Book Review: A Short, Sharp Assault On The Great War


The Daily Telegraph, UK
Aug 2 2007

Nigel Jones reviews World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone

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.

advertisement 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 happened.

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’ Petain ‘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 cafe 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.