1916: A Global History by Keith Jeffery
|1916: A Global History by Keith Jeffery|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A thorough account of the events of 1916, the pivotal year which witnessed the Easter Rising in Dublin, the battles of Verdun and the Somme, and the election of Woodrow Wilson as American President. The author demonstrates that this was when the war spread beyond the sphere of Europe and became a truly global conflict.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 448||Date: October 2015|
1916 was a pivotal year in modern history. It witnessed the Easter Rising in Dublin, the battles of Verdun and the Somme, and the election of Woodrow Wilson as American President. These, and several other events described in this book in detail, were later seen as crucial staging points in the course of the First World War.
Jeffery's very thorough account of this central year of the conflict begins with the conclusion of the Gallipoli campaign. This was the first Allied attempt to break away from the stalemate which had developed on the Western Front, and also the first fully integrated Anglo-French operation. He surveys the action at Verdun, the longest and most costly battle of the war, and the Somme, which resulted in fewer casualties but was a similarly protracted affair resulting in an Allied advance of no more than ten miles, and which would come to exemplify a perception of the fighting on mainland Europe as utterly futile in terms of lives lost.
The spotlight also falls in turn on the battle of the Isonzo, between Italian forces and the Central Powers, the uprising on Easter Monday in Dublin, and the greatest naval battle of the war at Jutland. Action on the Eastern Front, or the thousand-mile front line from the Baltic Sea to the Roumanian frontier, the fighting in Africa, Asia and the Balkans, the role played by a somewhat divided and initially very pacifist United States of America, and affairs in Russia, likewise have chapters to themselves.
As the sub-title indicates, although the war is often seen as a largely European affair, every other continent was inexorably drawn in before long until it was indeed a global matter. For instance, it is significant that India provided the largest volunteer army so far raised by any nation at the time, and the fighting force remained remarkably resilient in the challenges of modern industrial war. Some cultural differences remained. Many of the Sikhs refused to wear steel helmets because it would have meant giving up their turbans, yet the Hindustanis realised they had to eat certain foods abroad that they would have rejected at home, because the only alternative was starvation.
Almost unremittingly, there are stories of great bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, understandable failures of nerve seen as cowardice, and the muddled incompetency of commanders and politicians who sent to many men to their deaths. One particularly savage picture in words describes Serbia's 'Golgotha' in which 250,000 soldiers and civilian refugees started a march through the inhospitable mountains of Albania and Montenegro in appalling winter conditions, with an estimated 70,000 perishing of cold and exhaustion. The victors and the defeated of every battle suffered fearful losses, both at the time and in terms of fatally wounded survivors who perished soon afterwards.
I found the chapter on Russia's ill-fated participation and the confusion that surrounded the black farce that culminated in the murder of Rasputin, the notorious Russian peasant who came to wield so much power over ministerial appointments in the tottering empire, particularly illuminating. Likewise, the account of secret agents and sabotage in America before the nation declared war on the Germans in 1977 is a revealing one. American opinion had largely leaned towards the Allied side, for partly cultural and partly economic reasons, with the Irish-American sector prepared to serve against England in case of a call to arms from Dublin heavily outnumbered.
The author concludes with a short chapter on the potential for peace at the end of 1916, the point at which some British ministers doubted in clear-cut victory and felt that the rate of casualties was rising beyond acceptable levels. But hardliners, among them Lloyd George, who reminded doubters that it had taken twenty years for England to defeat Napoleon, ensured that the war would still be waged until the job was done. He has accomplished a thorough job in telling the story by building the picture up from several different theatres of war and combining them into a unified whole. It adds a new dimension to the prodigious number of books on the subject that have come our way since the centenary of 1914 approached, and in taking a rather different approach to that adopted by authors who have chosen to portray the story of the full four years, makes a valuable addition to their number.
For more on specific aspects of the war, may be also recommend Gallipoli by Peter Hart; for the prelude as to how it came about, The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan; and for eyewitness accounts of those involved in the fighting, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the first world war by Peter Englund.
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