Martin Gilbert, The First World War – A Complete History

Saul hath slain his thousands
But David his tens of thousands
– Memorial to British Machine Gun Corps, Hyde Park Corner

This is not the book to read for grand strategy, for sweeping panoramas of the Great War’s great forces and clashes. Gilbert does not spend much time in palaces and cabinet rooms. This is the little person’s view of history — what it was like in the trenches and to be a mother, wife, or sister of someone on the battlefield. Gilbert includes frequent diary excerpts and verse of the British War Poets  — Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg. A little of this is a useful check on the Great Man view of history; too much (and it is too much), and the reader feels stuck in the mud.

Gilbert has a funny way of using footnotes. The book has a 10-page bibliography and a 32-page index. Footnotes are Gilbert’s way of adding little asides, often to let the reader know what happened to someone after the war. Page 448 n.1: “In 1921 Roosevelt was stricken by polio. From 1929 to 1933 he was Governor of New York State, and from 1933 to his death in 1945, President of the United States.” Page 467 n.1: “In 1948 Truman was elected President of the United States, the position to which he had succeeded (as Vice-President) on the death of Roosevelt in 1945.” Too much detail, maybe? I will allow for the possibility that Gilbert was thinking of his primarily British audience, as he feels no need to identify Anthony Eden so precisely. On the other hand, even Hermann Goering gets a mini-biography by footnote.

The book really is overwhelming in its accounts of maimings, blindings, and blasts of human flesh to smithereens. If you weren’t a pacifist before this book, you might look more reasonably on such cases once you heave it back up onto the shelf. It is an encyclopedia of death. What are we to think of this: Good friends at Cambridge from two different countries, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, each felt compelled to take action once the war began. Wittgenstein returned to Vienna and saw years of fighting on ship and two battlefronts, while Russell became a leader of the conscientious objection movement in Britain. Both are giants in the development of modern logic.


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