THE GREAT WAR, Peter Hart – review by Mark Barnes


By Peter Hart
Published by Profile Books
ISBN: 978 1 84668 246 9
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

There is a year to go and already the avalanche has begun. The proliferation of websites, social network pages and all manner of stuff to draw you towards the centenary of the First World War is building to a morass. I have seen some of it and there is much to be concerned about. Factual errors combined with all the old myths perpetuated by the history learned from scurrilous accounts of fakers and charlatans made into history have been solidified with television comedy to become lore in the minds of many. Our government in the UK want to commemorate a war won the by the largest army Britain has ever put in the field by fixating on disasters and none of the victories. It is an army in their perception that won the most massive of wars without actually winning any battles.  Go figure. I think I’ve said this before: There will be poetry.

Consider this: For all these disasters, terrible as they were for loss of life which affected the whole of our nation and many corners of the modern Commonwealth, the war was one of attrition for all sides and this was understood by the people fighting it, but crucially this was ignored by many of the politicians. It was they who wrote or dominated the writing of the histories. It was they who were the fathers who lied in those lines from Rudyard Kipling, not the generals. But they won the battle of the historiography, certainly here in Britain and their lie has become almost an impenetrable fact.  If you cross the short miles of the English Channel to France you will find next to none of the handwringing anguish that hypnotises the influential chattering class of British thought on the war in the Sunday supplements and on the BBC. In the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914 the French routinely lost men in thousands in a day and on one day lost more than Britain did on the first day of the Somme, that sacred cow for all the occasional horrified visitors to Britain’s war to end all wars. On that day, August 22nd, the French were still wearing blue coats and bright red trousers – 19th century uniforms charging into a history that had outstripped them. It was awful, it was tragic, but it was done and it was done for France. It could not last and history has not been revised. There would be a reckoning in the ranks as the war progressed. But the point is, France does not forget her dead and does not continue a war on her generals the way we do in Britain. She lost twice as many as us to get the Germans off her sacred soil, but hey, it’s only land, isn’t it?

The last of the protagonists are dead and we made them into saints. There was talk of state funerals, when all they wanted was to be left in peace and dignity. They were our link to the war and we were lucky to have them because we let so much of it slip away without realising, a salutary lesson not to let it happen again. Peter Hart has been recording the testimonies of such men for years and prior to this book has written many a gem – his range including the air war, the saga of Bloody April and the rise and fall of so many of the famous aces; and that clash of titans – the Battle of Jutland. His account of Gallipoli is a heartbreaking classic. His talks are a delight leaving you laughing and more importantly, thinking. He leads battlefield trips to the Dardanelles and takes his Great War very, very seriously. And yet for all this he has a very well maintained fun side and he seems to know a bit about beer. His pub singing is not something I can comment on because I haven’t seen his band. They haven’t made it to the hot spots of Southend just yet and I’m not sure a review of them has a place on a site like this one.

In this single volume history of the war he cuts to the chase and goes straight to the major events and fronts that mattered. He makes no apology for ignoring the heroics in East Africa or the far flung fringes of the conflict in China, the South Seas or elsewhere. The real war, the one that changed the world, where empires fell and new ones were made is where this book is centred. It was a war on two fronts between alliances of empires and as they fell aside it came down to who could stand longest and keep punching. The war was won on the Western Front in 1918 by the armies of Britain and her Empire, France and the United States and by the naval blockade strangling Germany controlled by the Royal Navy. Other fronts in the Balkans, the Middle-East and modern day Iraq only served to suck resources away from where the decisive encounters would take place – in France and Belgium. The generals knew this, but politicians, mainly in London, refused to accept it from first to last and continued to look for soft underbellies and adventures. It was they who prolonged the war and then succeeded in laying the blame at the feet of soldiers. In all his years, that great armchair strategist Winston Churchill never learned and garnered the power and influence to bring the brightest soldiers to heel until the coming of Dwight D Eisenhower.

I’ve reviewed two single volume histories of the war for WHO. One was a quite serious slim affair which presented the conflict in concise terms to help a genuinely interested but otherwise totally ignorant person get up to speed with the conflict, the major dates and people. The other was a lounge bar history in every sense, deliberately so and it was fantastic fun and I commend it to the house. But here we have Big Bertha firing on Paris with full effect and it is glorious. I don’t pretend I am not a tad biased. I know and like the author – I’ve attended his talks, review books on a social network page he runs and I am due to visit Gallipoli with him next year. But I had to buy this book, his publisher wouldn’t send us a copy – because I imagine websites don’t fit their image of legitimate reviewers, and they have a lot to learn about the modern world. I am telling you straight this is the only single volume Great War history you need. Not because it’s Pete’s, but because it is hot. Like I said, he cuts to the chase. There is no waffle, no national bias and no BS. This is history without revisionism. The book scarcely needs reviewing. If you trust my word, go and buy it. I did.

I am proud to British. I love my country. The Great War broke it, so much so it was in no shape to properly fight the Second World War on the terms it should and could have. The damage was done in the in the national coffers for decades and in the psyche of the people who ran things. This does not in any way diminish the sacrifice or achievements of what was done in the war of 1939-45 by the men and women who served – my own family included, may God bless them and keep them. But it should point to how significant the Great War of 1914-1918 really was and how much it has been set aside by the Second World War and how much of a loss this is in our national consciousness. When we took Harry Patch and his chums back in to our hearts for that brief moment we were righting a terrible wrong and perhaps the one good thing to come from the centenary will be that we reverse all that for good. But this will not be universal and opprobrium is still the lot of the generals who won the war, chief among them Douglas Haig – beset by the Lions and Donkeys slur of Alan Clark, a quote borrowed from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and like much else in his most disproportionately influential book attached for dramatic effect. Perhaps true commemoration will mean we have collectively matured and he is allowed to rest in peace as well as the army who called him The Chief and held him high for he led them to the greatest of victories and although Mr Cameron and his politically correct ninnies have ignored it you do not have to. It was called The Hundred Days – the March to Victory. There has been nothing like it, find out about it in Pete’s book and then expand to the works of others. He would want you to do that.

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By Mark Barnes / Visit his amazing facebook page: For Your Tomorrow

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.