The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert. New York: Henry Holt, 1994. 615 pp. Bib. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $35.00 ($31.50).
Reviewed by Bill Rawling
Not only was World War I among the most important events of the last few centuries, for the countries and people that participated it also was one of the most traumatic. It is not surprising, therefore, that since it ended more than 60 years ago, many have tried to write comprehensive histories of the conflict, among them C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, and J. F. C. Fuller. Now Martin Gilbert, perhaps best known for his works on Winston Churchill, takes up the job.
Surely, many will think that the author’s ambition—as indicated by his subtitle—will be unfulfilled, since a complete history of the war would be next to impossible to present within a single cover. One must not judge too quickly, however; events and characters fill these pages, many of them not usually seen in studies of World War I. Einstein, Ghandi, Lenin, and Hitler are present, as are Erwin Rommel and Harry Truman. (Given Martin Gilbert’s previous work, it comes as no surprise that Winston Churchill figures prominently in this story.)
As in the standard works, Dr. Gilbert discusses the battles of the Western and Eastern Fronts, the revolution in Russia, and the general horrors of war—e.g., the use of poison gas. But he also points out that, at one time, fighting was occurring on ten different and widely separated fronts; apart from the two already mentioned, armies faced each other in the Caucasus, Persia, southern Mesopotamia, Salonica, Italy, East Africa, the Sinai, and the Arabian Peninsula. On other occasions, military or naval operations occurred in South-West Africa, China’s Shantung Peninsula, the Pacific, and off the Falkland Islands. Other events noted in this work include the little-known Senussi Rebellion, Canada’s conscription crisis, the Finnish fight for independence, and the ever so brief independence of Armenia.
In the area of historical interpretation, there also is much that is not mainstream and should prompt discussions among historians for some time to come. For example, blame for the war usually is attributed solely to Germany and Austria-Hungary; Dr. Gilbert apportions some of it to Russia and Serbia. He also dispels the myth that everyone of importance wanted war, presenting Winston Churchill and Henri-Philippe Petain as examples to the contrary. On the whole, however, this is not an analytical work, but a relation of the events of the time from the point of view of the participants. Therefore, very little is mentioned about the difficulties of coalition warfare, in spite of the subject’s importance to understanding much of what happened, especially on the Western Front—although to be fair. Dr. Gilbert makes it clear that many offensives were launched solely to help out allies. That kind of history, however, is not Martin Gilbert’s priority, and what one finds in these pages are copious quantities of the kind of anecdote that helps readers understand the experience of World War I, especially that of the British on the Western Front.
One area where the book differs from previous works is in its organization. It is almost purely chronological, allowing the reader to compare events in different parts of the world readily as they occur near-simultaneously. For example, chapter 13, “Europe is Mad. The World is Mad,” takes us first to Kut, then to the Western Front, followed in succession by Syria, Charleville (behind German lines), Verdun, the British sector on the Western Front, German-occupied France, Mesopotamia, the Italian front, Britain’s Parliament, the North Sea, the Ypres Salient, London, Fort Vaux (near Verdun), the Arabian Peninsula, the air over Europe, Verdun again, the German home front, and the Somme—all in a 14-page section covering the period April-June 1916. In fact, each chapter is subtitled with dates usually covering only a few months. The main danger in such a structure is confusion; the main advantage is that it puts events in their proper sequential context. In Dr. Gilbert’s work, the approach works quite well, ensuring that the reader is not led to believe that the war was made up of isolated and discrete “battles,” “fronts,” or “policies,” but was instead a wide-ranging conflict in which events on one continent influenced those on another.
What the author seems unable to avoid, however, is factual errors. To follow a single thread—Canadian participation—Gilbert places the Canadians at First Ypres (they did not participate until Second Ypres); at Second Ypres, the Canadians were not gassed in the opening moves of the battle, and the first Victoria Cross awarded to a Canadian was done so some 60 years before. Canadians were not on the Somme on the first day of the battle (certainly Newfoundlanders were, but Newfoundland would not become part of Canada until 1949). Canadians were, however, at Courcelette, where tanks were used in substantial numbers for the first time—although Gilbert has them arriving the day after the battle. As the author points out, Lieutenant Hedley Goodyear was a Newfoundlander, which meant he was not leading Canadian troops on 7 August 1918.
Such errors demonstrate the hazards of writing comprehensive history, but they are no argument against making the attempt, whether it involves discussions of Russian prisoners of war, Irish attitudes toward the conflict and the British, Bolshevik activities in the Tsarist army, or the several failed attempts at making peace. What arises out of the detail is a presentation of a European civil war that came to involve many non- Europeans—e.g., East African conscripts, Arab freedom fighters, Chinese laborers, and Senegalese, Moroccan, Algerian, and Indochinese troops from France’s colonial empire. In short, Martin Gilbert’s The First World War has much that will interest both the general reader and the professional historian.
A historian with Canada’s Department of National Defense, Bill Rawling is the author of many works on World War I, including Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918.
Closing with the Enemy: How the GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945
Michael Doubler. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994. 354 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $ 17.95 ($16.15). Paper.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Carlo W. D'Este, U.S. Army (Retired)
One of the more widely held views of the campaign in Northwest Europe in 1944-45 is that the Allies eventually won merely because they possessed overwhelming “brute force.” One proponent, British historian John Ellis, argued in a 1990 book of the same name that despite their industrial and logistical superiority, U.S., British, and Soviet commanders “seemed unable to impose their will upon the enemy except by slowly and persistently battering him to death with a blunt instrument.” Others have suggested that the German Army lost World War II primarily because it could not match the logistical might of the U.S. Army.
In this well-researched, thoughtfully argued account of how American soldiers fought during the final year of the war, Michael Doubler demolishes the myth that in 1944-45 the United States possessed an inexhaustible supply of men and materiel and makes the case that the U.S. Army performed far better than we have previously been led to believe. In the process, he contradicts the views of such esteemed historians as Russell F. Weigley, Martin van Creveld, and S. L. A. Marshall, all of whom have depicted the U.S. Army’s performance as inferior to that of the Germans.
Until the appointment in September 1939 of George C. Marshall as Chief of Staff, the interwar U.S. Army was a pitifully small, financially starved, and tradition-encrusted organization whose powerful branch chiefs successfully resisted mechanization and modernization. From 1940 to 1942, under the tutelage of General Marshall and his ground forces czar, Leslie J. McNair, the foundation was laid for the Army’s transformation into a large, modern, mechanized force able to compete on an equal footing with Hitler’s vaunted Wehrmacht.
However, making it work on the battlefield was another matter altogether. The limitations of creating and training an effective fighting force in so short a time after so many years of neglect became painfully evident in February 1943, when II Corps suffered stinging defeats at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass during the Tunisian campaign.
The seeds of Dr. Doubler’s thesis that the Army matured quickly in Northwest Europe in 1944-45 can be seen clearly in the experience of North Africa and Sicily. After Kasserine Pass, there were major changes in U.S. leadership and a dramatic improvement on the battlefield in Tunisia and later Sicily—spearheaded by George Patton, Omar Bradley, Ernie Harmon, Troy Middleton, Terry Allen, Lucian Truscott, and others. Strong leadership, improved equipment, and a knack for quickly learning from past mistakes validated correspondent Drew Middleton’s observation that “armies never learn from other armies. They have to learn by themselves.”
“In Africa, we learned to crawl, to walk—then run,” General Omar Bradley later wrote. The invasion and campaign in Sicily (then the largest amphibious operation in military history) and the negative aspects of our early travails in Italy (Salerno, the Rapido River, Cassino, and Anzio) were all important lessons learned that enabled the cross-Channel invasion of 6 June 1944 to succeed.
On the other side, only Field Marshal Erwin Rommel seemed to recognize the potential of the U.S. Army, noting after Kasserine that “they made up for their lack of experience by more flexible command,” and predicting dire consequences for the German Army in future battles of mobility with U.S. forces.
Doubler traces the maturing of the American GI from the beaches of Normandy to the Remagen Bridge, and how each successive battle helped to refine the learning process. In Normandy, GIs demonstrated “a remarkable capacity to learn from their mistakes and experiences as they devised new tactics ... to meet the unanticipated challenges in the bocage.” These included the genius of an Ordnance Corps sergeant who conceived the idea of welding a hedgerow cutter to the front of a Sherman tank, thus enabling First Army to “bust the bocage.”
The employment of combined arms—tanks, infantry, artillery, and engineers—turned U.S. combat power into a deadly fighting force, although, as Dr. Doubler points out, this learning curve was not without its price in blood. As the war in Europe unfolded, the fighting elements of the U.S. Army were repeatedly obliged to adapt to new forms of fighting. Nevertheless, whether in the bocage, in towns and cities, in the close confines of the Ardennes Forest, or across the Rhine River, American soldiers consistently demonstrated that they had learned their lessons well in the toughest, most unforgiving classroom on earth: the battlefield.
The key to this success was initiative and adaptability. As an infantry noncommissioned officer observed, “In the first few days we threw the book away. It didn’t work the way we’d been taught.” Ultimately, Doubler writes, “only by adapting under combat conditions was the Army able to overcome the enemy.” Indeed, what characterized the American soldier of World War II was his willingness to respond to the all-important but intangible virtues of leadership that mold armies and inspire men to fight at places like Anzio, Guadalcanal, and the Ardennes. Moreover, not only did the U.S. Army excel in tactical and technical improvisation, but “it performed equally well in disseminating new ideas and lessons learned.”
Both Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War are reminders that battles, campaigns, and wars still are won by fighting men on the ground “closing with the enemy.” This book is an impressive contribution not only to our understanding of how World War II was fought by the army of a vastly different era but also as a valuable example of the importance of ingenuity, courage, and initiative. At a time when—more than ever—joint operations are an accepted and necessary principle of fighting future wars, Closing with the Enemy offers a first-rate perspective of how the U.S. Army fought World War II in Europe.
Lieutenant Colonel D’Este is the author of many works of military history including Decision in Normandy (E.P. Dutton, 1983). His latest work, Patton: A Genius for War, will be published by Harper Collins in November 1995.
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The Arctic Convoys, 1941-1945
Richard Woodman. London, U.K.: John Murray, Ltd., 1994. 532 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $34.95 ($31.45). Paper.
In July 1941, under pressure from Roosevelt and Stalin, Winston Churchill ordered the first shipment of critically needed war supplies to the Soviet Union, by way of convoy to Murmansk and Archangel. For the next four years, Allied sailors and merchant seamen endured grueling convoy runs in which they fought through a gantlet of German ships, submarines, and aircraft and endured the harsh Arctic climate. Mr. Woodman—perhaps best known as the author of the Nathaniel Drinkwater series of novels—combines his flair for narrative with solid historical research to produce a magnificent account of one of the toughest naval campaigns of World War II. Author and Arctic convoy veteran Ludovic Kennedy describes this book as “the most comprehensive and most accurate [on this campaign] I have ever read.”
Battleships in Action
H. W. Wilson. Annapolis. MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. 2 vols.: 721 pp. Bib. Ulus. Ind. Maps. Photos. Tables. $75.00 ($60.00).
First published in 1926, this book is a recognized classic history of naval warfare in the age of steam. The first volume exhaustively covers the period from 1860 to 1914; it includes accounts of battles of the U.S. Civil War, the 1894 Sino-Japanese War, the Spanish-American War. and the Russo-Japanese War, as well as other lesser-known conflicts from Latin America to the Mediterranean. The second volume is concerned almost exclusively with World War I at sea. Like its companion, this volume is amazingly comprehensive, leaving almost no naval action of the war unmentioned. The author’s familiarity with many of the naval personalities and technologies of the era is demonstrated in the richly detailed accounts of the battles and the incisive analyses of their short-term and long-term effects. This work belongs in the library of the serious historians and enthusiasts of the ironclad, pre-dreadnought, and dreadnought eras of naval history.
DD-522: Diary of a Destroyer
Ron Surels. Plymouth, NH: Valley Graphics, Inc. 208 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. Photos. $24.95 ($22.45).
Although the subject of this book, the USS Luce (DD-522), was in service for only 23 months, hers was an exciting career which included action in the Aleutians and the Philippines as well as on the picket line off Okinawa—where she was sunk in a kamikaze attack. Using the interviews with many of the Luce's survivors, the author weaves a compelling tale of a crack destroyer from the careful molding of her crew into a close-knit team to the harrowing details of her final fight.
Division Officer’s Guide: Tenth Edition
Cdr. James Stavridis, USN. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. 352 pp. Append. Illus. Ind. Photos. $17.95 ($14.36).
Admiral Arleigh Burke once referred to shipboard division officers as “the core of the Navy’s spirit.” This guide has been the mentor of many a division officer for decades and Commander Stavridis—an experienced sailor who currently is the commanding officer of the USS Barry (DDG-52)—is well-qualified to update such an indispensable resource. This latest edition reflects the many changes that have occurred in the Navy and Coast Guard since the last iteration appeared in 1989. Included are basic lessons in leadership, organization, administration, and training as well as sound advice on meaningful counseling techniques, proper inspection practices, the management of maintenance responsibilities, the preparation of effective correspondence, and the planning of a career.
The Enlistment Planning Guide: How to Make the Most of Your Military Service
Kirby Lee Vaughn. Santa Barbara, CA: Essayons Publishing, 1995. 187 pp. Append. Bib. Illus. Ind. Photos. $12.95 ($11.65). Paper.
This unusual book urges the reader to "prepare for the day when you will be discharged from the military by making the most of your enlistment NOW!” Detailed instructions and recommendations offer advice on how to organize paperwork, save money, prepare for the discharge process, and make the most of the many opportunities offered by an enlistment in today’s armed forces. Navy Chief Petty Officer Miles Ohsfeldt writes, “this book should be a part of every new sailor’s initial issue,” and Staff Sergeant Jay Chance calls this book “a must for the new Marine.”
Hunters and Shooters: An Oral History of the U.S. Navy Seals in Vietnam
Bill Fawcett, Ed. New York: William Morrow, 1995. 360 pp. ind. $23.00 ($20.70).
Fourteen men who served in Vietnam as members of the Navy’s elite Sea-Air-Land forces (SEALs) reveal their exploits in this oral history collection. Mr. Fawcett is the field curator of the UDT/SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida. Publishers Weekly calls this book “a series of character studies in the best kind of military professionalism and a tour de force explication of modern small-unit warfare.”
Korean War Aces
Robert F. Doff, Jon Lake, and Warren Thompson. London, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1995. 96 pp. Append. Illus. Photos. $14.95 ($14.20). Paper.
The focus of this book is the aircraft that were flown by the aces of the Korean Conflict. Part of a series of highly illustrated, fact-filled books grouped as "Osprey Aircraft of the Aces,” this volume provides detailed information about the aircraft that were flown by the aces of the day and the missions that brought them fame. F-86 Sabres and MiG-15s are among the many aircraft covered. Korea was the first air war in which jets were the primary participants, but there are plenty of propellers in this account. Making this book even more valuable is the inclusion of pilots and aircraft from both sides of the conflict—including Soviet pilots.
Man and the Maritime Environment
Stephen Fisher. Ed. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1994. 243 pp. Append. Figs. Illus. Maps. Notes. Photos. $20.25 ($19.25). Paper.
The ninth volume in a series on maritime subjects, this book contains nine cross-disciplinary essays, all by established scholars, that explore man’s involvement with the sea as an environment. Some of the contributions are “Modern U.S. Pacific Oceanography and the Legacy of British and Northern European Science,” "The Effect of Changing Climate on Marine Life,” and “Sailing-Ship Seafarers and Sea Creatures.”
Moving the Force: Desert Storm and Beyond
Scott W. Conrad. Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1994. 85 pp. Figs. Maps.
Notes. $3.25 ($3.25). Paper.
The preface of this thought-provoking and informative monograph contends that “as the military priorities of the United States are reordered, the ability to move quickly, sustain forces anywhere in the world, and preposition equipment and materiel near likely areas of crisis is more important than ever.” Using the Persian Gulf War as his focus, Conrad analyzes the mobile aspects of logistical support with an eye toward future operations.
NATOPS Flight Manual: Navy Model F-4J Aircraft
Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military/Aviation History, 1995. Append. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Photos. Tables. $39.95 ($35.95). Paper.
The Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) Program was created to improve combat readiness and aircraft safety. Aviators have learned to depend on their NATOPS manuals for decades, and now these same manuals are available to anyone interested in learning the ground and flight procedures involved in flying some of the Navy’s most renowned aircraft. Chapters include "Flight Procedures,” “Emergency Procedures,” “Communications Procedures,” and “Weapons Systems.”
Rain of Ruin: A Photographic History of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Donald M. Goldstein, Katherine V. Dillon, and J. Michael Wenger. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1995. 192 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. $31.95 ($28.75).
The cataclysmic events that brought World War II to a close are recounted in words and photographs in this well-constructed book. Fifty years later, the controversy still rages over the decision to drop two atomic weapons on Japanese cities in August 1945. This book is a meaningful contribution to the debate.
Stalking the U-Boat: USAAF Offensive Antisubmarine Operations in World War II
Max Schoenfeld. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 243 pp. Append. Bib. Gloss. Illus. Ind. Maps. Notes. Photos. Tables. $37.50 ($35.62).
This book offers a relevant case study from the past for those currently discussing joint operations and the possible changes in traditional military roles. The little-known history of the Army Air Force’s antisubmarine operations during the early years of World War II is recounted in detail, providing a thought-provoking discussion of interservice rivalries and cooperation as well as revealing a great deal about the development of antisubmarine warfare technology, such as the centrimetric radar and the aircraft variants that helped turn the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The U.S. Intelligence Community: Third Edition
Jeffrey T. Richelson. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995. 540 pp. Figs. Gloss. Ind. Notes. Photos. Tables. $60.00 ($54.00). Hardcover. $26.00 ($23.50). Paper.
This might be considered an order of battle of the U.S. intelligence community, in which the missions and organizational structures of its various components are described. Included are the more familiar organizations, such as the CIA, as well as the lesser-known components, such as the intelligence arms of the U.S. Departments of the Treasury, Commerce, and Transportation; the U.S. Space Command; and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Washington Post correspondent Bob Woodward described the second edition of this book as “the authoritative bible on the modern American intelligence establishment.”
When the Poor Boys Dance
G. F. Borden. Novato, CA: Lyford Books, 1995. 256 pp. $21.95 ($19.75) Hardcover.
Inspired by an actual incident, this novel— written by the author of the critically acclaimed Easter Day 1941 and Seven Six One—deals with the resilience of the human spirit under arduous circumstances. A young Marine is accidentally left in the desert. But rather than merely succumb, he struggles against terrible odds to find his way back to safety or at least to die with the dignity that the attempt brings him. The Marine’s battle with dehydration and the scalding heat of the desert cause him to hallucinate his way across time and space to distant battlefields.
Yugoslavia the Former and Future: Reflections by Scholars from the Region
Payana Akhavan and Robert Howse, Eds. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995.
188 pp. Ind. Notes. Tables. $32.95 ($31.30). Hardcover.
Written entirely by authors from the former Yugoslavia, these essays explore the historical background of the region, analyze the current conflict, and offer possible solutions to the problems plaguing this troubled part of the world. Those who are confused by the complexity of this crisis and are concerned about its effect on world affairs will Find this book informative reading.