Armistice Day, 1918 -- World War I and Its Violent Climax

By Joseph E. Persico

Random House. 456 pp. $29.95

In 1963 A.J.P. Taylor wrote "The First World War." Breezy, opinionated and frequently misleading, it was a book of and for its generation. Few who now write about World War I were not brought up in the book's shadow; fewer still pay it serious attention. The subject has moved on. The archives are now open, contemporary documents can shape the views of historians, and the memoirs on which Taylor relied are seen to be biased. Above all, the war can be judged on its own terms and in its own context, rather than with hindsight shaped by the failure of the Versailles agreement and the coming of World War II.

Except, that is, in the United States. With the National World War II Memorial in Washington now complete, the absence of one for World War I is eloquent silence. The Great War is popularly seen as an orgy of European self-destruction, and Woodrow Wilson's decision to enter it in 1917 as naive at best. Joseph E. Persico's new book falls in this tradition: Written with the verve and willfulness characteristic of Taylor, it damns those who waged World War I because they did not prevent World War II. Unfettered by the recent writing on the subject, Persico has taken his readers for a ride back into the 1960s.

His book's structure works in reverse as well. He uses the fighting of the last day of the war, Nov. 11, 1918, as a peg on which to hang his retrospective of the war. Of the 16 U.S. divisions deployed to the front line in France, seven ceased fighting when they received the news of the armistice, but nine did not. In the six hours that elapsed between the signing of the armistice and its coming into effect at 11 o'clock, "All sides on the Western Front" suffered 10,944 casualties, of whom 2,738 died.

Given that it was a short winter day in which the early morning fog did not completely clear until close to 10 a.m., those losses were higher than the war's daily average. Persico is at his best on this. He captures the uncertainty at the front as to what was happening, the reluctance of career-minded officers to disregard orders, and the problems of communication when they sought clarification. These pressures were perhaps greatest for Gen. John J. Pershing's men, who had been prevented by the slow buildup of the U.S. Army from pulling their weight any earlier in the war. Lt. Col. George Patton penned a poem hoping that "The tuneless horns of mighty Mars / Once more shall rouse the Race. / When such times come, Oh! God of war / Grant that we pass midst strife, / Knowing once more the whitehot joy / Of taking human life." Pershing himself had shorter-term perspectives. He believed that 10 days' more fighting could deliver an unconditional German surrender and ensure a longer peace.

Persico has it both ways: He condemns the fighting as futile, both on Nov. 11 itself and in the war as a whole, but then effectively blames the Allied powers for not finishing the job, thereby creating the possibility of another war. His inability to distinguish between an armistice and a peace treaty is at the heart of his difficulty. Indeed, one wonders whether he has actually read either document. The armistice was a purely military agreement that said nothing about war guilt, a charge not included until the peace treaty of 1919, and then only to justify its clauses demanding reparations. The negotiations in the five weeks preceding the armistice had focused on the peace terms. In that time, Erich Ludendorff, the German army's first quartermaster general, had argued for taking any armistice at face value -- a pause in the fighting in which both sides could collect their dead, lick their wounds and prepare for the next round. Nor was this sort of thinking confined to generals. The German navy planned a final sortie into the North Sea, a death ride forestalled only by the mutinies that preceded the German revolution. In Berlin, on Nov. 9, the industrialist Walter Rathenau proposed that the entire population be rallied for a last-ditch defense, but the idea was rejected more because of its radicalizing effects domestically than because of its military uselessness. In other words, the Allies were right to reckon that the war was not over until Germany signed an armistice that reduced its military strength to the point where it was incapable of resuming hostilities.

Persico is at his shakiest when he is analyzing German strategy. His interpretations of successive military chiefs endow them with either more strategic wisdom than recent scholarship does (in the cases of Alfred von Schlieffen and Ludendorff himself) or with less (in the case of Erich von Falkenhayn). Even more worrying are the errors of fact. Some of these are minor, particularly in regard to Britain: Regiments are mistitled; the Lee-Enfield rifle (so-called from the breech-loading mechanism developed by an American named Lee) is misnamed the Enfield, a muzzle-loading weapon adopted in 1853. Other slips have greater consequences. The Hindenburg line, which at times Persico treats as a synonym for the whole Western Front, ran only from Arras to the Chemin des Dames. Romania entered the war in 1916, not 1917, and not it but Serbia had the highest pro rata losses of the war. Ferdinand Foch was called out of what Persico calls his "semiretirement" in the summer of 1917, when he became France's de facto chief of staff, not in March 1918, when he assumed the supreme command of the Allied armies. There are gems here on the American experience of the last days of World War I, but they are packed in too much dross.