Book Review: Fighting the Great War by Michael Neiberg

I originally saw Neiberg’s Fighting the Great War mentioned in a review essay covering recent works on WWI. The essay had good things to say about the work and then I decided to check and yes, the book had been reviewed by the Journal of Military History in the Jan 2007 issue, Vol. 71 no. 1 pg 242. I subscribe to the Journal so I pulled it it out and read the review. The review is generally favorable and recommends the book as a general history of the war.

I did not have the same impression of the book as did the reviewer in JMH.I found the book to be in general, written in a very readable style The book claims to be “global” history of the war, which I found strange given that the vast majority of it talks about the campaigns in the West and the war elsewhere is mentioned, it is often mentioned as being a sideshow to the decisive battles in the West. The organization of the book is somewhat odd as well. The first two years of the war are covered in the first 100 pages of the book and the next 300 are subject to an almost shotgun approach that seesaws from the Western Front to another theater and back. What struck as particularly disconcerting is the way in which when he digresses to a discussion of subsidiary theaters, they are often treated as a holistic whole and the whole war on that front is covered in one chapter before the reader is suddenly thrust back into the midst of the 1916 battles on the Western Front for one example. The book is also marred by some odd lapses in attribution. The most notable is Dr. Neiberg claiming the famous quote about Germany being “denied her place in the sun” was made by German Chancellor von Bülow on p. 81 but on p. 298 he attributes the same quote to the Kaiser, which is who actually said it in a 1906 speech to German naval cadets.
It is obvious from the tone of the book and especially his discussion of the war’s generalship that Dr. Neiberg subscribes to the “World War I generals were universally idiots” school of thought. He consistently talks about the generals of all sides being at worst butchers, and a best indifferent to the casualty levels sustained in the fighting on the Western Front. He seems to have a particular beef with the British general Gough, who he pillories for threatening to resign over Irish Home Rule before the war while at the same time he applauds the actual resignation of Sir John French in the resulting scandal as being principled; a point he fails to fully explain. Another claim I have difficulty believing made it into the book is his intimation on p. 52 that Serbian government complicity in the assassinations at Sarajevo is only “presumed.” There is nothing presumptuous about it, numerous works have shown that indeed the head of Serbian intelligence, Colonel Dimitrijevic had a guiding hand in planning the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne and that the Serbian government knew of his involvement yet was powerless to stop him.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by this work, to say the least. The book could be great, but the strange organization for the chapters and the errors of fact and general biased tone of the book means that I cannot recommend it. This reviewer thinks that before you buy this book you should buy Hew Strachan’s excellent The First World War, especially for an introductory look at the war.