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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reading List: The World Crisis

Churchill, Winston S. The World Crisis. London: Penguin, [1923–1931, 2005] 2007. ISBN 978-0-141-44205-1.
Churchill's history of the Great War (what we now call World War I) was published in five volumes between 1923 and 1931. The present volume is an abridgement of the first four volumes, which appeared simultaneously with the fifth volume of the complete work. This abridged edition was prepared by Churchill himself; it is not a cut and paste job by an editor. Volume Four and this abridgement end with the collapse of Germany and the armistice—the aftermath of the war and the peace negotiations covered in Volume Five of the full history are not included here.

When this work began to appear in 1923, the smart set in London quipped, “Winston's written a book about himself and called it The World Crisis”. There's a lot of truth in that: this is something somewhere between a history and memoir of a politician in wartime. Description of the disastrous attempts to break the stalemate of trench warfare in 1915 barely occupies a chapter, while the Dardanelles Campaign, of which Churchill was seen as the most vehement advocate, and for which he was blamed after its tragic failure, makes up almost a quarter of the 850 page book.

If you're looking for a dispassionate history of World War I, this is not the book to read: it was written too close to the events of the war, before the dire consequences of the peace came to pass, and by a figure motivated as much to defend his own actions as to provide a historical narrative. That said, it does provide an insight into how Churchill's experiences in the war forged the character which would cause Britain to turn to him when war came again. It also goes a long way to explaining precisely why Churchill's warnings were ignored in the 1930s. This book is, in large part, a recital of disaster after disaster in which Churchill played a part, coupled with an explanation of why, in each successive case, it wasn't his fault. Whether or not you accept his excuses and justifications for his actions, it's pretty easy to understand how politicians and the public in the interwar period could look upon Churchill as somebody who, when given authority, produced calamity. It was not just that others were blind to the threat, but rather than Churchill's record made him a seriously flawed messenger on an occasion where his message was absolutely correct.

At this epoch, Churchill was already an excellent writer and delivers some soaring prose on occasions, but he has not yet become the past master of the English language on display in The Second World War (which won the Nobel Prize for Literature when it really meant something). There are numerous tables, charts, and maps which illustrate the circumstances of the war.

Americans who hold to the common view that “The Yanks came to France and won the war for the Allies” may be offended by Churchill's speaking of them only in passing. He considers their effect on the actual campaigns of 1918 as mostly psychological: reinforcing French and British morale and confronting Germany with an adversary with unlimited resources.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be drawn from this work is that of the initial part, which covers the darkening situation between 1911 and the outbreak of war in 1914. What is stunning, as sketched by a person involved in the events of that period, is just how trivial the proximate causes of the war were compared to the apocalyptic bloodbath which ensued. It is as if the crowned heads, diplomats, and politicians had no idea of the stakes involved, and indeed they did not—all expected the war to be short and decisive, none anticipating the consequences of the superiority conferred on the defence by the machine gun, entrenchments, and barbed wire. After the outbreak of war and its freezing into a trench war stalemate in the winter of 1914, for three years the Allies believed their “offensives”, which squandered millions of lives for transitory and insignificant gains of territory, were conducting a war of attrition against Germany. In fact, due to the supremacy of the defender, Allied losses always exceeded those of the Germans, often by a factor of two to one (and even more for officers). Further, German losses were never greater than the number of new conscripts in each year of the war up to 1918, so in fact this “war of attrition” weakened the Allies every year it continued. You'd expect intelligence services to figure out such a fundamental point, but it appears the “by the book” military mentality dismissed such evidence and continued to hurl a generation of their countrymen into the storm of steel.

This is a period piece: read it not as a history of the war but rather to experience the events of the time as Churchill saw them, and to appreciate how they made him the wartime leader he was to be when, once again, the lights went out all over Europe.

A U.S. edition is available.

Posted at February 4, 2010 23:34