Context: Finished this off, appropriately, on Remembrance Sunday here in the UK. This morning we’d attended the Remembrance Service at our local church.
My mate Gareth lent me this one as we both have an interest in military history. Many, many books have been written about this war and, to distinguish his, Persico chose to focus on the final day of that conflict, November the 11th 1918.
Had he done exclusivey that though, I think Persico would have sold himself short. Instead, he has provided enough background on both the characters involved and the conflict so that that his readers have enough context to understand the futility involved.
It’s a moving book with many a harrowing story of fate, stupidity and sorrow. Take for example, the story of a man who stood next to his friend in a lookout while, outside two other soldiers repelled boredom by shooting at an unexploded shell embedded in mud some 35 feet away. When they hit it, the explosion sent a knife-like shard of shrapnel through the observation slit of the lookout and into his neighbour’s head. Stunned, he relates his horror at how he could ever relate the stupidity of his comrade’s death to his grieving loved ones.
From private to field marshall, the full range of those involved is portrayed in fascinating detail. Haig and Lloyd George come across as the dithering fools that history has led us to believe they were, Patton and MacArthur as war-lovers and Truman as the level-headed stoic who ironically was one of the few commanding officers not to lose a single man under his command. The cost of prolonged combat to human life that he witnessed would help him to decide to end it decisively in Hiroshima in 1945.
As the book nears its end chapter after chapter detail the events of the armistice signing and the needless conflict that claimed thousands of lives between those signatures of agreement and cessation of hostilities. It’s not a book that inspires hope in the wisdom of political leadership.
All in all, it’s a very engaging read with plenty of issues discussed and events detailed from sources as far ranging as policy documents, newspapers, letters and diaries. Poetry, song and prose all contribute to the portrayal of the events. If I had one criticism to level at the book, it would be that, from about halfway through, the Americans enter the war and their story becomes the dominant one. I know Persico is a USAnian writing for a US publisher but I feel that this is an unnecessary bias for a conflict which was the first truly international one the world had ever seen.
War is truly a bizarre thing. I reflected on what I’d read as I saw the veterans at our church Remembrance Service on the day I finished this. What they’d been through, I could never imagine. But the book, like their stories, leaves me even more confused about the rights and wrongs of it all.
Persico should be commended for his neutrality. At no point do you get the feeling that he is either for or against war. All he leaves us with is the conclusion that “more often than not conflict is the solution man chooses” and that “we can only hope… that just causes will outnumber the unjust.” War, history tells us, is here to stay, and the sooner we grapple with its enigmas perhaps the better off we’ll all be.
The runner, shivering, his breath visible in the morning air, waited for the captain to acknowledge the message.
One last unexploded mine remains, its exact location unknown and its hidden potency serving as something of a symbol of the Great War’s underlying power to influence events down to the present day.
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