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THE RAGTIME INFANTRY ON THE EASTERN FRONT

WORLD WAR ONE: A SHORT HISTORY By Norman Stone,
Allen Lane, Rs 1,125

This is a remarkably concise and readable history of World War I. It is full of details and interesting asides. Norman Stone leaves no doubt as to how Germany prepared itself and manipulated events until conflict was inevitable. This was a time when the arms industry dominated the economies of many countries, a time when railroads were built with troop movements in mind and rural platforms, long enough to disembark troops, built in “the middle of nowhere”.

Most people on both sides of the conflict thought it would all be over by Christmas of 1914. It then all went terribly wrong with millions killed, many more wounded and rendered homeless, and in some cases stateless. The statistics and figures are staggering. But one surprising fact was that, by 1918, thanks to the extraordinary advances in medicine, only 1 per cent of the wounded died. To say that the Western Front was a bloodbath has perhaps become a cliché, but what this book tells us is the extraordinary carnage on the Eastern Front.

In every way, the war in the east was as bloody and as futile, with extraordinary acts of bravery and stupidity by the respective general staff. Here, the failure of Russia to invest in adequate railway infrastructure meant that they could not get men, food and materials to the front.

Stone’s book also has many delightful asides and a lot of new information. There is a good description, in a few short sentences, of how young Captain Rommel made his reputation with an extraordinary feat in the Italian campaign.

There is a fascinating footnote about Kurt Riezler who was the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Tollweg’s private secretary during much of the war, but in 1933 was teaching at the University of Chicago (having defeated Karl Popper for the post) and in 1945 was appointed by Harry Truman to head a commission to judge the morality of dropping the atomic bomb. There are many more such gems.

Sadly, two great areas of conflict have been overlooked by Stone. The Turkish Empire, in 1914, spread from Europe to the Caspian Sea, and from the Black Sea to the Arabian Sea. Four years later, it was reduced to the country we know today. Despite Stone’s appointment at Turkey’s Bilkent University, he only makes passing reference to the Dardanelles where Kemmal Ataturk made his reputation, but he is good on Turkish politics and cautiously honest about the Armenian massacres. But he makes no reference to Palestine or Mesopotamia where Indian troops fought, nor to the African campaigns.

India Gate commemorates the lives of over 60,000 Indian officers and men killed in World War I. 10,236 Indian soldiers were captured at Kut on the road from Basra to Baghdad. It seems that we have learnt so little. One of Delhi’s landmarks and, I think, the only Imperial statue to remain in the capital celebrates the last great cavalry victory when squadrons from the Mysore and Jodhpur Lancers charged Turkish machine guns defending Haifa on September 23, 1918 and took the town. It is the Teen Murti Memorial. In Africa, the “butchers’ bill” totalled over 100,000.

The aftermath was as tragic as the conflicts themselves. Stone suggests that the failure to occupy Germany, something that the Allies did after the next war, perhaps allowed for the rise of the Nazis. But he makes no mention of the other disastrous legacies of World War I that we have to deal with today — Rwanda, Yugoslavia and the horrors of the Nineties (still unresolved in Kosovo), and Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the failure to meet promises made to the Kurds.

Despite these shortcomings, Stone’s book is a useful, concise and often witty introduction. But it perhaps needs to be pointed out that World War I was not limited to Europe. The maps are excellent and certainly add to this very readable history, albeit too Euro-centric.

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