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.
advertisementSince 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’ 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.
Telegraph.co.uk - United Kingdom
Last Updated : 12:01am BST 02/08/2007
CET ARTICLE VOUS A PLU ? POUR AIDER LE SITE A VIVRE...