1. Education
Review
The First World War
Gerard J. De Groot

Guide Rating -  

The First World War was written as a short overview for students, and the author explains his approach in a preface: "In writing this book, I have tried to give the bones just enough flesh to give the subject some life and vitality. There is, of course, an enormous amount missing, but that is in the nature of a short book." (De Groot, The First World War, ix) De Groot is aided by his own style, which is lively, vigorous and economic, reinforced with the occasional blunt comment and violent metaphor. The result is a concise, but explanatory, text that is perfect for students, and anyone who detests dry writing.

The first chapter examines the origins of the First World War, and here De Groot is particularly excellent. The author's wry comments and precise quotation enhance a perfectly balanced analysis, one which covers the mesh of interacting factors that caused the war; remarkably, this comprehensive introduction fits into twenty-two pages. Given the nature of my schooling on the Great War a decade ago - which still taught that an assassination by the Black Hand triggered an alliance system, dragging countries unwillingly to war - I would recommend that all students read at least The First World War's opening chapter.

De Groot's text continues with chapters on the three great fronts of the war: East, West and the Sea. In doing so The First World War becomes broader than other volumes which concentrate solely on the Western front. Indeed, De Groot goes further, omitting accounts of individual battles and instead presenting a wide-ranging narrative that explains the overarching motives and decisions which underpinned the conflict. The result - as well as a shorter book - is a sweeping overview of the whole war that doesn't bog readers down in specialist military detail, such as the troop movements at Verdun. Of course, readers wanting the specifics of a certain battle will be disappointed, but De Groot should be commended for sticking with his appointed task, and providing a clear picture of the whole war.

The author also considers the very nature of the Great War, in a way that some readers might find too mechanical or impersonal. His chapter on the Western front (chapter 2) argues that, once the war had started, the forces of modern technology meant that millions were always going to die, and no commander - however clever or stupid - deserves the vitriolic blame which some historians have attributed. Whether De Groot is successful in removing the human face of slaughter, instead shifting the emphasis onto a set of intangible pressures, is up to the reader; many may see this particular argument as simply an unusual tangent in an otherwise quality book. Equally, occasional moral judgements do creep in, and De Groot is quick to comment on the intellect and ego of various commanders.

If The First World War's second chapter thus goes slightly awry, things return to excellence with chapter three, and remain so for almost the entire book. As befits an introductory work, De Groot races through a wide range of subject matter, including the war at sea, civilian life in each of the belligerent nations, the events of 1918 and 'peace', as well as the conditions faced by soldiers. Having eschewed a simply military account, De Groot brings social, economic and political factors into his mix, providing a well-rounded study of a war that stretched far beyond the battlefield itself. Crucially, every section of the book is enthused with drama and passion, while retaining a scholarly outlook.

Of course, The First World War is not perfect. What you won't find in this book is an even-handed discussion of historians' competing views. Instead, De Groot swiftly outlines the arguments of those he disagrees with, before forcefully rebutting them through the introduction of 'better' interpretations. The author's bluntness may simply be a highly efficient way to manage his word limit, and his style will be an eye-opener for students who feel ill-equipped to stoutly argue their point, but some people may feel bullied.

Additionally, in chapter five De Groot's tone becomes one of sheer anger when he describes British Imperial policy: governed by an ingrained racism that led to tactical and moral errors. Although undoubtedly true, the author also leaves himself open to attack, as his bitter indictments seem at odds with his notion that soldiers fought and died in "every rotten corner of the globe." De Groot's text also become slightly disjointed in places, slipping from a presentation of myriad intermingling threads to conflicting snapshots tied together with belligerent comment.

Overall, The First World War is an excellent book that presents as all encompassing an analysis as can be found in a volume of this size. De Groot's style is consistently sharp - the mixture of dark wit, clear explanation and brusque tone must surely keep the most demanding of readers interested - while the analyses are incisive, thought-provoking and refreshingly free of jingoism. Most importantly, the book remains clear and accurate while presenting the First World War in all its complicated and messy glory. While De Groot's text is aimed at students, his style means that even experts in the field will find it, if not enlightening, then entertaining.

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