Tuesday, 15 September 2009

'The First World War' by AJP Taylor

This is an excellent illustrated history of the First World War, published in the 1960’s by a popularist historian. The text itself is relatively brief and pithy, and could be read of an afternoon. However the book is greatly enhanced by a 221 top-quality black-and-white photographs. There are pictures on virtually every page, often two. This breaks up the text and the placing of the photos is closely correlated with the story.

The picture captions are delightfully amusing at times, threaded through with deep cynicism, almost as if they came out of ‘Punch’. For instance “83 French generals suffering from undernourishment” – where you can clearly see their pot bellies. Another instance: “89 Sir Douglas Haig sells an offensive to Lloyd George, Joffre underwriting, Albert Thomas not buying” – of a picture of the generals engaging the British Prime Minister in fierce debate. Another instance: “116: The Lord thanked once more: Field Marshall Mackensen leaves church at Bucharest”. It is not clear whether Taylor himself wrote the captions, or some brilliant sub-editor at Penguin Books.

The book is redolent of the spirit of the Sixties. It takes a blunt and satirical angle on the massive blunders and pointlessness of this war. This, however, is wholly appropriate. Taylor does not denigrate or laugh at the suffering of soldiers and civilians, but emphasises the terrible experiences they were forced to undergo by the crass stupidity of the statesmen and generals. He was revolutionary in this time to baldly state the futility of the fighting, going against the official line of heroics, the war to end all wars and fighting for democracy and self-determination. He is not afraid to show the hypocrisy, contradictions and muddle of the war aims of each side.

Taylor is very opinionated, which is refreshing and helps one understand where he is coming from. Sometimes his assertions seem weak on evidence, but the number of insights he gives us makes the book a central historical text which all Europeans should read. Although bold in statement and opinionated, his arguments are usually cogent and persuasive. He is certainly not biased against the Germans and the other central powers. If anything, he reveals the German point of view with sympathy, and saves his most acid comments for the allies.

He does not condemn out of hand, brilliantly demonstrating how there was an inevitability and unstoppable momentum about events. The system, the railway timetables, the dusty military plans had a force of their own that overrode individual decisions and common sense in several key moments.

As an example of his balance, Taylor points out that the Allied landing of troops at Salonika in neutral Greece was as great a violation of a small country’s rights as the German invasion of Belgium.

I picked this book off my shelves for a third reading in my life having read the chapters on the battle of the Somme in ‘Birdsong’. The facts in both books accorded well. The total stupidity and tragedy of that battle is brilliantly conveyed in both books, in their different ways.

The last chapter of the book about the aftermath of the war left me somewhat disappointed. It was somewhat cavalier and deserved greater analysis. Here some of the opinions and assertions did not quite gel for me, though other insights were valuable and fresh. I suppose that was consistent with the fast, summarising and contentious nature of the whole book. For a thorough recording of historical events, you will have to turn to other books on the First World War. For a stimulating overview, this can hardly be bettered.

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