1915: The Death of Innocence
Lyn Macdonald. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. 625pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $35.95 ($31.50)
Reviewed by Dr. Frank L. Kalesnik
1915 is the fifth in Lyn Macdonald’s excellent series of Great War oral histories—which includes Somme and 1914. Leaving the BBC in 1973 to devote full attention to research, Ms. Macdonald has spent the past two decades interviewing veterans, sifting through letters and diaries, and touring the Western Front. The results are uniquely personal yet also universal histories of World War I. The experiences of individual soldiers are emphasized and expressed in their own words. The reader is given a broad range of viewpoints, from generals to privates, machine gunners to cooks.
Ms. Macdonald avoids the trend among writers to sermonize on the conflict’s tragedy. She has no axe to grind and rarely points an accusing finger at blundering commanders. The numerous failures causing tremendous casualties are examined frankly but recognized as products of battlefield chaos stemming from factors beyond the leaders’ control. 1915’s bibliography cites only official and regimental histories as well as participants’ published accounts. Her sole reference to a popular portrayal of the war notes that the Australian film Gallipoli “was fictional and one-sided but in essence and all its stark reality it was true.” The author’s restrained narrative at once gives readers a good grasp of events and provides the setting for participants to share their experiences.
1915 is Ms. Macdonald’s longest book; however, her brisk style makes it a pleasure to read. It also is the broadest in scope, since it covers not only the bloody actions at Neuve Chappelle, Second Ypres, and Loos on the Western Front, but also the Gallipoli campaign. The perspective is predominantly British, although a few Belgian civilians describe the war’s impact on them (their accounts of life in devastated Ypres are gripping). Nevertheless, the book does more than discuss conditions at the front. Great Britain’s struggle to raise new armies and the problems involved with training and equipping them are crucial to the story and described in fascinating detail.
The small Regular army comprising the British Expeditionary Force virtually was annihilated in the battles of 1914. Regular troops stationed throughout the British Empire were sent to Europe, their places in the British Isles at least taken by Territorial Army units. Soon, the Territorials—nicknamed the “Terriers”—were bound for duty overseas. They first served in Flanders guarding lines of communication but soon were in the trenches as well. A corps from the Indian Army also fought in Flanders as did Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (raised largely from British immigrants with prior military service).
At the same time, “Kitchener’s Army” of wartime volunteers was forming, but even basic uniforms were lacking and training was delayed by the lack of rifles. Junior officers were in short supply: regimental commanders recruited them individually, and there was no officer candidate school. Much of this function soon fell to the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps, a Territorial unit formed among London’s legal community. In its ranks, “gentlemen” learned the rudiments of army life, making the unit a valued pool of prospective officers.
Artillery rounds were in especially short supply and had to be used as deliberately as the limited manpower. This deficiency contributed to the negligible success of the Neuve Chappelle offensive, which also suffered from communications breakdowns and the delayed commitment of reserves. Terrible new weapons enhanced the carnage. The Germans introduced gas during their offensive at Second Ypres. The first gas attack, directed against Canadians but blown into French colonial troops by a shift in the wind, is especially well described, as are early countermeasures (the first being to cover one’s face with a urine- drenched cloth).
The Gallipoli campaign is one of the book’s major motifs and accounts of the fighting among the more interesting in 1915. Circumstances influencing the campaign get more intense analysis than those in Flanders do, but the focus remains on participants. The landing at Sedd al Barr, especially the massacre of troops disembarking from the River Clyde, is vividly portrayed:
Few of them even reached the shore. They were shot down almost to a man as they ran down the gangways. In minutes the lighters were piled deep with dead and dying men and the water turned red with the blood of the wounded staggering off the gangways to sink down beneath the weight of their equipment. The handful of men who reached the beach dashed to the shelter of a low sandy bank and watched in horror as line after line of their comrades were struck down and the tows of open boats bobbed aimless and adrift on the water.
Staff officers and sappers, battery commanders and riflemen, all give their descriptions of the bitter fighting. The author weaves them into an account of the campaign which is placed in turn in context with operations on other fronts. The result is a satisfying book that will appeal to a broad range of readers.
Historians have a predilection for assuming they know more about events than people who participated in them. One academic (but not a historian) has even written an acclaimed study that argues World War I is best understood through the fiction it inspired. Lyn Macdonald has spent more than 20 years preserving recollections of men who actually fought in the Great War, and presenting them in a manner that enables readers to share their experiences. Other writers can profit from her efforts and example.
Truman and the Hiroshima Cult
Robert P. Newman. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995. 272 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Notes. $34.95 ($31.45).
Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb
Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar. New York: Simon &. Schuster, 1995. 351 pp. Append. Bib. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $25.00 ($22.05).
Reviewed by D. M. Giangreco
For much of the postwar era, Americans firmly believed that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was justified. They reasoned that the bombs prompted Japan’s surrender thus eliminating the need to invade Japan, and thereby saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and perhaps millions of Japanese.
Since 1965, however, this notion has been assaulted by revisionist historians. Some hold that, by July 1945, the Japanese government—and the U.S. government, for that matter—realized that surrender was only a matter of time. Others believe that the invasion of Japan would not have been as costly as U.S. officials publicly asserted. The bottom line, however, is the same: using atomic weapons was not required to secure Japan’s capitulation and, therefore, their use was for other, darker reasons.
These theories have gained credence because, while the broad outlines of the politico-military situation in late July and early August 1945 and the invasion plans are fairly well-known, few historians—military or civilian—have a grasp of their details. Nevertheless, the devil is in the details and even those who know instinctively that what the revisionists peddle is not true often find themselves overwhelmed by a tidal wave of “facts.” Truman and the Hiroshima Cult and Code-Name Downfall go a long way toward leveling the playing field.
In Truman and the Hiroshima Cult, Professor Newman concentrates on—and convincingly shreds—the myths that have grown up around the use of the atomic bombs—e.g., the oft-repeated assertion that the bombs were dropped in order to intimidate Stalin. He effectively deals with the disastrous effects of a prolonged war on the people of still-occupied regions of southeastern Asia and the massive numbers of prisoners and slave laborers in Japanese hands—subjects revisionist historians work diligently to ignore. Professor Newman makes an especially telling point when he notes that even “with no atom bombs [and] no set-piece land battles,” Japan would have suffered approximately 300,000 deaths per month from the U.S. strategic bombing campaign.
For the most part, the plans for the invasion of Japan have languished in archives. They have surfaced only in obscure monographs at the Naval War College or the Army’s Command and General Staff College, and in revisionist works which “prove” that “only” tens of thousands of Americans would have perished. No authoritative general works have been produced on the proposed invasion; consequently, the revisionists have tended to have the field all to themselves. Code-Name Downfall fills this void.
Messrs. Allen and Polmar have produced a clear, concise work outlining the development of the invasion plans. The expectations of U.S. planners—based on intense analyses of the bloody battles in the Pacific—and the conflicting casualty estimates are addressed in detail. Many misconceptions about U.S. decisionmaking during the war’s final days are effectively clarified.
Similarly, they challenge a central article of faith of many revisionists: Japan was on the verge of surrender. Allen and Polmar aptly demonstrate that the reality was somewhat different. In intense and sometimes harrowing detail, they describe the measures taken to ready Japan for the “Decisive Battle.” Using conventional means and unconventional ones—e.g., bacteriological warfare and mass attacks by kamikaze aircraft and submarines— the Japanese military planned to smash the U.S. invasion and force the United States into a negotiated settlement. Even if the invaders had captured Tokyo, preparations—including the building of a mammoth underground bunker for Emperor Hi- rohito and the high command—had been made to keep on fighting.
Most flaws in Code-Name Doumfall are relatively minor—e.g., Great Britain’s ability to field a Commonwealth corps for the second assault landing on Honshu. Like most of the U.S. divisions, these troops probably would have arrived after the initial landings. Also, Allen and Polmar make no mention of U.S. intelligence’s radical underestimation of the number of available kamikaze aircraft; readers are left to glean this dangerous discrepancy themselves from information spread throughout the text.
More important, however, is the authors’ apparent misunderstanding of the significance of the rescheduling of Operation Olympic—the first landings on Kyushu—from 1 December to 1 November 1945. The landing date had been changed because the three-months gap between it and that of the landings on Honshu, Operation Coronet (1 March 1946) would not allow enough time to build the airfields for the more than 50 air groups needed to support Coronet. The later landing could not be moved to April because of uncertainties about weather and its effects on air operations and terrain around Tokyo. The October 1945 typhoon which struck Okinawa would have caused more damage than the authors postulate and forced Operation Olympic back to its original, unacceptable start date and Operation Coronet into April. Unfortunately, the Divine Winds had a one- two punch.
In early April 1946, another typhoon barreled through the northwest Pacific. It hit Luzon on 5 April, then moved off toward Formosa. If the war had dragged on, the storm could have had a profound effect because Luzon was the staging area for all Army divisions—including their shallow-draft landing craft. Undoubtedly, there would have been a delay; a delay that the First Army and Eighth Army could ill afford. Soldiers and Marines expecting to find themselves in flat, dry “tank country” on the Tokyo Plain instead would have been slogging through muck and rice shoots—the equivalent to moving through the Mekong Delta without the benefit of helicopters. It is too bad that the authors missed this point, because it underscores their thesis that prolonging the war into the summer or fall of 1946 would have had disastrous consequences.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Good Ship: Ships, Shipbuilding, and Technology in England, 1200-1520
Ian Friel. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 208 pp. Append. Bib. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $35.95 ($32.35).
During the Middle Ages, when stagnation seemed to be the waterword, there were maritime developments that would prepare the way for the great discoveries in the Age of Exploration. Dr. Friel— a historian at Great Britain’s National Maritime Museum—brings this crucial period in maritime history to life. The informative narrative is enhanced by illustrations of period manuscripts, tapestries, and carvings along with modern drawings, diagrams, and photographs.
Men and Ships of the Civil War
Scott Rye. Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1995. 305 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Notes. $17.95 ($16.15).
The naval aspects of the American Civil War often are overshadowed by the great and bloody clashes on land, but this was the first war in which armored steamships fought and was the testing ground for other developments that would revolutionize naval warfare. In a well-written, fast-paced narrative, Scott Rye tells the story of both navies, capturing the flavor of the times as well as their historical significance.
Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power, 1882-1893
Mark Russell Shulman. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. 336 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Notes. $39.95.
Late in the 19th century, the United States emerged as a major sea power. This was brought about by the “navalists”— men the likes of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Stephen B. Luce, James Soley, and Theodore Roosevelt. Their efforts are described and analyzed in this thought-provoking book. Dr. Shulman’s balanced analysis sheds light on this important period when the U.S. Navy became a modern and strategically significant element in the nation’s defense and a key player in America’s emergence into world politics.