Josiah's Reviews > The War to End All Wars: World War I

The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman
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May 25, 2011

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Read from May 25 to 26, 2011

Russell Freedman really does not pull any punches in some of the quotes that he selects to represent the feelings of those directly involved in World War I combat. The violence spoken of that was personally experienced by these soldiers is graphic beyond understanding, to the point where it's difficult to even authentically imagine some of the scenes as described. Such descriptions in The War to End All Wars: World War I always have a point, though. They give the reader a measure of underlying comprehension of the particularly gory nature of this conflict, and why World War I was so much bloodier than most wars. This was a time in history when battle technology was rapidly advancing in some avenues yet not in others, and when that disparity reared its ugly head...the results were sickening.

The start to World War I was so complicated and distorted that to this day, scholars debate what really went on under the surface and how, exactly, the tangled cross-alliances between countries led to all of the involved parties getting into a war that had little ultimate meaning for anyone. There was not much to gain for any of the nations in the struggle, but after the initial declarations of war were announced and scores of national militias were called to mobilize, it would have been practically impossible to avoid the crushing hammer of war that hung over all of their heads. So The Great War began, with none of the major players aware in the least of where the path of war would eventually lead them. Even in their wildest nightmares, it's difficult to believe that the extent of the full slaughter of World War I could have been guessed by anyone.

Great Britain, France and Russia (as well as some smaller allies) boldly sent their prime fighting forces to meet the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary in a mighty initial clash that rocked the world. Before long, the British and their German foes were embedded so deeply in trenches on their respective sides of the Western Front that significant advance by either militia became virtually impossible, and the main part of the war settled down to a slow crawl that pushed the boundaries of ordinary tedium. Soldiers from both sides who were on the front lines of the Western Front were deluged by sudden, frenzied killing followed by long stretches of interminable boredom, back and forth, over and over again without much to divert their minds from the prison of reality. It must have been like being immersed in freezing cold water and then boiling hot water and back again, without a break, and knowing that it's going to continue as far into the future as one can see. I honestly can't figure how they were able to stand up under that sort of continuous pressure.

The Western Front was set up perfectly for a horrible, extended bloodbath, due to the nature of newly developed weaponry. For the first time, the automated machine gun was a huge part of a war; removing from the equation the need to manually cool down gun barrels between shots meant that both sides could fire faster, and for a much longer time. Fighting forces used to being able to charge the enemy as one big group, and accept the number of resulting casualties if it meant successfully infiltrating the other army, were now totally overmatched; a sudden sprint toward the enemy's trenches would do nothing but leave hundreds (or even thousands) of soldiers completely vulnerable to the merciless attack of the foe's potent and devastatingly rapid machine guns, an implacable force of pure death that could render a whole crew of soldiers dead within moments. The chilling power of the awesome new artillery was making an impact in this war, all right, and was chiefly responsible for the lack of movement on the Western Front that torturously stretched on for years.

Even as Russell Freedman feeds us quote after quote about what it was really like on the Western Front, it's hard to truly be able to envision such horrors happening right before one's own eyes. Soldiers mutilated beyond recognition in the blink of an eye, lying on the ground writhing in unimaginable torment as the half of their body still intact dies at far too slow a pace, screaming to their comrades to quicken their demise... These were the same emotionally innocent soldiers who had jumped at the chance to personally enter the war, bursting with national pride to join the front ranks and really show everyone how much they loved their country. Now, their dreams for patriotic adventure were destroyed, and so was any hope for their own future. That was the real toll extracted by World War I, I believe, more terrible than any other. The destruction of hope for the future.

Even this war would pass, though. After nearly four years of nonstop gruesome death, the United States finally stepped in and cast their lot with the original Allies, bringing fresh troops to a cluster of brave nations so badly in need of them. Now undeniably outnumbered, Germany fought on for a while before national morale became too low to reasonably continue any further, and that proud nation, the last to fight on its side of the war, surrendered to the Allies. After eight-and-a-half million deaths and twenty-one million injuries accrued worldwide, The Great War was at its end. There would be no more fighting on the continent of Europe, which had been decimated by the destruction that had covered its face so completely.

As Russell Freedman shows, the harsh treaty requirements pushed upon the German government by the Allied nations would not be accepted without resentment. This unhappiness with the status quo ended up being a major reason why the Germans, only twenty years later, were so willing to get behind a leader like the recklessly idealistic Adolf Hitler, whose frenetic promises to reunite Germany into a powerful nation and take back what had once belonged to her stirred the patriotic spirit of her denizens and made them feel whole again. It is on this ominous note of looking toward the dark storm clouds of the future that the author takes his leave, allowing us to ponder for ourselves the second World War that was to come, and how it grew from the seeds of the first disastrous conflict.

So, what is there to learn from World War I? That's not an easy question to definitely answer. The reasons behind the war were so protracted, and the extent to which the nations were involved so wrapped up in the complicated alliances that had been formed, that it's hard to really point the finger of blame at one particular people. Was it the fault of Serbia, maybe? Or was Germany, or Russia, or Austria-Hungary the real culprit? I really don't know, and I don't think anyone does know. Perhaps the most enduring lesson that we can take from World War I is to see the totally overwhelming cost that war potentially can have on any nation involved, and how absolutely crucial it is, therefore, not to let ultimately small issues take us down that path of aggression. The tax levied by war is just too great. We cannot afford to mourn another "Lost Generation". We just can't...

The War to End All Wars is a book of great intensity and power, wonderfully written, though dependent for most of its deeper meaning on the words of the men who were actually there and fought in the trenches, seeing their friends die violent deaths and knowing well that theirs could be next. This is a book that I'm sure will take its rightful place at the top with the other best nonfiction books about The Great War, explaining the conflict and its time period to younger readers in ways that they can fully understand, while not at all dimming the presentation of the raw horror of the events that it describes. This might be the best of Russell Freedman's books that I have read.

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05/25/2011 page 7
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