The Great War by Peter Hart (Profile Books 2013, ISBN 978 1 84668 246 9), 522pp, illustrated, hardback £25.00.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the First World War, Peter Hart needs little introduction. His work as Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum now spans several decades and his craft as an author covers a multitude of aspects of the conflict and theatres of war; although the war in the air and Gallipoli are two areas Peter is particularly known for. There is no doubting the author’s credentials as a serious historian and fine writer, but this single volume history of WW1 begs an easy question: given the huge number of one volume histories of the trenches, do we really need another?
And an easy questions also begs as easy answer: which in this case is a firm, yes. The historiography of the Great War has changed dramatically in recent times. Serious students have long since abandoned the Lions Led By Donkeys approach to the war and academics like the late Paddy Griffith and Professor Gary Sheffield have championed the formal approach to our understanding of how the conflict was really fought. But in many respects this new thinking has hardly left the lecture room. Working as a battlefield guide with thousands of members of the public one does not have to be a mind reader to know where the majority of those who start the tour stand when it comes to the command and conduct of battles like the Somme: slaughter, butchers, tin-pot generals are all common phrases. After a few days of looking at the ground, hearing the problems of command with little control, seeing how the conflict was ever evolving and how much training went into the later battles, most returned changed, and not a little challenged on many levels. That is what the First World War has long needed in print – the whole war in a broad brush stroke but with no attempt to dilute. And perhaps Peter Hart’s book is it.
The Great War both is, and is not, an academic study of the conflict. Hart I suspect would never call himself an academic, but his work is grounded firmly in academic rigour and his wide use of both primary and secondary sources makes the book solid and credible. But more importantly it is a very readable book, that takes the reader through the approaches to armageddon and on a chronological journey through four years of a changing war and changing battlefields. Peppered with first hand accounts, which more than compliment the main body of text, the five hundred or more pages pass by quickly but should leave even the casual reader with a desire to raid the endnotes for books to read next.
As we move into the unknown territory of the Great War Centenary we need books like Hart’s. We need to know that the war was a conflict the veterans were not ashamed of, we need to know where it’s commanders sit in the wider picture but equally we need to understand what a catastrophe it was: to his credit, unlike some revisionist historians, Peter Hart does not exclude the human element. He writes “The Great War still resonates deeply even today” and for anyone who would ask why, how and what for, this new volume of Great War history is a perfect way to start the study of those fateful years from a century ago.