Through the Wheat by Thomas Boyd – A Review

Through the Wheat
Thomas Boyd
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927

Thomas Boyd’s 1923 WWI novel is relatively forgotten work in the literature of the war. Although, F. Scott Fitzgerald called it a work of art in his review, it does not quite rise to that status. Overshadowed by the likes of Hemingway and the Europeans who had more to say on the subject, Through the Wheat does have a place when looking reading the war.

Through the Wheat follows a Marine, Hicks and his company as they go from green Marines to experienced combatants. The conventionality of the narrative is more implicit, than explicit: there are none of the traditional scenes of boot camp. Nevertheless, even implicitly stated it slows the book at the beginning. One problem is Boyd attempts to capture the voices of all the men, show their boredom, excitement, the emotions that drive them. Unfortunately, he is not quite able to capture it. There is no real sense of who the characters are and the novel seems conventional, overly dramatic, and plodding. As the novel develops and more and more of Hicks’ comrades die, he becomes the focus and Boyd gives a deeper sense of the internal life. But even then, Boyd keep Hicks at a distance. This is a both a feature and a defect. Hicks is not a thinker; he is an average Marine and before he joined he was an average man more concerned with food and women. That approach cuts off a rich vein of experience and makes the book, especially in the open pages, a popular novel more interested in adventure.

As the book progresses and the American campaign in the Muse-Argonne becomes bloodier and most of Hick’s comrades die, the light tone disappears. Boyd describes the horrors Hicks endures in a mater of fact tone, one that drops horrifying images so quickly that the reader has no time to reflect on what has just happened. It is a reflection of Hicks’ inner life. Hicks slowly becomes numb to these images, but he hardly reflects on them. There is the momentary disgust, but all he cares about is getting relieved and getting a good meal. In this sense, Through the Wheat might most closely resemble All Quiet on the Western Front. The descriptions of the battlefield are certainly similar.

The sights of the dead in all of their postures of horror, the loss of those whom he had known and felt affection for, the odor of stinking canned meant and of dead bodies made alive again by the head of the day, the infuriating explosion of artillery; the kaleidoscopic stir of light and color, had bludgeoned his senses. Now he lay, incapable of introspection or of retrospection, impervious to the demands of the dead and the living.

Hard, cold, and unfriendly dawn broke over the earth like a thin coating of ice shattering in a washbasin. In the eerie light the tangles masses of wire, the weather-beaten posts from which the wire was strung, the articles of equipment and clothing once worn by men looked unreal. The woods ahead, a grayish black, lay against the sky like a spiked wall.

Through the Wheat is probably one of the best fictional descriptions of the WWI by an American of the era. Hemingway, Dos Pasos, ee cummings, all wrote novels about the war, but they were concerned with art, with a politics that at first glance seems missing. One could read the book as both as an anti-war book, as well as a testament to the Marines. When I was reading the first section I couldn’t help wonder if the reprint was driven by the 1926 release of What Price Glory, a successful film that made the Marines seem like a lot of fun. It is the lack of a heavy revulsion at the war, the use of Hicks, the dispassionate observer, that certainly places the work outside the canon. It took me quite a while to appreciate some of its elements. It is certainly not a great novel (a few less adverbs would’ve helped), but it is more reflective of the war than any of his contemporaries.

La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun) by Gerorges Blond – A Review

La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun)
Gerorges Blond
Inedita Editores, 2008, pg 337
translator Jose Patricio Montojo
Language: Spanish

Gerorges Blond’s 1962 The Battle of Verdun, or in French simply Verdun, is a strange kind of history, at once more interested in the dramatic value of the story and yet an apparent exploration of the first hand experiences of the soldiers who lived France’s iconic battle of World War I. What makes the book a compelling read (it won the Richelieu prize), is his detailed focus on the experience of the soldier in battle. He is quite clear in his interest: what actual combat was like. Reading Verdun you’ll have a general sense of the battles movement of troops, but even that will be incomplete—he doesn’t even recount large sections of the final stages of the battle. Instead, one will understand the fatigue and exhaustion that overtook the soldiers outside Fluery as they drank putrid water from shell craters that gave them dysentery, while the shells landed around them and the fighting was hand to hand. His descriptions of the battle for Fort Vaux is particularly detailed (perhaps graphic is the right word). The men could hardly breathe and the stink of the dead permeated everything. The French held out on the lower sections of the fort while the Germans slowly worked their way in, loosing great numbers to the determined resistance. He’s at his best when he is describing these almost novelist encounters. One has the impression that he had researched the encounters, and his comments towards the end of the book about his conversations with the veterans of the war, all lend credence to his descriptions. Those close in details follow his general style of narration which places heavy emphasis on characters and personalities, even in the abstract or the aggregate. For Blond, the strategic implications of the battle are only important in how they influence the daily life of the participants. In other words, he likes his characters. It is that focus that brings him to write about the men of the Sacred Way, the only supply line into Verdun, or the pilots battling in horrendous situations. In each case he finds in them a heroism that is both stoic and noble, men who are doing what they have to, many who know they’ll never return. It can be a jarring approach at times. His coverage of the air war is particularly odd since he seems to care little about other strategic elements of the war, and he is certainly not trying to do a survey of all the various factors in the battle. He might have done well to stick to the ground war. His search for character also detracts in the liberties he takes that no academic historian would. In the initial parts of the book he was recording thoughts and conversations that Joffre and other generals were having, yet it was unclear how he knew these statements. There was no sourcing and it felt too complete. It wasn’t until late in the book that he remarked that he didn’t have the details of a conversation, I think with Petain, but it must have gone something like this. For one, such as myself, who wants a little more concrete detail it can be a little discerning. Despite those lapses, Blond’s ability to describe the experience of the front line troops was impressive and given what I know of the battles, I would say on target. While not the most rigorous history, it has some impressive passages. In some ways, the best part were the last pages when he began making more references to the soldiers and the evenings he spent with them at campgrounds outside Verdun, reliving the war. In those moments you see a writer full of respect and admiration for the Poilu. It brought his writing into a fuller, less narrative driven, style that served the pointless of the battle.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christoper Clark

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christoper Clark
Harper 2012, pg 562

Christoper Clark’s origins of World War I is a remarkable work of history, especially, diplomatic. Although the term Sleepwalker has been criticized in a few cases (namely Hastings), his thesis is compelling and his analysis of the political currents of the major parties is  richly detailed. It is it is one of the best analysis written of the subject.

Sleepwalkers starts with a lengthy analysis of Serbia and Hungry, each receiving a chapter. The two chapters are unlike any others in the book and it shows not only the importance of the two countries in the start of the war, something perhaps obvious, but how Clark views each country’s leadership. In the case of Serbia, Clark is extremely critical, seeing the country as mass of violence, intrigue, and outsized ambitions to become the leader of the Balkan Slavs. It is that ambition, one that was unable to get beyond its own nativism, that led to most of the problems. While the war was not Serbia’s fault per say, their ambitions to become the regional power, a self selected protector of Slav culture, despite what the Croats or other peoples in the region might think, made the region very unstable. It is easy to see in his analysis a criticism of Serbia in the 1990’s too.

In the case of Hungry, he showed not so much as a weak nation, but an unwieldy one. The dual monarchy meant that major decisions to  like going to war had to go through both the Austrian parliament and the Hungarian. The motive of each group was not necessarily in line with the other, and Hungarian nationalism often played a key in how each side would decide to enter a political decision. He does note that Austria was less divided than one might think and although the an observer of the Austrian parliament might hear multiple languages during a debate, the frictions for independence were not as decisive as one might expect. Like all great powers of the era, it did believe that it had a sphere of influence that it could operate in and it was their right to do it.

After those two chapters he moves into a more chronological history. In this part 6 points are come out: the weak control over institutions within countries, France’s  bellicose attitude and financial aide to the Serbs, the growing fear that Russia would be able to mobilize faster than Germany, the British and Russian relationship might come to an end, Italian ambitions, the collapse of the Ottomans, and most importantly, no side thought they had an option but go to war.

Clark notes in several chapters that the prime ministers and presidents of several countries, particularly France and Great Brittan, but also Russia and Germany, often did not have direct control over their foreign ministries. Instead, the leadership that came and went with some regularity, was unable to control the bureaucracy of the ministries. Often the ministers worked against what the heads of state wanted. France and Britain had paralytically bellicose ministries that often planed for wars and were in a constant state of panic about the central powers. Even when a head of state wanted to reign in a ministry in an attempt to deescalate a situation it was difficult to do, and they would find themselves without allies within the government to control the situation. France was especially susceptible to this.

The far greater problem, though, was empire. For Britain and Russia it was the contest for regions along their borders, particularly India. the two countries had accords to limit competition, but as they grew closer to 1914, there was some question as to how they would work together in the future or if they would become adversaries again. The issue made the need to bind Britain to Russia and France critical and would in the run up complicate planning for each party in the war.

More important, though, and what Clark sees as a key element to the crises was Italy’s 1911 invasion of Libya. Until then there was a balance of power between the Ottomans, the Austrians and other regional powers. With the loss of Libya, it was now obvious that Turkey was a weak state and its possessions could be wrest from it. In 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece and Montenegro began the First Balkan war to take land that had been Ottoman, though inhabited by Slavs. The war was  a success and the nations expanded in size. The destabilization of the region and the growth of Serbian power led to a bellicose situation in the region, where Serbian and Austrian ambitions were in conflict. France made things worse by guaranteeing Serbia large loans. The loans were given with the condition that Serbia spend the money in France. They bought large amounts of arms, further escalating tensions. France disregarded any council that their actions could lead to an escalation.

Finally, he lays out his key thesis: when the crisis came, every country thought of itself as a victim. Worse, instead of viewing themselves as an actor who could control the situation, they thought they could only react to the situation. The interlocking treaties, fears, and military plans all gave each side the sense that they were a victim and had to do something. It is this idea that most clearly illustrates the idea of the Sleepwalkers. Even for Clark it is difficult to believe that they could all find themselves without options. The obsession with mobilization and military time tables, amongst other things, made it difficult for any actor to slow the rush to war.

Sleepwalkers is a complex and nuanced work whose analytic depth makes this an impressive work of scholarship.


Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski – A Review

9780199316892_450Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Paul Jankowski
2014, pg 336

The more I read military history the more I’m convinced that most books divide into two types: the narrative of action; and the analysis of events. The former reads like a novel, full of action and sweeps the reader along—an exciting read, the stuff of adventure. The latter eschews narrative and picks apart elements of a battle or war, often returning over and again to a moment to look at it from a different angle. The former is easy to read, the latter feels more honest to scholarship asking questions that narrative sweep can obscure. Paul Jankowski’s Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War definitely falls into the latter camp and for that is an excellent account of the events and participants that made Verdun a byword for futility and waste.

Jankowski begins with an investigation of motives for the attack. In particular, he shows the Erich von Falkenhayn’s goal to bleed France white was really something he came up with after the war to justify his attack and his persistence. Jankowski notes that it is hard to know for sure these details because the German archives were destroyed in World War II, and both the French and German official histories have elements of propaganda in them. Given that Falkenhayn was not truthful, what were his reasons for continuing with the attack? And for that mater what were those of the French to hold on to a system of forts they had decided were useless and had virtually abandoned? In each case it seems as if there was a momentum that made it impossible to withdraw. The Germans couldn’t withdraw after committing so much, the French couldn’t afford to loose any more land. For the French, Verdun, as the battle dragged on, became a point of pride and instead of withdrawing to safer and more strategic zone they chose to fight.

Jankowski the battle itself was not as legend has led us to believe. The initial losses of the forts was as much luck on the German side as disinterest on the French side. But once lost they became focal points of the battle. The French were not prepared to fight the battle either. They were short of guns, especially heavy ones, but they did advantages when it came to supplying the troops. He spends considerable time looking at what made the troops continue to fight. On the French side it is a critical question because the next year the French army would see mutinies. He points out, though, that the commitment to the battle was stronger than later events would have us believe. It was when the futility of the battles of 1917 became apparent, the men lost their will to fight. His analysis is a complex picture of competing motives and pressures that kept the men at the front.

Ultimately, the brilliance of Jankowski’s book comes from the way he shows there are no easy answers to why the battle lasted so long, why the men fought it, and how the two sides were able to maintain the intensity. I think anyone reading this will come away from it with the impression that what kept it all going so long was simple momentum. And though it did help sap the French of their will to fight, the post war analysis and legends only served to obscure what really was happening and what the participants thought. Jankowski has added new light to those times.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War by Max Hastings

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War
Max Hastings
Knopf 2013, pg 628

Max Hastings’ history of 1914 is a magnificent account of the events leading up to World War I and the first months there after. Catastrophe is the appropriate title for the book, because in every stage of the outbreak of war the participants made so many horrendously bad decisions. It is too easy to say war is always a waste, disaster or insert your description, without understanding the full disaster that one the size of World War I was. A hundred years on there are many ideas held, if held at all, about the war that obscure the reality of what went on. Hastings is not a revisionist but he is interested in looking at the first year of the war with freshness. Of course, when discussing the start of the war the eternal question must be answered: who was responsible for the start. While Hastings suggests all sides had some blame given the alliances system. However, he squarely believes that Germany was the chief culprit in letting the war get going. Austria was a greedy bully living in its splendid imperial decay and had no business trying to control the Balkans, but Germany with the blank check given to Austria if it were to suffer a Russian attack is really the central player. He also criticizes Russia for its rush to war. Ultimately, though he points out that it may have been hard to avoid the conflict given that many of the countries involved were looking to start a war. The Austrians had an outsized view of their power and thought they could easily take on Russia. Germany was paranoid that they would soon be strangled by the growing economic power of Russia and with the growing size of the Russian rail roads they soon would be unable to fight a two front war. Hastings is also dismissive of the idea that the any one country could have avoided the war or negotiated their way out of it. The Central Powers were too tied to a militaristic stance and underestimated the ability of other countries to defend themselves. Moreover, the German plan required a quick advance into France to knock them out of the war in what is commonly referred to as the Schlieffen plan, before the Russians could mobilize. Moreover, once the armies were mobilized they were difficult to stop. On the Entie side, fast mobilization, too, was required to prevent surprise. In other words, all sides were on hair triggers and once committed, felt their was no way to stop otherwise their battle plans, ones the various armies had worked on for years, would fail. The British experience is a little different since they were not in the immediate path of invasion, but Hastings argues that Great Brittan could not let Germany become the sole power in Europe because their position would become tenuous, and given that Germany was committed to attacking their was nothing they could do. For Britain it is an ironic outcome because they believed Austria had good standing and were the victims, not the Serbs.

Hastings devotes 3/4 of the book to the actual war. Given that we are only talking about a six month period, Hastings is quite detailed in his analysis of the war. As any one who reads about the war will now, much of the combat in WWI was a disaster of old strategies and new technologies. In the opening moments of the war that was never more apparent. Amongst the great jubilation of each nation, most assuming this would be a quick war over by Christmas, millions of men were led to the front with ideas and tactics out of the 19th century. The most egregious, perhaps were the French and their red pants, but all countries went to war unaware of how destructive the new armaments had become. Yet despite technological advances in armaments, those of transportation had not matched pace and the German plan which required quick movement would ultimately fail because once the armies reached the end of their rail networks, they were on foot and at a disadvantage to the defending French who could make use of their rail lines. For Hastings, and many others, it was this single fact that made it impossible for the Germans to succeed. Not that they didn’t come close, and Hastings is critical of all the generals. Joffre’s, and France’s, commitment to attack was bad and the battle of the Frontiers, the plan to take back Alsac Lorianine, a disaster that if Joffre had not succeed in transferring armies to the west in September, he would have gone down as one of the worst generals of the war. The British were poorly led and though useful, were not particularly important. The last point is contrary to may histories and popular lore in England that says they were critical to the defense. Ultimately, what Hastings is at pains to point out is that the first months of the war were the most deadly of the war. Massive armies, often with ill trained reservists and new recruits, were launched at each other without an understanding of what the new weapons would do. The staggering loses are hard to imagine. For the British the greatest single day loss of life was in 1914, not during the Somme. Hastings defends the generals to some degree, noting that their callousness in the face of such losses is part of the role of the commander. However, there catastrophe that was the opening months was still inexcusable.

His coverage of the eastern front is as equally detailed. Though the war would always be decided on the western front, the disaster that happened on the east was just as large. The Austrian army collapsed almost completely and was no match for either the Russians or the Serbians. And if the war in the west was brutal, especially with bad training and horrendous care for the wounded and civilian populations, the east was even worse. The wounded often had little care and many of the deaths were due to wounds. The east was more savage in another way: the Austrian atrocities. They had a policy of preemptive and demonstrative executions to keep the local population under control.

Ultimately, for Hastings the Entie powers had no choice to fight the war and what they represented was a better outcome of the war. He particularly points out the German behavior in occupied zones. While no where near that of World War II it was still known for arbitrary and brutal punishment for any opposition to their rule. He notes this was partly in response to what happened in the Franco Prussian war when franco-saboteurs harassed the Germans. But in no way does it excuse the atrocities they committed. He also notes that due to the sensitization of the atrocities in propaganda it has been easy to dismiss them and say both sides were equally to blame and a victory either way would have been the same. I think most English speaking readers will agree. Catastrophe is an excellent history and one that is best at describing the pointless brutality of the opening battles.


Goddamn This War! by Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney – A review

Goddamn This War!
Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney
Helge Dascher, trans
Fantagraphis Books, 2013

e4a0b604e5e23a2777988cfd2b4a1efcJust in time for the 100th anniversary of World War I is Goddamn This War! by Tardi with chronology by Jean-Pierre Verney (translated by Helge Dascher). The book is a brief history of World War I that eschews plot or characterization and instead dwells on the massive incompetence and horrid logic of the war, using mounting barbarities as an indictment of the war. The book seems as if it is narrated by a soldier and in a way it is: the voice of the nameless, a kind of chorus, recounting pointless act after another. Told in little short vignettes that relate everyday life of the war, Tardi shows the pointless of it all. From relating the death of a man while doing his business to showing the graphic moment results of a shell landing in a trench to showing a snow covered field with blood leaking through. No moment of the grotesque escapes his vituperation and sarcasm. If you’re squeamish this is not a book for you; however, there is more here than just war porn. Tardi is reasonably effective in showing the low points of the war (mostly that’s what they were). The basic chronology and graphic depiction of it will give anyone reading this an excellent insight into the war. He does narrate the major events, such as when Italy enters the war or the Battle of Verdun is taking place, what interests him, though, is not the movement of troops or the political implications, but how little it matters. In addition to Tardi’s narrative there is a fine chronology of the war written by Jean-Pierre Verney. Like Tardi’s work it show’s just how badly run the war was and how unprepared the French and British were. The chronology and Tardi’s work make this anything but a typical work of military history. It seems more like the work of the German anarchist Ernst Friedrich’s Krieg dem Kriege (War against War!), published in 1924 and filled with images what really happens in war, the maiming, deaths, etc. It is in this focus on what happened, what the aftermath was like for those with facial wounds, what little support the disabled were given, that his book takes on its real power: the reminder that war is more than just movement of little ticks on a map.

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War – A Review

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
Peter Englund

Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War is the history of World War I told from the perspective of 20 average participants. Combing the diaries, letters, and published memoirs of soldiers and civilians alike, he eschews a military history that focuses on generals, or even those in command  and lets these usually unheard voices speak. For good and for bad, this is not exactly an oral history, but history focused on the participants. I was actually a little disappointed by the lack of quotes. Englund will take short quotes from the participants, but he prefers to summarize the participant’s experience and place it within the larger context of the battle or event they were participating in. It makes for a very readable history, but looses some of the character that might have come if he’d given us larger quotes. This is especially true with the lives of the soldiers on the eastern front who are seldom heard from. In his defense, I once read the journal of Dr. Harvey Cushing (From A Surgeon’s Journal) one of the participants he follows and it was a little dull in parts. That said, The Beauty and the Sorrow offers a different, and much need, way to look at the experience of World War I. Englund is adept at blending the big picture with the personal narratives of the participants. What is paramount in any history in this style is if the writer can capture some of the motivations of the participants. In this he has succeed quite well. The motivations are often quite conflicted. The young Dane Andersen who is conscripted by the Germans is not really interested in the war and would like to miss the whole thing. Whereas the young sailor in the German navy is completely frustrated by the lack of action and the great class divide between the officers and the men. What might strike one is that only there of these participants die, but more to the point, few fight in the famous battles of any of the fronts. Perhaps it’s because not as many survived or they did not present enough of a rounded account. Englund’s focus is the breadth of the war, from France to Italy to Russia to Africa to the Ottoman Empire he wants to show that it is more than a war of the trenches. Ultimately, a reader will come away not with the full horror of the war, but an understanding of the personal costs, in both life, property, and most importantly, optimism, that they paid. No one leaves the war untouched, even the Venezuelan adventure seeker who witnesses the anti-christian killing in Turkey nor the British Victory Cross winner who Englund paints as someone who actually likes the war. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first look at the war, but it is certainly a solid addendum to other histories, especially if they only focus on strategy and the trenches.