Military Nigel Jones enjoys a short, sharp assault on the Great War

The Sunday Telegraph (LONDON)
July 29, 2007 Sunday


by Nigel Jones

World War One: A Short History
ALAN LANE/PENGUIN, pounds 16.99, 208 pp
T pounds 14.99 ( pounds 1.25 p&p) 0870 428 4115

Back in the Thatcherite 1980s Professor Norman Stone was the most
fashionable historian of the day: a Niall Ferguson avant la lettre.

Youngish. Handsomeish. Scottish. Right-wing. Iconoclastic. No
respecter of reputations. A familiar figure in TV studios and
newspaper columns as well as Oxford lecture halls. Then, always his
own man, he prised the mud of Oxford from his feet, exchanging it for
the dust of Istanbul where he has taught at two universities ever

Since then we have heard little of him – apart from a controversy in
which Stone refused to condemn his new Turkish homeland for the 1915
Armenian genocide – an event which he does not admit actually

Now he is back in Britain, at least in book form, using the genre in
which he is most at home: not a Fergusonian slab of a study
marshalling whole armies of sources and references, but a slim volume
– almost an extended essay, a squib more than a sledgehammer – in
which Stone compresses the whole history of the Great War into fewer
than 200 pages, and does it as entertainingly as his old admirers
would expect.

Reading it is much like hearing a lecture from the Professor in his
prime – it fizzes with life and sparkles with aphorisms tossed off
with aplomb, along with condemnations and commendations alike – most
of them sensible – delivered with magisterial, even arrogant,
authority. Haig’s staff are ‘creepy young officers

who help him on with his coat’. The ‘son of a peasant’ Pétain ‘knew
what he was about’. Ludendorff, by contrast, was ‘really saving his
own reputation: he would encourage others to make an end to the war,
then turn round and say it had not been his fault.’

As might be expected from someone who has already written a brilliant
book on the much-neglected Eastern Front, Stone is especially strong
on theatres apart from the over-familiar Western trenches: especially
Russia and his beloved Turkey, whom he predictably acquits from
responsibility for the Armenian genocide in a couple of lines. The
great iconoclast is no revisionist here, falling in with the main
received truths of modern Great War historiography. Thus the Germans
engineered and started the war; Haig was mulishly stubborn in
refusing to deviate from his full-on offensives, and stupid in his
never-to-be-realised hopes of using his beloved cavalry; and the
Second World War followed inexorably from the failure properly to
occupy Germany after the Armistice and rub their noses in the fact of
their defeat.

In such a short book, which is at once a summary of the war and
Stone’s own take on it, something has to give, and what is missing is
an adequate appreciation of the growing importance of air war and the
war at sea. The book’s faults are the obverse of its glittering
virtues, its skimpy source notes indicating a slightly slipshod
approach to dull facts. It is, surprisingly in such a short text,
repetitious. (We learn twice that the Sarajevo assassin, Princip, was
refreshing himself in a café when his victims happened by; and thrice
that the Russian general staff was called the ‘Stavka’). Some errors
are of the schoolboy howler variety: Hemingway’s novel about
Caporetto was called A Farewell to Arms not Goodbye to Arms and the
explosive used to blow up the Messines ridge was ammonal, not TNT. If
you are going to play the magisterial authority it is important to
get the facts right.

All told though, Stone’s introduction to the war – following in the
distinguished footsteps of Michael Howard, Correlli Barnett and Hew
Strachan, who have all written their own short histories of the
conflict – is thought-provoking, readable and thoroughly enjoyable,
and his conclusion, as Hitler, temporarily blinded by a gas attack,
meditates the next war on the very day that the Great War ended, is
chillingly prophetic. Students of the great slaughter are now spoiled
for choice.