The First World War: A Complete History

The First World War: A Complete History

by Martin Gilbert

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“A stunning achievement of research and storytelling” that weaves together the major fronts of WWI into a single, sweeping narrative (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
It was to be the war to end all wars, and it began at 11:15 on the morning of June 28, 1914, in an outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Sarajevo. It would officially end nearly five years later. Unofficially, however, it has never ended: Many of the horrors we live with today are rooted in the First World War.
The Great War left millions of civilians and soldiers maimed or dead. It also saw the creation of new technologies of destruction: tanks, planes, and submarines; machine guns and field artillery; poison gas and chemical warfare. It introduced U-boat packs and strategic bombing, unrestricted war on civilians and mistreatment of prisoners. But the war changed our world in far more fundamental ways than these.
In its wake, empires toppled, monarchies fell, and whole populations lost their national identities. As political systems and geographic boundaries were realigned, the social order shifted seismically. Manners and cultural norms; literature and the arts; education and class distinctions; all underwent a vast sea change.
As historian Martin Gilbert demonstrates in this “majestic opus” of historical synthesis, the twentieth century can be said to have been born on that fateful morning in June of 1914 (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
“One of the first books that anyone should read . . . to try to understand this war and this century.” —The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780795337239
Publisher: RosettaBooks
Publication date: 06/05/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 615
Sales rank: 187,742
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

Sir Martin Gilbert (1936–2015) was a leading British historian and the author of more than eighty books. Specializing in 20th century history, he was the official biographer of Winston Churchill and wrote a best-selling eight-volume biography of the war leader’s life.

Born in London in 1936, Martin Gilbert was evacuated to Canada with his family at the beginning of World War II as part of the British government’s efforts to protect children from the brutal bombings of the Luftwaffe. He was made a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, in 1962. He is the author of several definitive historical works examining the Holocaust, the First and Second World Wars, and the history of the 20th century.

In 1990, Gilbert was designated a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and was awarded a Knighthood in 1995. Oxford University awarded him a Doctorate in 1999. Gilbert was a sought-after speaker on Churchill, Jewish history, and the history of the 20th century, and traveled frequently to lecture at colleges, universities, and organizations around the world.

Read an Excerpt


Prelude to war

War between the Great Powers was much talked about in the first decade of the twentieth century, by politicians, writers, novelists and philosophers. Yet the nature of a European war, as opposed to a colonial venture, was little understood. What was known were the many swift forays by superior forces against distant, feeble foes, the victory of machine guns against spears, of massive naval guns against antique cannon. However frightening those conflicts could be for those who took part in them, the general public at home had little sense of anything terrible.

Why should war in Europe be feared? Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914 a French colonel, who had been a teenager when Germany invaded France in 1870, was listening to a group of young officers drinking to the prospect of war and laughing about the possibility of conflict. He brought their laughter to an abrupt end with the question: 'And do you think that war is always gay, toujours drôle?' His name was Henri-Philippe Pétain. Two years later, at Verdun, he was to witness one of the worst military slaughters of the twentieth century.

The French soldiers whose laughter Pétain brought to an abrupt end were heirs to a tradition of Franco-German enmity that had culminated more than forty years earlier, on 11 May 1871. For on that day, in the Swan Hotel at Frankfurt-on-Main, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck signed the agreement transferring all of Alsace and much of Lorraine to Germany. That day, in the German-occupied city of Metz, guns fired in celebration of the triumph. In the classrooms of the French Jesuit College of St Clement, wrote the British historian Basil Liddell Hart in 1931, 'the message of the guns needed no interpreter. The boys jumped to their feet. The superintendent, rising more soberly, cried, "Mes enfants!" — and then, unable to say more, lowered his head and joined his hands as if in prayer. The memory of that terrible moment was not effaced from the minds of the students.' One of those students was the nineteen-year-old Ferdinand Foch, who resented the fact that defeat had come before he could be sent into battle.

Not everyone in the newly-united Germany was satisfied by the victory over France. Other German ambitions were stirred as the Empire gained industrial strength. Aspirations for colonial expansion, for naval power at least as great as that of Britain, for influence over the Muslims of Asia, for a dominant part in the counsels of Europe, intensified the German sense of inferiority. Germany, united only in 1870, had come too late, it seemed, into the race for power and influence, for empire and respect. The need for a further war, and for the overwhelming military strength essential to win it, was the conclusion of the book Germany and the Next War, published by a retired German cavalry officer, Friedrich von Bernhardi, in 1912. Bernhardi had ridden as a conqueror through Paris in 1870. In his book he stressed the need for Germany either to make war or to lose the struggle for world power. The 'natural law, upon which all the laws of nature rest', he wrote, was 'the law of the struggle for existence'. War was 'a biological necessity'. German soldiers forty years younger than he were soon to test this confident theory on the battlefield, and to die testing it.

The war of 1870 had been the last war of the nineteenth century between the European powers. Three thousand soldiers had been killed on each side at the Battle of Sedan. In the civil strife that followed in France, more than 25,000 Communards had been executed in Paris, by Frenchmen. Wars, and their aftermath, were known by this example to be costly in human lives and unpredictable, even vicious, in their outcome. After 1870 the German, French, Belgian and British Empires each had its saga of war, defeat and slaughter overseas. Napoleon III's son the Prince Imperial was among the hundreds of British soldiers killed in 1879 by Zulus at and after the Battle of Isandlwana. In 1894 Lieutenant- Colonel Joffre led a French column through the Sahara in the conquest of Timbuctu. At the turn of the century a German Colonel, Erich von Falkenhayn, won a reputation for ruthlessness during the international expedition to crush the Boxer Rebellion in China, the occasion during which the Kaiser William II likened the German troops to the Huns, thus coining a phrase that was eventually to be used against them. 'Just as the Huns a thousand years ago under the leadership of Attila gained a reputation by virtue of which they live in the historical tradition,' he said, 'so may the name of Germany become known in such a manner in China that no Chinese will ever dare again look askance at a German.'

These often distant but always bloody wars offered a warning to those who cared to listen. In 1896 the British poet and classicist A. E. Housman expressed the cruelty of war in his poem 'A Shropshire Lad':

On the idle hill of summer,
  Sleepy with the flow of streams,

Far I hear the steady drummer
  Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder
  On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
  Soldiers marching, all to die.

East and west on fields forgotten
  Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
  None that go return again.

Far the calling bugles hollo,
  High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
  Woman bore me, I will rise.

Housman's warning sentiments were echoed five years later in the British House of Commons, by Winston Churchill, then a 26- year-old Conservative Member of Parliament. Having experienced fighting in India, in the Sudan and in the Boer War, Churchill found himself when back in London listening to calls for an army capable of fighting a European foe. 'I have frequently been astonished to hear with what composure and how glibly Members, and even Ministers, talk of a European war,' he declared on 13 May 1901, three months after entering Parliament, and he went on to make the point that, whereas in the past wars had been fought 'by small regular armies of professional soldiers', in the future, when 'mighty populations are impelled on each other', a European war could only end 'in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors'.

Democracy, Churchill warned, would be 'more vindictive' than the courts and cabinets of old: 'The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.' Ten years later, on 9 August 1911, as German war fever was being whipped up against Britain and France over Germany's claim for a port on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, the German Social Democrat leader August Bebel warned the Reichstag that a European war could lead to revolution. He was laughed at as an alarmist, one parliamentarian calling out: 'After every war things are better!'

The rivalries from which wars sprang could not be assuaged by the logic of anti-war sentiment. The opening decade of the twentieth century saw many such rivalries and resentments among those nations for whom peace, trade, industry and the spread of national prosperity seemed the true necessities, challenges and opportunities. In France, the loss of the territories annexed by Germany in 1871 rankled for four decades. The advice of the French patriot Léon Gambetta, 'Think of it always, speak of it never', rang in French ears. The black cloth which covered the statue of Strasbourg in the Place de la Concorde was a constant visual reminder of the loss of the two eastern provinces. Karl Baedeker's guide for Paris, published in Leipzig in 1900, commented on the draped statue: 'The Strasburg is usually heavy with crape and mourning garlands in reference to the lost Alsace.' For her part Germany had many territorial ambitions, particularly beyond her eastern border. Despising Russia, the Germans hoped to annex the western Polish provinces of the Russian Empire, and also to extend German influence over central Poland, into Lithuania, and along the Baltic coast. It was as if the Empire of William II would redress the balance of power first disrupted by Peter the Great two hundred years earlier, and, forty years after his death, by Catherine the Great.

The Russia of Nicholas II was not without ambitions of her own, particularly in the Balkans, as the Slav champion of a Slav State, Serbia, which was continually struggling to enlarge her borders and to reach the sea. Russia also saw herself as a champion of the Slav races under Austrian rule. Across the Russian border with Austria-Hungary lived three Slav minorities to whom Russia appeared as a champion: Ukrainians, Ruthenes and Poles.

Ruled by Franz Josef since 1848, Austria-Hungary sought to maintain its own large imperial structure by balancing its many minorities. In 1867, in an attempt to balance the conflicting claims of German and Magyar, Franz Josef was made Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. In the Austrian half of this Dual Monarchy a complex parliamentary system had been devised, the aim of which was to give every minority some place in the legislature. Yet even the Hapsburg desire to change nothing and to disturb nothing clashed with the desire to curb the one irritant to Austrian rule in the south, the ever-growing (or so it seemed) Serbian State.

In Britain, novelists and newspaper writers, as well as Admirals and parliamentarians, reflected British fears of German naval supremacy, heightened in the early summer of 1914 by news of the imminent widening of the Kiel Canal, which would enable German ships to move safely and swiftly from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea. Anti-German feeling was a regular feature of the popular press. There were also repeated calls for the Liberal Government to bring in military conscription, so as not to be dependent in the event of war on the small professional army. The Liberal Cabinet resisted these calls.

The European alliance systems reflected the fears of all States. The two Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, were linked by formal as well as sentimental bonds. So too, since 1892, were France and Russia, with both of whom Britain had reached agreements to reduce conflicts. Britain and France, though not allied by treaty, had signed an Entente Cordiale in 1904 to settle their overseas disputes in Egypt and Morocco, and since 1906 had been in consultation over military matters. These agreements and habits of consultation created what were known as the Triple Entente: Britain, France and Russia, giving the Central Powers a fear of encirclement. The German Kaiser, William II, was particularly sensitive to this. His dream was to make Germany respected, feared and admired. A grandson of Queen Victoria, he resented the apparent ascendancy in the world of her son Edward VII and her grandson George V, the King-Emperors, ruling the Indian subcontinent with its hundreds of millions of subject peoples.

At his palace at Potsdam, William was surrounded by the memory and ceremonial of his ancestor Frederick William I, founder of the Prussian army. 'To this day,' commented Karl Baedeker in 1912, 'numerous soldiers, especially the picked men of the regiments of guards, form the most characteristic features in the streets of the town.' Also at Potsdam was a bronze equestrian statue of William I, unveiled by William II in 1900, with the goddess of victory seated in front of the pedestal. The goddess, who in Roman times had been the Caesars' presiding divinity, was embellished by reliefs of the prince as a young orderly officer at Bar-sur-Aube in 1814, during the war against Napoleon, and of the triumphal German entry into Paris in 1871.

It was ironic that Potsdam, the symbol of German military might and imperial display, first mentioned in the tenth century, was, in Baedeker's words, 'of ancient Slavonic origin'. No Slav would then claim Potsdam, although in 1945 the Russians were to meet the Western Allies there as victors, occupiers and peacemakers; but the map of post-1900 Europe, with its clearly-drawn borders, many of them unchanged since 1815, others unchanged since 1871, masked strong forces of discontent, many of ethnic origin.

Serbia, landlocked since she first won independence several decades earlier as the first Slav State of modern times, wanted an outlet on the Adriatic, but was blocked by Austria, which in 1908 had annexed the former Turkish province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This annexation was not only in defiance of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, to which Britain had been a signatory, but completed Austrian control of more than three hundred miles of Adriatic coastline. Bosnia could also serve as a military base, when need or opportunity arose, for an Austrian attack on Serbia.

Each minority inside Austria-Hungary wanted either to link up with a neighbouring State, such as Serbia, Italy and Roumania, or, in the case of Czechs and Slovaks, Slovenes and Croats, to carve out some form of autonomy, even statehood of its own. The Poles, under German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian rule, had never given up their hopes of independence, which Napoleon had stimulated, but which successive Kaisers, Tsars and Emperors had suppressed for a century.

The danger to Austria-Hungary of the ambitions of the Slavs was explained on 14 December 1912 in a letter from the Austrian Chief of Staff, Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, to the Heir Apparent of the Hapsburg Empire, the Emperor's nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 'The unification of the South Slav race', Conrad told Franz Ferdinand, 'is one of the powerful national movements which can neither be ignored nor kept down. The question can only be, whether that unification will take place within the boundaries of the Monarchy — that is, at the expense of Serbia's independence — or under Serbia's leadership at the expense of the Monarchy.' Were Serbia to be the leader of Slav unification, Conrad warned, it would be at the cost to Austria of all its south Slav provinces, and thus of almost its entire coastline. The loss of territory and prestige involved in Serbia's ascendancy 'would relegate the Monarchy to the status of a small power'.

The conflicting fears and desires of many States and peoples did not create a European war, but they served as a set of multiple fuses waiting to be ignited, should war begin between two States. War, if it came, would be an irresistible opportunity to fulfil long- harboured desires or to avenge long-nurtured hatreds. Germany, so strong industrially, so confident militarily, resented the close alliance between her western and eastern neighbours, France and Russia. As a counterweight, she clung to her southern neighbour Austria-Hungary, a partner in need, however cumbersome and divided that partner might be. Germany had also drawn Italy into her orbit, in 1882, creating a Triple Alliance.

The Kaiser's visit to Sultan Abdul Hamid in Constantinople in 1898, and his flamboyant pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where the dignitaries of all three monotheistic faiths erected festive arches for him to ride under, indicated to the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and to the whole Muslim world, that they could look to Germany as a friend. By 1914 three impressive stone buildings stood on the crest of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Dead Sea: the Russian Church of the Ascension, symbol of St Petersburg's interest in the Orient since 1888; the private home of an Englishman, Sir John Gray Hill, purchased that spring by the Zionists for a Jewish university, symbol of nascent national aspirations; and the Augusta-Victoria sanatorium, built in 1909, named after the Kaiser's wife, and a monument to the confident assertion of German interests and ambitions.

In 1907 Britain had signed an agreement with Russia. Although the main aim of this agreement was to settle long-standing Anglo-Russian disputes in far-off Persia and Afghanistan, it seemed to Germany further proof of encirclement. As a sign of her own eastern ambitions, Germany had been pushing forward since 1899 with a railway from Berlin to Baghdad and beyond, using Constantinople as the crossing point from Europe to Asia. The ferry that took travellers, goods and railway wagons from the Sirkeci station on the European shore of the Bosphorus to the Haydar Pasha station on the Asian shore was a symbol of German enterprise.

Plans were being made by the Germans to extend the railway through Turkey-in-Asia as far south as the ports of Gaza on the Eastern Mediterranean, Akaba on the Red Sea, and Basra on the Persian Gulf. A branch line running eastward from Baghdad was intended to reach as far as the Persian oilfields, a direct challenge to the influence that Britain and Russia had established in that very region only seven years before. In 1906, in an attempt to counter a possible German railway terminus at Akaba on the Red Sea, Britain, then the occupying power in Egypt, annexed to her Egyptian territories the eastern wastes of the Sinai desert from Turkey. This would enable British guns to be rushed from Egypt to the tiny Bay of Taba, from which they could bombard the rail terminal and port facilities at Akaba if these were used by Germany against British interests.


Excerpted from "The First World War"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Martin Gilbert.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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Table of Contents

List of maps,
1. Prelude to war,
2. 'Wild with joy',
3. The opening struggle,
4. From Mons to the Marne,
5. Digging in: the start of trench warfare,
6. Towards the first Christmas: 'mud and slime and vermin',
7. Stalemate and the search for breakthroughs,
8. The Gallipoli landings,
9. The Entente in danger,
10. The Central Powers in the ascendant,
11. The continuing failure of the Entente,
12. 'This war will end at Verdun',
13. 'Europe is mad. The world is mad.',
14. The Battle of the Somme: 'It is going to be a bloody holocaust',
15. War on every front,
16. The intensification of the war,
17. War, desertion, mutiny,
18. Stalemate in the west, turmoil in the east,
19. Battle at Passchendaele; Revolution in Russia,
20. The terms of war and peace,
21. The Central Powers on the verge of triumph,
22. Germany's last great onslaught,
23. 'The battle, the battle, nothing else counts',
24. The Allied counter-attack,
25. The turn of the tide,
26. The collapse of the Central Powers,
27. The final armistice,
28. Peacemaking and remembrance,
29. '... to the memory of that great company',

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The First World War: A Complete History: A Complete History 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Ikefan More than 1 year ago
The book was very detailed from a personal view of those who took part, as well as covering the events of the war. An excellent read for a student of history, but for one who reads casually, this book may prove boring.
picardyrose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books for general reference. Maps are not great, though.