Tag Archives: WWI

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Book Review: Verdun – The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is one of the flood of new works coming out about World War I this year in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the world’s first truly mechanized war.  This book explores the ten month (or eleven, depending on how you count it) battle of Verdun between the Germans and French from February to November 1916.

It consists of eleven chapters arranged thematically that examine different aspects of the battle from the operational movements of the forces involved to the way the battle was described in the contemporary press to the role of the battle in modern memory.  There is an extensive appendix on sources, a 29 page list of endnotes and a 20 page bibliography.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is not a battle history in the traditional sense of the word.  here is no bow by blow account of the opening days of the battle and the fall of the french forts at Vaux and Duouamont and the subsequent French recapture of much of the contested ground over the course of the battle.  The book is both more and less than battle history at the same time.  it examines the battle and the role it played in the course of the war from many angles both military and civilian.

I found the chapters discussing the views of the battle by the French and German commands especially revealing.  The standard account is that the Germans intended all along for Verdun to be a battle of attrition and that the French chose to fight so hard there as a matter of honor.  That myth is exploded in these two chapters and the way in which the battle became a matter of prestige and developed a logic of it’s own is explored in detail.  Given the level of casualties on both sides that the battle evolved into one of prestige makes sense.

Even more revealing is the discussion of the various ways in which the battle was portrayed by the media.  A good picture of the way in which the media can sway public opinion and force policy decisions is described in the media portrayals of the Battle at Verdun.  The last part of the book that examines the way the memory of the battle has been shaped and its amazing transformation from a symbol of french determination to a landmark of multiculturalism  and a monument to the futility of war is revealing in the extreme.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War is well-written and logically presented and while it is not traditional battle history it is rewarding to read nonetheless.  Verdun was one of the greatest blood-lettings of World War I, though not the greatest as it has been said, that was the opening months of the war.  It is time for an objective re-examination of this supposedly pivotal battle that in the end achieved nothing of strategic significance, unless you think killing off a large cohort of enemy troops is strategic results.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War I and even more to people who want to understand how the perceptions of wars and battles are shaped more by those who were not there than than by those who were.

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Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe by Geoffrey Wawro

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the first book I have read about WWI that does not treat Austro-Hungary as an afterthought after the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914.  In fact, Austria-Hungary and the course of the fighting in Serbia and Galicia in the first year of the war is the central theme of the book.  Dr. Wawro applies his usual exhaustive research methods to exploring the course and cause of the Austro-Hungarian demarche to war in 1914.  Given that World War I is also one of my areas of specialty in historical study I won’t say that I agree with him 100%, I rarely do.  However, he provides an insightful look into the reasons why the Austro-Hungarian army failed so miserably in 1914 despite being considered one of the more powerful armies in Europe.

The book itself consists of 385 pages of text with illustrations and maps scattered throughout.  There are 40 pages of notes, a four page bibliography and an extensive index.  The body of the text is divided into 14 chronological chapters that run from the pre-war years to the end of the war.

The main focus of the book is the months leading up to the outbreak of war, the pre-war  diplomatic maneuvering, and the disastrous performance of the Austro-Hungarian army against both the Serbs in Serbia and Russians in Galicia.  He describes the tactical and structural reasons for Austrian failure quite well.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Austrians or Germans were at fault for the outbreak of the war.  That is quibbling however, as an argument can certainly be made that the Central Powers bear the lion’s share of the blame.  I just happen to disagree with that interpretation.  Dr. Wawro however, makes a powerful case that Austria is to blame for the war  by the way they frittered away the opportunity for a localized war with Serbia because of internal and external political considerations.

I found it odd that he excoriates the Austrian Army for clinging to outmoded notions of the utility of the bayonet charge in the face of machine guns and quick-firing artillery.  He almost makes out as though the Austrians were the only army to have this idea, which is false.  No European army had anticipated the destructive and defensive potential of these developments prior to 1914.  The Austrians were not the only ones.  The French in particular are notable for their “cult of the offensive” in 1914 which caused the French to suffer massive casualties in the opening months of the war as they launched fruitless mass infantry attacks into the teeth of German machine guns only to be mown down like hay for the harvest.

French Tirailleurs of 1914

French Tirailleurs of 1914

He criticizes the Austrian Army for their choice of a blue-gray uniform that did not provide much in the way of camouflage in the forests of Serbia or the Galician plain.  Blue-gray is actually much better than the sky blue greatcoat and bright red pantaloons that French troops wore without even mentioning the bright fez and baggy pants of the French Tirailleurs Sénégalais of 1914.  The Austrians were not alone in doing stupid things.

Perhaps the biggest failure the Austrian’s can be accused of is their lack of equipment, especially artillery given the way the rest of Europe was armed and their poor efforts at making their multi-ethnic army effective.  Dr. Wawro is absolutely correct that Austrian Army had apparently learned nothing from their drubbing at the hands of Prussian in 1866.  The Austrians had done little to improve integration of ethnicities in the army.  The efforts at integration were also hamstrung by the internal politics of the empire and Franz Joseph’s continual capitulations to the Hungarians after the founding of the dual monarchy.

All in all this is an excellent book that belongs on the shelf of every World War I scholar.  It provides a look at the major belligerent that is largely ignored in most English language scholarship and that played the central role in how, why, and when the war began.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire is a long overdue look at an important facet of World War I.  Dr. Wawro is the scholar to give that facet the treatment it deserve and he does so outstandingly.  I highly recommend this book.  If you only buy one of the flood of World War I books that appear in this year of the Centenary Commemoration of the outbreak of war, this should be it.

Review – St. George Shoots the Dragon

To be baptized into the trenches, on film, requires historical knowledge, but also an expensive pyrotechnic arsenal. This can be done, but when it is overdone, the viewer is left with a dazzling shell shock that does less to educate than to confuse.

St. George Shoots the Dragon, a Serbian film, brings to life the Balkans at a critical age. It does not shell shock the viewer, but also, fails to enlighten.

Serbia, unlike most places in the world, has been at perpetual war for nearly a thousand years. It is therefore likely that an exposition of their participation in battle will accompany a Laconic wit that borders on gallows humor.

To watch this film is to witness the life that Nichola Tesla left when he came to America: The Balkans are rustic, superstitious and war torn. Invalids roam about towns in search of their next drink, and all able-bodied men are on the front at any one point in time, if not fighting the Turks, then fighting the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

SGSTD deals with the issue of infidelity during war: what happens when young men leave their sweethearts behind only to come back as cripples, and what happens if they don’t come back at all. Apparently, this issue is very large, but it is rarely spoken of in books and on film.

I would give this film a solid three stars, simply for bringing to life another time and era, something that most historical films truly fail to do. Usually I feel that the creators of such films are just voicing their own beliefs and feel that their ideas will be enhanced by exotic-looking costumes.

That being said, this is no Paths of Glory. Trench warfare is shown for its deep brutality, but really only touched upon. Also, the major issue I have with the film is the liberty that it took portraying The Battle of Cer: the film depicts regiments of limbless veterans charging over the top. There is absolutely no historical evidence that such an event ever took place.

I would recommend this film if one wants to delve into the psychology of love during war, and/or one wants to see what life was like at the turn of the 20th century in Southeastern Europe, but I would not recommend it as a first film to watch if one wants to get a feel for what World War One was really like, simply because it does not do justice to the realities of the trenches, and does not pay attention to historical accuracy the way that such a topic deserves.

A true World War One film would pay attention not only to the hard fought battles, but also to the monotony of trench digging, foot rot, and bureaucracy that accompanied this war.

The Christ of Nations, 1920

In Polish history, war usually comes down to two conflicting scripts. From the Polish side, pushing geographical boundaries out in all directions, as far as possible. From the opposing side: eliminating the irritating roadblock begrudgingly acknowledged as “Poland.” This theme is perennial.

It has not only been steel and fire that has determined if the land of the White Eagle was to be a flesh and blood state, or merely a state of mind; it was also the petitioning of the fighting spirit through ideological appeal.

Literature in Poland has served such a purpose. Polish literature is not meant to appeal to outsiders. It is generally so nationalistic that neighboring nations, even the most tolerant and enlightened, would feel a certain hostility emanating from its pages.

This is not to condemn Polish literature. The nonpareil polish bard, Adam Mickiewicz wrote his magnum opus, Pan Tadeusz, as an exile in France, when his drawn nation had been quartered by standing armies from neighbor states. The loot went to Vienna, Moscow and Berlin, but the heart went to Paris.

National Messianism, as a political ideology, grew from ethereal to concrete when General Pilsudski took this doctrine to the field, playing immovable object vs. unstoppable force, a.k.a the Russian Bear, immediately after the First World War.

Interestingly enough, however, national messianism had already been translated to the East. If Western readers ever confront this strain of thought, it probably will first be through Dostoevsky, an ardent Russian Slavophile who saw his nation as a victim of Prussian and Polish military aggression. In Dostoevsky, it is Russia, not Poland, that is to suffer for humanity, and teach the nations the righteousness of his ever-expanding enlightened empire.

Russia had become the Christ of Nations, filled with millions of little Christs ready to pick up the bayonet in the mud and charge forward.

Did these two competing messianic visions go toe-to-toe?

Rewind to November 21st, 1919. Out of the ashes of the Austrian and Russian empires, arise new nations, still wet from blood-soaked trenches. Two of these nations are Poland and the Ukraine who had just met each other in battle and are now signing an armistice.

Fast forward to April, 1920. Pilsudski launches an offensive into the Ukraine as a preemptive strike to halt Soviet expansion. May, 1920 – Polish forces take Kiev.

If anyone is the victim of these scrambles for land (and oil fields) it is the Ukraine, who is now partitioned between competing forces; Red Russians, White Russians, Poland, and Romania.

That Pilsudski believed in the Polish Messianic doctrine is not in dispute.

That Lenin’s boys in the field, Trotsky and Stalin, believed in the reactionary Slavophile ideal would be harder to prove.

Trotsky was active in trying to make Poland a Russian dacha-land for Soviet Party members. He would become a symbol on both sides in the propaganda war, yet both sides would utilize traditionalist Christian imagery to appeal to the peasantry and recruits, as the idea of an atheistic world-brotherhood of workers had yet to sink in with the illiterate icon-praising Russian bumpkin.

The Soviet propagandists utilized traditionalist, Slavophile, and Messianic motifs in their early deployments. Their appeal to their own soldiers was often reactionary and messianic.

The Polish-Soviet War was intense. It was also ideological. It lasted less than two years, but took more lives on each side than America lost in Vietnam or Korea. And we are talking 1920 technology and weaponry. This suggests a fiercely personalized battle between belligerents.

19 years later World War Two would start, and 95% of German deaths would be claimed by Eastern European ravens, not by Anglo-American hardware.

As always, ideological struggles prove the most bloodthirsty. The playing ground of red and white goal posts was between the Vistula and the Volga. World history, either before nor since, has never seen such a merciless score.

Nicholas Lambert’s Planning Armageddon

Here is a link to an excellent review of Nicholas Lambert’s Planning Armageddon a new book about British strategic planning prior to WWI.  It sounds like an excellent read and a book that has to go on my wish list.