Tragedy and farce meet in the trenches

World War One
September 7, 2007

Norman Stone's World War One: A Short History is, indeed, at about 40,000 words, a short history of a long war. It provides an excellent introduction for readers new to the field, and specialists will enjoy the insights, sweeping judgments, piquant asides and humour we have come to expect from an unconventional historian. This is a synthesis based on profound knowledge that is lightly, some would say too lightly, worn.

As the author of The Eastern Front 1914-1917 (1975), Stone's account corrects the over-emphasis on the Western front that characterises the British image of the war. Here, not only the Eastern Front but also the much-neglected Italian Front are given proper weight. Writing, as he tells us, from his desk overlooking the Bosphorus, he also gives attention to the Turkish role in the war, which is too often confined by British historians to accounts of Gallipoli. It is a pity, however, that he didn't look further east. An overview of the war in the Ottoman Empire's Arab provinces would, given Stone's knowledge of Turkey's war, have been welcome. Controversy and Stone are far from strangers, and the book's description of the Turks' treatment of the Armenians as a "massacre" has already upset Armenians who insist that it was genocide.

Few histories of the tragic conflict are strong on humour, but Stone punctuates his account with wry asides pointing to the absurd and the mundane amid carnage and death. Far from being consecutive as Marx alleged, tragedy and farce are entwined in this history. Thus we have the Bolsheviks remembering that they needed a "delegate from the peasantry" to make up their team for the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and picking up a hard-drinking peasant from the street; he got on well with the Austrian aristocrats who "asked him about the planting of onions". Then there's the Tsar, licking his own postage stamps to help the war effort, and the German Chancellor concerned about his travelling expenses in the crucial month of July 1914. Many document exercises have been set for history undergraduates based on the peace treaties signed in Paris but surely none on the article of the Treaty of Sèvres, which, Stone tells us, provided for the suppression of dirty postcards.

The author's tone is humane and generous. He gives full recognition to the ghastly nature and futility of the war but doesn't fulminate at the failings of generals or the mistakes of statesmen. If the generals are not mocked in an Oh What a Lovely War fashion, this is not a full-blooded revisionist account, and even the best generals are seen to have failed when, having made advances, they didn't know when to stop. There are no saints or real sinners in this account, but fallible men with vaster armies than they had been trained to use and monarchs entrapped by their own rhetoric into impasse. Stone is surely wrong, however, to see the desire for expanded frontiers as the root cause of the war. Fear of possible futures in which allies disintegrated and enemies grew stronger were more important, while the war aims of the combatants were largely developed after the war had begun.

Such a short book has inevitably lots of omissions: the long war in Africa doesn't rate a mention, while the war at sea is also, save for Jutland, rather neglected. Perhaps this short history should have been just a bit longer, yet extra length might have altered its character. It reads as if it were written easily and quickly by an author enjoying writing it - a longish seminar given by a real expert who never bores his students.

A. W. Purdue is a visiting senior lecturer at the Open University.

World War One: A Short History

Author - Norman Stone
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 187
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9781846140136

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