The aim of this book is to examine the entirety of twentieth century warfare, at least from a largely European point of view, covering an impressively wide range of topics. The author was a long serving officer in the British army, and the author of the highly regarded ‘The Human Face of War’.
In some ways I found this a rather infuriating book. The author has a habit of making sweeping claims, some of which are simply not true. In the same section he explains that the early section will be euro-centric because ‘Much of the Americans were at peace’, and also that ‘Europe had been largely peaceful in the 19th Century’. Having just read Liberty or Death, a study of Latin American conflicts from 1900-1970 I can assure him that the Americas were not in any way peaceful in this period, but were instead the site of a seemingly endless array of revolutions, costly civil wars and pointless border disputes. As for the 19th Century, that started with the last three years of the French Revolutionary Wars followed by more than a decade of Napoleonic Wars, and included significant European wars involving France, Italy, Russia, Britain, Denmark, Prussia/ Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey. Britain is often said to have had a peaceful century, but was actually involved in major European wars for more years in the 19th Century than the 20th! Away from Europe the century included the Taiping Rebellion in China, one of the most costly wars in human history. . On other occasions facts are placed next to each other as if they were related when they aren’t – a comment that countries were short of money after the Second World War is followed by the observation that Britain paid off ‘its wartime debt to America’ in 2006, without noting that this was actually the First World War debt!.
A second irritant is the authors habit of claiming that ‘historians don’t discuss this’ when talking about topics that they very much do! The most obvious example comes during his examination of the fall of France in 1940, where he claims that historians don’t discuss the contrast between 1914, when the French had a reserve which they used to win the battle of the Marne, and 1940, when they had no reserve to use against the German breakthrough. We have clearly read different books, as I’ve found this lack of a reserve mentioned and discussed in many books (starting with Churchill’s own account!).
Finally I’m not convinced by his style of counter-factual history. At some point in a discussion of what did happen, we suddenly break off into a flight of fantasy, generally ended along the lines of ‘and the war ended in 1916. But of course that didn’t happen’. Some of these scenarios are convincing, such as the idea that a single well organised combined land and sea attack on the Dardanelles would have had more chance of success than the combination of an initial naval assault, which alerted the Ottomans to the danger, followed by a ponderous land assault. However I am less convinced by the idea that a different strategy on the part of Romania might have caused the collapse of the entire German front in the East in 1916. I have two problems with these sections. The first is that when this is done for an unfamiliar topic it isn’t always clear where the factual section ends and the counter-factual section begins. The second is the level of certainty that each alternative action would have had dramatic and immediate results.
At this point one might be asking what are the positives? First, Storr covers a massive amount of topics, often going at a fair old gallop (so if you don’t agree with one sweeping statement, there will be another one along further down the page!). This does make the book very thought provoking – I’ve had to do more fact checking for this review than for just about anything else I’ve ever reviewed. There are some areas where the author makes good points. If the aim is provoke discussion then the book certainly achieves that!
1 – The Dawn of the Century
2 – The Great War
3 – Douglas Haig, Master of Manoeuvre Warfare
4 – Four Years of Warfare
5 – Who Is Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
6 – The Proper Application of Overwhelming Force
7 – ‘If You Do Not Destroy Them…’
8 – Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat
9 – The New World Order
10 – 99 Red Balloons
11 – March and Fight
12 – The Evolutionary Niche
13 – ‘It Is Clearly Illegal…’
14 – Business in Great Waters
15 – The Hall of Mirrors
Author: Jim Storr