For many Americans, World War I began in 1917 and consisted of Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood and the Argonne. For Western Europeans, all that was merely the finish of a four-year ordeal on the Somme and at Verdun and Ypres and Passchendaele. And for Eastern Europeans, the war meant Tannenberg and of course the Russian Revolution.
At last a popular history has orchestrated these themes in elaborate detail.
Pulitzer Prize-winner John Toland tells the story on two levels: grand strategy, with its telegrams and historic meetings, and vivid personal experiences.
Even to the reader who knows that war, Toland gives new insights. There is Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the man responsible for the unspeakable slaughter of the Somme and Ypres battles and a succession of fruitless assaults, each the same as the last except bigger, the man who said, "The machine gun is a much overrated weapon," and "Bullets have little stopping power against a horse."
The ineffable Haig appears in a new light. By 1918 he seemed at long last to have learned something about trench warfare, but by then the home office was after him, and Toland details the nasty (and to us, so un-British) infighting, the lies and calumnies, the cold sacrificing of yet more young men to make a point, to show up Haig.
We also get a close look at the little-known American adventure in Russia after the Revolution, the political wrangling over Woodrow Wilson's grand plans to save the human race, the contempt in which he was held by many European and British leaders, the messy business of getting the Germans to surrender, to whom and for what.
The smooth reading comes at a price: Very little background is given on the cause, beginning at early progress of the war. The fatal shift in strategy that doomed Ludendorff's great 1918 push almost on its first day gets short shrift. (Perhaps British historian Martin Middlebrook's minute-by-minute account of the day, "The Kaiser's Battle," came out too late, 1978, for Toland.)
Such omissions, however, are balanced by the nice bits of digging that Toland presents almost in passing. He offers new evidence, for instance, that Baron von Richtofen was killed not by the Canadian Roy Brown but by a couple of Aussie anti-aircraft gunners. He also mentions an unpublished document that "gives credence," he says, to Anna Anderson's claim to be Princess Anastasia.
There are glimpses of Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and others who went on to become generals in World War II. There is a sketch of the impossible General Charles Mangin, the Frenchman whose strategies almost caused the French army to disintegrate in mutiny but who redeemed himself in 1918. There is the epic of the "Lost Battalion," a group of American infantrymen surrounded by Germans, and Cher Ami, the pigeon hero who helped save them.
Somehow Toland manages to work in the influenza epidemic that followed the war, the rebellion in the Baltic port of Kiel, and the despair of the Allies just before victory. Under such pressure, they were unable to work together, since the French wanted to defend Paris at all costs while Haig wanted to protect the coast ports for escape to England.
By far the best part of this long book is Toland's account of the American contribution, in particular descriptions of combat, taken from letters and interviews with survivors.
"It was not a large wood. The trees were about six inches thick and so densely planted that one could scarcely see 20 feet ahead except where ax or shell had cut a swath . . . It was known as Belleau Wood. . . ."
The Germans were appalled at the ferocity and energy of the fresh American troops, who took terrific losses in reckless charges that the drained veterans of '14 had forgotten how to make. Germans also complained of the "bestial brutality" of the Americans and cried out in panic, "The Americans are killing everyone!"
Fifth Marines, Belleau Wood, June 6, 3:45 a.m.:
"The commander . . . found some of the men had already gone over the top and were 25 yards out front, so he gave the word to advance. . . . The din was deafening. . . . Catlin' hands were clenched, all his muscles taut as he watched the Marines march in the face of machine-gun sweeps. . . . Closer and closer they came to the wood, and it must have been a terrifying sight to those holding it."
For all its skilled telling, the book tends to be kaleidoscopic simply because there are so many elements. After all, World War I was several different wars at once, with its Napoleonic Zouaves, its Crimean lancers, its Afghan War puttees, its machine-guns and gas and its tanks and planes -- foreshadowing yet another war.