GARY SHEFFIELD recommends a masterful book about a year that defined the course of the First World War
1917: War, Peace, and Revolution by David Stevenson Oxford University Press, 528 pages, £30
The third full year of the First World War saw much of the old world in its death throes, and an unstable new world struggling to be born. Tsarist Russia collapsed, replaced by an unstable liberal state which in turn was overthrown by Bolshevik revolutionaries. The US entered the war, the superpower-inwaiting choosing global engagement over isolationism. The Ottoman empire suffered significant defeats that weakened its hold on the Middle East. And in France, the Balkans and Italy, killing on an industrial scale went on remorselessly, as huge armed forces continued to clash. To a marked extent, the world we live in today was shaped by the momentous events of this year.
David Stevenson is a wise guide through these turbulent times. He is a leading historian of the war, and this latest book has his trademark breadth of historical vision and incisive analysis, founded on deep research. Stevenson acknowledges Fateful Choices, Ian Kershaw’s book on key moments of the Second World War, as a model, and he similarly takes us through the critical decisions and events of 1917. Two stand out.
The first is the German decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, which licensed Uboats to sink any Allied or neutral vessel. This was designed to starve Britain into making peace, yet as the German elite knew, unrestricted submarine warfare would almost certainly bring the US into the war. The gambit failed (Britain’s decision to start a convoy system for merchant ships played a role, as Stevenson discusses) and America did indeed declare war. The immediate consequences of this were deeply significant, not least in easing financial pressure on Britain. In the long term, it converted the US into a dominant presence on the world stage.
The second key moment Stevenson highlights is the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. He artfully analyses the twists and turns of Russian politics in 1917, stressing that it was the “extraordinary circumstances” of the year, allied to Lenin’s dynamic leadership, that allowed the Bolshevik revolution to happen.
At the end of 1916, the war was still an old-style clash between rival European great powers. As 1918 dawned, the emergence of both an extra-European power and Bolshevism had changed the dynamics of the conflict profoundly. Analysis of this shift shows Stevenson at his best. By contrast, I was not entirely convinced by his analysis of the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Dreadful battle that it was, there is a case to be made for it in terms of strategic and operational imperatives, and attrition, but this is not really reflected here; some of the key texts favouring this interpretation are absent from Stevenson’s bibliography. But overall, 1917 is a triumph by a masterly historian, and one of the most important books to have been published during the centenary years of the First World War.
The crew of a German U-boat in training in 1917 Gary Sheffield is author of Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory (Aurum, 2016)