Blogs > HNN > Maartje M. Abbenhuis: Review of A History of the Great War, 1914-1918 ( 2nd ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2007)

Feb 24, 2008 10:57 pm

Maartje M. Abbenhuis: Review of A History of the Great War, 1914-1918 ( 2nd ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2007)

[Maartje M. Abbenhuis is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She specializes in the history of European neutrality,particularly of the Netherlands in WWI. Her first book,"The Art of Staying Neutral: the Netherlands in the First World War, 1914-1918" appeared in 2006.]

I find myself in the rather curious position of reviewing a book that was first published in the 1930s, has been reprinted several times since the second edition appeared in 1936, and has purportedly been replaced and was deemed to need replacing by Hew Strachan’s colossal The First World War (2001; Volume I: To Arms. [Oxford University Press, 2001], p. xiii.) Cruttwell’s work is undoubtedly a classic. It stands alongside Basil H. Liddell Hart The Real War (1930) as a foundation work in English upon which many military historians’ assessments of the First World War are based. In many respects, it has passed the tests of time gracefully and, despite a few oddities of expression and grating (to the modern reader) infelicities to non-western cultures, is a remarkably refreshing read, well worthy of another reprint.

Having said this, it is also a product of its time. Cruttwell served on the western front as well as in the intelligence branch of the British War Office during the First World War. His history of the war reflects both these connections. The focus of the book is almost exclusively on military matters with only infrequent forays into other aspects, such as economic matters, the home front, and political concerns. There is much that is not here, including an analysis of the origins of the war and of the peace negotiations and treaties that came at its end. There is very little domestic history, excepting a concise account of the Russian revolutions. But chastising the author for what he has not written and, most probably, did not wish to write about is rather unfair. This is a work of traditional military history and, as such, it is very good.

The book is divided into 38 chapters covering all the major areas of conflict on land and at sea, although surprisingly little attention is given to the war in the air. Cruttwell may be forgiven for giving “the great sideshows” of the western front more prominence “than their intrinsic importance deserves” (his words), by the fact that he offers some compelling accounts of the war in eastern and southern Europe and the Middle East. He may, however, be criticised for offering a little too much detail on the war at sea while not enough on the final stages of the Verdun campaign, Brusilov’s masterful sieges in 1916 or on the collapse of the Austria-Hungarian fronts. Yet he does justice to the importance of economics in warfare, including a useful chapter on the decisions made by key neutrals, including Italy and Bulgaria, to become belligerents and another excellent one on the discussions surrounding the reintroduction of unrestricted U-boat warfare by Germany in 1917 that saw the United States enter the war.He also includes a chapter on the failed attempts to negotiate for peace in 1916 and 1917 by various groups and individuals, including President Woodrow Wilson, the pope and the German parliament.

Above all, the book stands out for the way in which the author brings his accounts of military campaigns to life. Cruttwell was an excellent writer. He masters the art of evoking the personalities who determined the course of many war developments as well as describing in vivid detail the nature of the warfare those developments brought about. The historian, T. H. Thomas, aptly reviewed the first edition of the book in 1935 as follows: “His soldiers, and even his generals, are workaday men rather than projections of fanciful ideas; and the bewildering detail of war is treated [by Cruttwell] with admirable clarity and sense of proportion.” (T. H. Thomas in American Historical Review. 41, no. 1, October 1935, p. 147. To this end, I found Chapter III recounting the complex manoeuvres at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes and the big men who defined them - notably the German generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg and their Russian counterparts Samsonov and Rennenkampf - particularly compelling. Two lasting images for me are also the description in Chapter 14 of the Salonika front as a giant internment camp and the idea that even as late as August 1918 “no one, either soldier or statesman, supposed that the war would end in 1918.”

For anyone searching for an authoritative, well-written and solid account of the military history of the First World War, Cruttwell’s book still makes for compulsive reading. But even those who have a more general interest in this first “great war” will find enough here to whet their appetite and keep the pages turning.

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