Britain Goes to War

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  • Author:
    Peter Liddle
    Most readers will have some idea of the events leading up to the First World War, the series of treaties and agreements that drew the major nations into the war, Serbia's domination of the Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian desire to control Serbia, and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip with the consequent declaration of war by German-backed Austro-Hungary on Russian-backed Serbia.

    This book was obviously commissioned to tie in with the current centenary of the First World War and it therefore joins a long list of such books. Its November 2015 release unfortunately didn't make the 1914-2014 anniversary and so misses the wave of literature tied in with that 2014 date, but this allows it to stand somewhat apart from the thundering herd of 2014 releases.

    The book contains 311 pages of content plus a further 14 pages of introduction and so on. There are 89 plates, mainly of contemporary photographs, some of which are familiar and some less so. The book has an impressive 20 chapters by leading historians and covers a wide range of subjects, from the expected (origins of war, examination of the troops and equipment) to the unexpected (internment of Britons in Berlin, the experience of nurses, tracing your family tree). The cover price is £25.

    Given the diversity of topics covered, my initial approach to this review was to look at each chapter individually before forming an overall conclusion as to the book's value and credibility. Whilst I believe that this would have been the best way to do justice to the breadth of material the book contains, it would have led to an enormously long review. Given the limitation of space, therefore, I will instead attempt to review the book as a whole entity.

    As you would expect from a series of chapters written by leading scholars, the contents are both well-researched and have well-supported conclusions. Note that this does not mean that each author is in agreement with the conclusions of a different chapter touching on the same subject, one of the joys of history is that several rival theories can be supported from the same evidence, and can hold equal weight and have equal validity. One advantage of a book of this kind is that those differences may be seen together, giving the reader an opportunity to compare and contrast and thus become aware of existing scholarly arguments.

    The book's authors take the opportunity to deal with a few of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding the outbreak of war in 1914. Such stories as increased British militarism and eagerness for war in the Edwardian period, the official British expectation of a short war ('it'll all be over by Christmas') and the initial wave of eager volunteers being followed by a dearth of recruits necessitating conscription are convincingly tackled in various chapters.

    The chapters roughly follow the chronology of the first years of the war, with Gary Sheffield kicking things off with his consideration of the First World War's origins and the chapters moving through Britain's readiness and reactions. Later chapters look at specific areas of interest, from the internment, both of Britons in Berlin and 'enemy aliens' on the Isle of Man, to sport, nursing, animals and weapons. The last three chapters are what you might classify as historiographical, dealing as they do with the availability and use of source material relating to First World War study.

    So, what does this book add and who is it aimed at? Answering those questions is perhaps the most difficult part of this review. The chapters are unashamedly academic in style, with reference to other arguments, works and historians. They are essentially a series of academic papers or articles dealing with differing aspects of the First World War brought together into a book, and each chapter stands alone as a useful piece of study on its own subject area. Yet for academic reference the book as a whole is too wide-ranging, without that focus on one topic that a scholar would expect and require. Each chapter taken as a journal article would be valuable resource to a scholar looking into that topic, but it might only be that one chapter in the entire book that would be useful. Yet the style of writing might be too academic for the casual reader. This is not to say that a casual reader with an interest in history would not gain a great deal from the book, far from it. As a general study of the early years of Britain's experience of the First World War it is an excellent source, and it might even serve as a 'primer' for those wishing to undertake further study.

    My feeling is that the book might be straddling two stools; too general for a scholarly work yet too academic for the casual market. Each chapter is fairly short and to buy the book simply for one or two chapters might seem extravagant. In addition, the cover price of £25 suggests that it is aimed at a general market rather than the rather dusty academic audience who regular pay far more their low-circulation tomes. Its natural place might be a reference library where borrowing an entire book to reference a specific chapter is common practice. Don't misunderstand me, I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who feels that most First World War books are not scholarly enough (and there have been plenty of those released in the last few years), but I'm not convinced that the book will achieve mass-market sales. Hopefully I am wrong.

    How to rate it then? The slightly unfocussed nature of the chapters make it fall short of five stars, but its excellent scholarly pedigree make me reluctant to drop it to a four. I will therefore give it a 4.5 star rating.

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