understand. A good book for any war historian and an excellent book for the interested, non-historian.


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Book Review: Night Raiders of the Air

Night Raiders of the Air by A.R. Kingsford

Night Raiders of the Air by A. R. Kingsford is the story of a New Zealander’s answer to the call of duty in World War I. Kinsford enlisted in the Medical Corps and survived the sinking of HMS Marquette in route to Europe. Eventually, he successfully transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was assigned to the 100 Squadron as a lieutenant. 100 Squadron was the first squadron to drop a bomb on Germany and also the last. 

War stories are best told by the people who were there giving first hand insight into the events and the human feelings that are recorded. We are usually appalled by senseless deaths, but the person there has seen it often enough that it doesn’t raise much concern above “he is no longer with us.” Witnessing the execution of a spy, however, was far more traumatic than battle field losses. 

Kinsford flew the rather unique looking F.E.2B a pusher biplane bomber. He describes the flying, the learning, and the very frequent crashes. Crashing seems have been much more common than I have read in other histories and memoirs. There is frustration about not being able to reach the altitude to stop the Zeppelin bombers. Zeppelin and planes would fly over the airfield and town and literally drop bombs. Most were released over the side, by hand, without the benefit of bomb sites or calculations. Kingsford’s 100 Squadron would conduct night raids over Germany would be much more precise and at lower altitudes. Some missions went smoothly and other ran into the flood lights and anti-aircraft fire. 

During the whole of its active service career on the Western Front, no less than two hundred and thirteen raids were carried out, with a total of one hundred and eighty-five tons of bombs dropped. Approximately 450,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition was expended during these raids. 

Night Raiders gives a personal look at the airwar. Written a little more than ten years after the war, Kingsford had time to give an objective narrative of his experiences. It is more common to have second or third hand accounts of the war. When first hand accounts are given they are usually used for emphasis or even a bit of sensationalism. Here is a mature, first hand account of the war. The writing is clear and concise. Kinsford’s thoughts are well organized and very readable. It may just be me but there seems to be no hatred Kingsford. He does call the Germans, Huns. But things seem more sporting than vicious. World War I was a mistake. Nations that were warring were, with the exception of Austria and Serbia, really didn’t have a reason to fight. France was not seeking justice for is loss of Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Britain had more profitable things to do. The Kaiser was on vacation. Russia had its own internal problems to work out. Granted there was paranoia, but that could have been overcome. People went to war with a romantic idea in their heads and once it was seen not to be a quick little war they probably questioned who and why they were fighting. A very worthwhile read.

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