Book Review – The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War by Peter Hart

Since 2014 there have been a whole slew of books released dealing with World War I in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the war.  This volume is one of them.  In The Great War Peter Hart has produced a book that should have been written half a century ago at a minimum.

The stats: the book is 476 pages of text separated into 16 chronologically arranged thematic chapters with maps, notes, and a preface.

This book does what few other books I have read about manage.  That is, it examines World War I combat from the perspective of what was achievable at the time instead of criticizing commanders for what historians think they should have done with the benefit of hindsight.  Detaching yourself from the present is one of the most difficult things a historian can do when describing the past and Peter Hart does an excellent job of that in this work.

He describes the conditions on the various fronts and makes an attempt to understand and explain the actions of the various belligerents at the various stages of the war.  I was extremely pleased to see that he scoffs at the old adage of the soldiers and generals of the First World War being “lions led by donkeys”.

He acknowledges that the generals were not always the most sympathetic of characters in particular Neville and Haig.  But he also acknowledges that the war as fought from 1914-1918 was totally different from the war all the belligerents expected to fight.  The book does a very good job of explaining the struggles that both the Central Powers and Entente went through as they tried to adapt tactics and doctrine for the conditions of trench warfare and the myriad ways they attempted to return mobility to the battlefield largely to no avail.

I do somewhat take issue with the short shrift given to the Austrians but that is to be expected as they Austrians have always been viewed as a secondary power that by 1914 probably should not have been counted among the Great Powers.  That is a small complaint about what is an otherwise excellent book.

If you want a work that presents a fair examination of the combat methods of World War I without getting stuck on minor details then this is the book for you.  Peter Hart has produced a work that complements, explains, and expands on a topic that many people think they understand.  After reading this book, they will think differently.  One of the best general histories of the war I have ever read.