Over the top! Charge into this collection of new World War I histories

06/26/2014 1:31 PM

06/28/2014 7:48 PM

Even as the 20th century recedes in the rearview mirror, it is increasingly clear that the century’s defining event was the First World War, and more specifically the July crisis of 1914 that set the war in motion.

It is no exaggeration to say that the world we live in today cannot be fully understood without reference to that long-ago summer. To mark this, Congress has created a Centennial Commission with its headquarters at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, and bookstore shelves are filling up with titles on the subject.

Some of the new books concentrate on the July crisis itself, trying to explain how a peaceful Europe allowed what appeared to be just another Balkan crisis to metastasize into a world war. Some of them describe the horrific nature of modern war made possible by the weapons of the industrial revolution.

Finally, some train their eyes on this side of the Atlantic: What was going on in the United States during these years?

The story of the war and its outbreak holds the fascination of a slow-motion train wreck: We cannot change the outcome, but neither can we look away. Among the many rewards from reading these books is the frequent discovery of additional detail in stories whose broad outlines are already familiar.

Sean McMeekin’s “July 1914: Countdown to War” delivers what its title promises, a day-by-day narrative of the threats, bluffs, miscommunications and errors of judgment from the June 28 murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo to the German army’s crossing of the Belgian frontier en route to France on the morning of Aug. 4. How a single violent act by a tiny band of terrorists in a remote corner of Europe could have led to a continent aflame has occupied historians for a hundred years, and McMeekin comes as close to answering that question as anyone has.

McMeekin ends his book with an insightful epilogue in which he considers several what-if scenarios and then makes a brave stab at assigning blame. The most culpable, not surprisingly, are the murderers themselves: Gavrilo Princip, the teenage Bosnian Serb who pulled the trigger, and his fellow conspirators. Second in line are the shadowy Black Hand organization in Belgrade and the Serbian government that allowed it to flourish.

Among the major powers, the primary blame is assigned to Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Leopold Berchtold, and Count Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, chief of the Imperial General Staff. Conrad had never seen a crisis he did not consider a reason for war, while Berchtold, having stepped back from the brink in earlier crises, saw this one as a welcome opportunity to reassert Austrian influence in the Balkans. His devious diplomacy in the last days of the July crisis was a major factor in the final slide to Armageddon.

“July 1914: Countdown to War” (499 pages; Basic Books; $29.99)

In “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,” Christopher Clark tells the same story but uses a broader time frame. Rather than concentrating on July 1914, he traces the evolution of Serbian nationalism from the 1903 murder of Serbia’s king and queen by army conspirators through the first and second Balkan wars and the founding and growth of the Black Hand. The book is a tour de force, required reading for anyone seeking a fuller understanding of the war’s outbreak.

While McMeekin begins his book with the archduke’s assassination, Clark’s narrative does not reach the assassination until Page 367. And unlike McMeekin, Clark makes no attempt to assign blame, which he says would be a “meaningless” exercise.

He explains that this approach “is not driven by the need to draw up a charge sheet against this or that individual, but aims to identify the decisions that brought war about and to understand the reasoning and emotions behind them.” Calling the outbreak of the war “a tragedy, not a crime,” he says there is “no smoking gun in this story; or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.” When everyone is guilty, no one is guilty.

“The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” (763 pages; Harper; $29.99)

Michael S. Neiberg, in “Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I,” agrees that “blame for the outbreak of the war rests with a small group of German and Austrian military and diplomatic leaders who badly misread the situation and resorted far too quickly to war,” but the focus of his book is elsewhere.

Neiberg describes the outbreak of war as it was experienced by the populations of Europe. In the words of his first chapter title, it was “a clap of thunder in the summer sky.”

Most of the people of Europe neither wanted nor expected war. National rivalries, such as French resentment over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, had faded with time. Nationalism was still an important force but was being overtaken by cross-border links of religion, class and culture.

As the conflict opened, citizens of every belligerent nation were told, and largely believed, that it was a defensive war forced upon them by their enemies. Even when the scale of the catastrophe had become all too apparent, the people continued to support the fighting less because they believed victory was worth the sacrifice than because the sacrifice already endured had to be justified.

“Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I” (229 pages; Harvard University Press; $29.95)

In “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War,” Max Hastings extends the story to the early military operations in Belgium, northern France, eastern Prussia, the Carpathians and Serbia.

Acknowledging the common perception of the Western Front as a static war of death in the muddy trenches and shell-holes of no-man’s land, he points out that the first month was characterized by the movement of massive armies across pastoral landscapes. Marching through Belgium, “each German corps, accompanied by 2,400 wagons and 14,000 horses, filled twelve miles of road”; and “the soldiers of France advanced toward the enemy’s fire beneath regimental colours, to the music of drums and trumpets.”

The result when the armies clashed was massive casualties, especially among the French. By Aug. 9, French fatalities had reached 75,000.

Hastings does not hesitate to condemn the German army, which marched through Belgium and France, “seizing large numbers of hostages and murdering them wholesale in response to resistance, largely or wholly imagined.”

Although the conduct of the Allied armies was not faultless, in Hastings’ opinion it does not compare to that of the “Hun.”

He is equally harsh on the early top commanders. German Gen. Helmuth von Moltke, after his defeat at the Marne, “received little sympathy from his peers, and deserves none from history,” and Sir John French exhibited “moral collapse” in failing to provide adequate support to the French army during the retreat from Le Cateau.

The senior British command in France was plagued by jealousy, intrigue and mutual suspicion: “The only band of brothers to which Britain’s generals might be likened was that of Cain and Abel.”

Although French Gen. Joseph Joffre later redeemed himself at the Marne, in the early days of the war he “orchestrated a series of battles which, to a spectator, resembled those of the nineteenth century in all respects save the dearth of military genius.”

“Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War,” (672 pages; HarperCollins; $35)

Paul Jankowski’s “Verdun: the Longest Battle of the Great War” tells of the 10 months that began Feb. 21, 1916, with a massive German attack on the French city and the fortresses protecting it. Verdun had the misfortune of being on the front line of the Western Front for almost the entire war.

By December, the French army, bled white, recovered most of the lost ground. The irony as well as the tragedy of Verdun is that it resulted in little or no territorial or strategic gains by either side. The German strategy was to lure the French army into unacceptable losses, but as it turned out, the German losses were equally devastating.

Jankowski combines the military aspects with French culture, enlivening his narrative with individual soldiers’ stories and useful discussions of French and German military organization and command structure. The result is a readable and informative treatment of a bloodletting that is emblematic of the war as a whole.

“Verdun: the Longest Battle of the Great War” (336 pages; Oxford University Press; $34.99)

In “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, Margaret MacMillan looks at the years 1900 to 1914, ending with the week of mobilizations and declarations of war that began on July 28.

She surveys a broad landscape, examining the personalities and political and cultural movements on the world stage at the turn of the century, including revolutions in transportation, world trade and mass communication similar to those of our own day.

Military alliances were formed and strengthened, and military budgets were steadily increased, but at the same time other forces were working toward peace, including the Hague conventions, the proliferation of arbitration treaties and efforts in support of world peace led by men like Andrew Carnegie and Alfred Nobel.

MacMillan identifies several turning points on the road to war: France’s decision to seek an alliance with Russia as a counterbalance to Germany; the kaiser’s inexplicable decision to challenge Great Britain in a naval race; Germany’s boomeranging attempt in Morocco to undermine the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France; the Bosnian crisis of 1908 and the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913.

She emphasizes, however, that “we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddle, or simply poor timing.”

Because it was the summer holiday season, many of the leaders of Europe were away from their posts. When the archduke was assassinated, the kaiser was watching naval maneuvers at Kiel, and British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey was bird-watching at his country estate. As the crisis intensified, the president and prime minister of France were at sea and mostly unreachable. Perhaps this is why wars often start in August.

“The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914,” (784 pages; Random House; $35)

“It’s an excellent time for “Wilson,” A. Scott Berg’s new biography of the 28th president, nominated by his party, finally, on the 46th ballot.

This book follows Woodrow Wilson, the former New Jersey governor, who had come to the presidency with little experience of, or interest in, international relations. Shortly after he was elected he told a friend “it would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Fate, it turned out, had a wicked sense of humor.

When the war began in Europe in the summer of Wilson’s second year in office, his reaction, like that of the vast majority of Americans, was that it was none of this country’s business. He issued a formal declaration of neutrality and urged Americans to be “neutral in fact as well as in name … impartial in thought as well as in action.”

But the war, even as the United States maintained its neutrality for more than 21/2 years, dominated his presidency. The main issue between the United States and Germany was submarine warfare, which interfered with American commerce and threatened the lives of American citizens. After a German submarine sank the British luxury liner Lusitania in May 1915, killing more than 100 American passengers, a harsh exchange of diplomatic notes led to a German agreement to place restrictions on the targeting of civilian vessels. It was Germany’s withdrawal of that pledge in January 1917 that brought the United States into the war.

Berg follows Wilson through the war and into the Paris Peace Conference. The story of his advocacy of a League of Nations, its inclusion in the Versailles treaty, and its rejection by the United States Senate is well known, and Berg tells it well.

He also, perhaps to a greater extent than other Wilson biographers, fills the reader in on the details of Wilson’s personal life. A loving husband and father of three daughters (two of whom were married in the White House), Wilson was devastated by his wife’s death from Bright’s disease in August 1914, even as European countries were exchanging declarations of war and armies were marching across international boundaries.

By the end of the following year, he had met and married a widow, Edith Galt, who was to play a key role in the last 18 months of his presidency as he was suffering from the effects of a stroke.

“Wilson,” (832 pages; Putnam, $40)

If “Dark Invasion 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America” reads like a spy thriller, that’s because it is. But it’s also because Howard Blum brings his considerable narrative skills to the true story of sabotage here in 1915, the first full year of American neutrality in the war.

Disabling merchant ships was not the only way to interfere with U.S. support for the Allies. One particularly energetic saboteur planted a bomb in the U.S. Capitol on July 2 and traveled the next day to the Long Island home of J.P. Morgan Jr., where he shot the wealthy supporter and financer of the Allied cause.

Another agent, skilled in biological warfare methods, arranged to have anthrax and glanders cultures transmitted to war horses being shipped to Europe. Most entertaining is the story of Heinrich Albert, the German Embassy’s commercial attaché, who saved a New York taxi fare by taking the elevated train uptown with a briefcase full of documents detailing German espionage activities. In a near-comical series of misadventures, a Secret Service man wound up with the briefcase.

Far less amusing was the biggest operation of all, the plot to bomb the Black Tom munitions depot in New York Harbor. It, along with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat attacks, helped to draw the United States into the war in 1917.

Every thriller needs a protagonist, and that role is filled here by Tom Tunney, a New York police captain. Then as now, New York City was center stage for terrorist attacks. Blum rightly calls the German network “the first terrorist cell in America” and Tom Tunney “the nation’s first head of homeland security.”

“Dark Invasion 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America” (499 pages; Harper; $27.99)

While Max Hastings describes the war’s beginning and Paul Jankowski’s book treats its longest and bloodiest battle, Nick Lloyd concentrates on the final battles of the war on the Western Front. “Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I” begins in July 1918.

Even with troops freed by Russia’s defeat in the east, Germany’s last great push to win the war in the west had been turned back at the Marne. It was the last chance before the addition of American troops changed the calculus that would finally drive the Hun out of France.

In his new role coordinating the Allied armies, French Gen. Ferdinand Foch ordered an offensive thrust by the British and French armies along the Somme River, the scene of horrendous Allied casualties earlier in the war. In the ensuing battle of Amiens, in which Australian and Canadian forces played a major role, the Allies used infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft in a coordinated attack on German positions.

The result was a decisive victory, leading German Gen. Erich Ludendorff to call Aug. 8 “the black day of the German army.”

U.S. doughboys, pouring into French harbors in rapidly increasing numbers, played a crucial role in blunting the great German offensive in the spring and early summer of 1918, but they had fought only as individual divisions rushed into the line where needed to augment weak points.

Their commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, was eager to show what an American army could do when organized and put into the field under his independent command. His chance came with the assignment to eliminate the German bulge in the lines around the town of St. Mihiel, which had long been a thorn in the side of the French army.

Pershing’s success there with the newly organized American First Army led to a more challenging task: the reorientation of his army to the north for an immediate offensive along the Meuse River valley and the adjoining Argonne Forest. Lloyd compares the Argonne fighting to that of the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness in our Civil War.

Continued Allied attacks all along the front led Ludendorff to a sudden and dramatic change of position on Sept. 28. From being the most ardent advocate of aggressive action against his nation’s foes, he suddenly decided that Germany had no hope of victory and should seek an armistice.

Things happened fast. At a meeting with the kaiser on Oct. 2, Ludendorff’s view prevailed over the opposition of the new chancellor, Prince Max von Baden. At the kaiser’s direction, Prince Max sent a note to President Wilson the next day proposing an armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points. In the ensuing exchange of notes, Ludendorff’s position, always vehemently expressed, swung wildly from submission to defiance and finger-pointing, leading an exasperated kaiser to accept his resignation on Oct. 26.

The kaiser himself abdicated on Nov. 9, and an armistice on terms essentially dictated by the Allies went into effect two days later. And the Great War was over. Until the next one.

“Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I” (400 pages; Basic Books; $29.99)

Dennis Cross is a retired Kansas City attorney, historian and docent at the National World War I Museum.

Videos

Join the discussion

is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service