The Great War and the Making of the Modern World

July 14, 2011

In an important new book that richly analyses the causes, course and consequences of the First World War, Jeremy Black asks why it remains the "most misunderstood major conflict in history". He draws comparison with prior and succeeding wars, and shows where and why significance should be placed if the making of the modern world is to be understood. In particular, how might scholars strive to influence and indeed rectify popular (mis)conceptions?

This is a reflexive work in which the purposes and values of the generation that endured the war are disentangled from subsequent perspectives on the war. Historians are urged to provide a link across the generations by honouring the sacrifice of the fallen, remembering the unprecedented devastation, critically examining ideas from the intervening decades and locating the global implications of the war, especially in Africa and Asia, while acknowledging the paramountcy of the Western Front in the consciousness of a waning anglophone world.

A luminous long view pervades the book, as well as insightful analogies from within the conflict. The Napoleonic advance in 1815 informs evaluation of the military crises in March 1918. Verdun is visited as a sign of Franco-German unity in 1984. An unsuccessful amphibious assault on Tanga in East Africa in 1914 sheds light on the Gallipoli campaign. More debatably, the Allied advance in 1918 prefigures improved Soviet operational capability in 1944. In every chapter, the issue of one war overshadowed by another is examined amid vibrant historiographical themes. It is discursive, mindful of contrary perspectives and full of refreshing provisionality.

Military historians often contend that Allied military victory in 1918 was lost from view as the "futility of war" literary legacy gathered momentum after 1928. They wonder at such a fundamental misapprehension, consolidated in the 1960s as an anti-war trope and exemplified by the cultural artefact, Oh! What a Lovely War. Drawing on numerous recent studies of the learning curve, Black vividly depicts the evolution of trench warfare, especially how new weaponry and careful planning were combined to great effect; for example, the synchronisation of maps, watches and telephones.

There is, however, circumspection on the relationship between Allied defensive victory in 1918 and the attritional battles of 1916-17. In well-justified ways, he emphasises the "combined weight of the whole Allied effort" and the potent arriving resources of American manpower and material. More space might be given to the "domestic strains" account of 1918, especially the limits of war production and food supply. Nonetheless, a masterful summation of scholarship is provided, alongside new insights on interwoven technological and tactical issues.

The casualty rates loom large in our collective memory of the Great War and the study of mass bereavement in inter-war societies requires continuing investigation at local, national and trans-national levels. Medievalism was a cultural resource for depicting needful sacrifice. Service, duty and honour continued to be espoused after the war, but how might the countervailing currents born of modernism, in all its forms, make explicable machine-age conflict for minds still fixed on premodern representations of war?

Similarly, what are we to make of speeches at war memorial unveilings in the early 1920s that focused as much on the effects of an uncertain post-war liberal economic order as the commemoration of the volunteer spirit of 1914-15?

State intervention might have become more normative but voluntary effort, evidenced in numerous ex-servicemen's welfare societies, remained indispensable. To a remarkable extent local worlds persisted and war experience was recollected and mediated at many intermediate levels between the family and the state. Here continuing interest in genealogy, monuments and war landscapes really matters. Numerous questions arise, but this book cogently explores the diverse impacts of war.

This is an impressive work of narrative and analysis that explicitly acknowledges our need for histories to help us understand our world. It does not demand that one dominant perspective should be replaced by another. History's relationship to the past is more complex than that.

The Great War and the Making of the Modern World

By Jeremy Black. Continuum, 360pp, £20.00. ISBN 9780826440938. Published 17 March 2011

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