Fate­ful mo­ments

GARY SH­EFFIELD rec­om­mends a mas­ter­ful book about a year that de­fined the course of the First World War

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews -

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)

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