The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War

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Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2013 by The Economist

World War I altered the landscape of the modern world in every conceivable arena. Millions died; empires collapsed; new ideologies and political movements arose; poison gas, warplanes, tanks, submarines, and other technologies appeared. "Total war" emerged as a grim, mature reality.

In The Great War, Peter Hart provides a masterful combat history of this global conflict. Focusing on the ...

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The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War

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Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2013 by The Economist

World War I altered the landscape of the modern world in every conceivable arena. Millions died; empires collapsed; new ideologies and political movements arose; poison gas, warplanes, tanks, submarines, and other technologies appeared. "Total war" emerged as a grim, mature reality.

In The Great War, Peter Hart provides a masterful combat history of this global conflict. Focusing on the decisive engagements, Hart explores the immense challenges faced by the commanders on all sides. He surveys the belligerent nations, analyzing their strengths, weaknesses, and strategic imperatives. Russia, for example, was obsessed with securing an exit from the Black Sea, while France—having lost to Prussia in 1871, before Germany united—constructed a network of defensive alliances, even as it held a grudge over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Hart offers deft portraits of the commanders, the prewar plans, and the unexpected obstacles and setbacks that upended the initial operations.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"For a clear combat history of the war that represents current thinking and examines every major theatre, Peter Hart's The Great War is hard to beat." —The Economist

"A valuable, timely, and highly readable overview of the Great War on all major fronts." —Peter Simkins MBE, President of the Western Front Association

"This is an exceptional history of WWI... The Great War is a 'must have' book for the scholar and historian of the first World War." —The Lone Star Book Review

"In a subject of this size, the scope of the narrative can be intimidating. But Hart, the author of many previous military histories, is up to the task... The Great War is a perfect addition to the libraries of military buffs, especially those obsessed with the cataclysmic effects of 'the war to end all wars.'" —ForeWord

"Hart cuts to the chase and goes straight to the major events and fronts that mattered...This is the only single volume Great War history you need." —Mark Barnes, War History Online

"Hart demonstrates an admirable command of the subject matter and offers a compelling case for the lasting impact of the 'unwaking nightmare that was WWI.'"
—Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
Like Hart’s previous volumes on Gallipoli, The Somme, and the end of the First World War (1918), his newest is structured and defined by extensive illustrative quotations from contemporary sources. The work focuses on “the most dramatic battles and those that actually had the potential... to end the war,” thus readers will be familiar with many of the conflicts profiled here—the Marne, the Somme and Verdun, Passchendaele, the offensives of 1918, and several Anglocentric secondary theaters, including Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. In each case, the author synergizes institutional, technological, and tactical dynamics with personal accounts of commanding officers, and though the bulk of the latter is derived from familiar published material, Hart sheds fresh light on the perspectives of Joseph Joffre, Douglas Haig, Sir John Jellicoe, and their contemporaries. The more extensive first-person contributions from the soldiers themselves evoke the ground-level dimensions of a war whose story is too often told from up high or far afield. Throughout, Hart demonstrates an admirable command of the subject matter and offers a compelling case for the lasting impact of the “unwaking nightmare that was WWI.” 16 pages of b&w photos. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
Just in time for the centennial of World War I, a look at the major campaigns and battles, with a heavy emphasis on the Western Front. Imperial War Museum oral historian Hart (Gallipoli, 2011, etc.) uses firsthand accounts of the action to give his narrative immediacy. The sources range from frontline enlisted troops to the commanders in chief and national leaders, primarily English, French and German, echoing the author's contention that the war was essentially decided on the Western Front. While he eyes the larger political agendas driving events on the battlefield, for the most part, Hart looks at the war through the views of those doing the fighting. So, for example, the Italian campaign features commentary by Rommel, a junior officer at the time. The book is broken into chapters looking at the action on a specific front, mostly organized chronologically. Campaigns Hart considers "sideshows"--Gallipoli, the Middle East, Italy, etc.--receive briefer chapters of their own. Hart does not minimize the courage or sacrifice of the troops in these actions, but he makes clear his view that they were distractions from the real work being done in France and Belgium. As a result, he is critical of the performance of the British in the early stages of the war, and he minimizes the impact of America's entry. Germany, he argues, had to start the war when it did or else abandon its imperial ambitions. As a result, it was weaker militarily than it might have been. Hart also suggests that the French were primarily responsible for holding the line until the British, and eventually the U.S., could help turn the tide. The Germans, on the other hand, recognized early that their only hope was for a knockout blow--one they were never able to deliver. A good history of the war that questions some widely held opinions. Probably not the first thing to read, but anyone interested in the war will find it a valuable supplement.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780190227357
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2015
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 312,200
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Hart is Oral Historian of the Imperial War Museum in London. He is the author of The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front, 1918: A Very British Victory, Gallipoli, and Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914.

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Table of Contents

1 The Road to War
2 The Western Front, 1914
3 The Eastern Front, 1914
4 The Sea War, 1914-15
5 The Western Front, 1915
6 The Eastern Front, 1915
7 Gallipoli, 1915
8 Salonika, 1915-18
9 The Western Front, 1916
10 The Eastern Front, 1916
11 The Sea War, 1916
12 Mesopotamia, 1914-18
13 The Eastern Front, 1917-18
14 The Sea War, 1917-18
15 Western Front, 1917
16 Italy 1915-18
17 Palestine, 1915-18
18 The Western Front, 1918
19 A World Without War?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted July 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    It is an easy thing, now nearly 100 years since the most importa

    It is an easy thing, now nearly 100 years since the most important event of the 20th century started, to dismiss World War I as a needless, pointless exercise that solved nothing and accomplished nothing. The Great War, a Combat History of the First World War, attempts to take the reader down the path that the military decision makers walked from the years leading up to the war, to the end on Armistice Day. By doing so, the reader should be able to see why decisions were made and why very often that military decision makers made the best choices in front of them.

    Peter Hart, an oral historian at Britain's Imperial War Museum, brings to this work not only the IWM's unique access to the high level strategy and material artifacts of WWI, but the primary sources from the war that give this book an added dimension of realism. He divides the chapters chronologically, and geographically. What gives the chapters especially strong weight is his frequent use of stopping his narrative and having, at times, lengthy quotations from letters and interviews from the actual combatants, particularly junior officers and non commissioned officers, from all sides. By doing so, he is able to show, in real time, the consequences of strategic and tactical decisions on those who were tasked with actually having to carry them out on the many fronts of this war.

    Hart places the weight of the blame on Imperial Germany, though he is free to cite the overreach of the other powers involved. He clearly writes of the strategy that Germany thought it needed to win the war outright, and to dominate Europe (and Europe's colonial lands), and why he believed that the western front was the key to victory and why he believed that Germany's ultimate main enemy was the British Empire. Even though most of the fighting on the western front was between French and German forces, he does logically maintain his thesis that Germany's main antagonist was Britain. The whole of Germany's main war plans involved winning the war quickly, within six months by knocking out France and removing British influence from the continent. Once Germany failed to force French capitulation by 1915, Hart shows how the war moved into a war of attrition, where Germany could not win, but hoped to avoid losing.

    As a reader, you do get caught up in the battles - the terrors of combat that shook so many he quoted. The frustration of so many in military leadership, like British General Haig, for instance, at the unrealistic expectations that the politicians and general public back home had of the war is clear. You do understand and sympathize why so many Russian soldiers mutinied against their command, even as you know the coming darkness ahead for that land. And you do come away with tremendous respect for the many ordinary soldiers who so often went over the top, or through forests, or even worse, held their ground, in the face of hours and hours of relentless artillery fire. As a reader, you should feel a sickening discouragement of the many who breathed their last, went over the top, and died, by the tens of thousands, in numbers the world was not prepared for, for over four years.

    The primary weakness of this work is that the primary sources relied upon are primarily British, and then a mix of French and German. Russian sources play a minor role, as do many others in the Austrian Hungarian services. So this is a British centric view of the conflict. The writing and combat understanding is sound though, so as a real war history, the reader should get this war, and understand why Hart does NOT simply dismiss the whole thing as pointless, but points again and again to the fact at how virtually everything since this war was influenced by it. The author takes a very realist view of human nature and its many violent tendencies, and the ability of men caught in awful situations to think through bad situations as well as they can. As a one volume combat history, this should sit well with John Keegan's narrative, even as this book is more narrowly focused.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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