Book Review – The Last Battle: Victory, Defeat, and the End of World War I by Peter Hart

The Last Battle is the latest of the excellent histories of World War I that Peter Hart has produced.  This book is an account of the last year of World War I on the Western Front with an emphasis on the final Allied campaign known now as The 100 Days.

My copy is a pre-publication review copy so some of this can change.  The facts: there are 395 pages of text divided into 12 chronological chapters.

Like his earlier work this is an excellently written history that does not indulge in the blame games so many histories of World War I engage in.  Peter Hart presents a narrative account of the actions of both sides in the closing months of the war with cogent and unbiased analysis of the reasons why things occurred as they did.

What I find most refreshing about this account t is that the author humanizes the major commanders of both sides, an all too common occurrence in earlier histories.  It has been almost conventional wisdom for decades that senior commanders were unfeeling wretches who blithely sent long-suffering front line troops to their deaths by the thousands while they whiled away their days at luxurious chateaus behind the front.  This is an unfair caricature and one that it is high time historians corrected.  It is true that mistakes were made in the prosecution of the war but it is untrue that commanders did not seek to avoid losses.  If anything, most senior commanders agonized over the high casualty rates inherent in trench warfare and continually sought ways to both reduce casualties and break through the hard shell of trenches to bring the war to as swift a conclusion as possible.

The account of the final campaigns of the war is told from a refreshing perspective that examines both the allied plan as well as the German response as the Allies seized the initiative and broke open the front in the final months of the war.  This is a well-structured chronological account that focuses on British actions but also explores the actions of the French and Americans.

The author is correct in his assertion in the preface that the final months of the war are often neglected in general accounts of the war in favor of covering the more dramatic and costly struggles at places such as Verdun, Passchendaele, and the Somme.  He is also correct in asserting that this does a disservice to the hard won lessons the Allies had learned in the previous four years of fighting.  The Allies put all these lessons together in the final campaign and an unbiased analysis of this campaign shows that all the elements of what we now call Blitzkrieg were present in the allied drive into the German lines from August to November 1918.  Some refinement was needed but the basics were there and it was these basics that were learned from 1914-1917 as all sides coped with the problems on the new industrial age warfare.

This is an excellent history that provides and in-depth analysis of an often glossed over period of World War I.  I highly recommend this excellent addition to the historiography of the First World War.