Wednesday, February 10, 2010

War On The Western Front

Book review time. I finished this yesterday, due to paternity leave and the snow storm I had enough time to polish it off along with the book "Afghanistan". I want to review this one first as it was much more interesting.

The War On The Western Front by Dr. Gary Sheffield was focused on the soldiers and tactics used on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 in WWI. It was very interesting and kept my attention the whole time. The first half of the book discussed a "typical" example of a French, German, British and American Soldier. Why they joined (or if they were drafted), basic training, how the training changed over time, equipment used, and so on. Food, medical treatment, life in the trenches and so on where hit on in good detail.

The second half detailed the equipment and tactics and how they evolved over time. This to me was the really fascinating part. I have become convinced that WWI is one of the most poorly understood wars of all time. I think it has suffered from "Vietnam" syndrome, which I mean that it was so politically charged for so long that you really had to have most of the people involved die off before you could have some real discussions about it. And when it came time to start having them, other things were in the way. 20 years after you had WWII, which kept everyone focused. Then 40 years after you had Vietnam, and no one wanted to look back that far. Now everyone involved is dead, so we have no more first hand accounts. There are lots of books out there on WWI, but most are pretty rare.

The part about this book that is very fascinating is the discussion on tactics. WWI is commonly viewed as a mindless bloodbath in which everyone was blundering around until one side finally caved in due to exhaustion. This is only part of the truth. WWI is a great example of technological impact on people and how difficult it can be to understand, especially if you are trying to get huge organizations and bureaucracies to work FAST. Modern staffs and organization like we have now did not exist back then, and you had commanders who thought the telephone was suspect for field use and had earned their spurs charging Arabs in the Sudan (Germans and British). People who couldn't figure out how best to use a machine gun. WWI was an example of a world (literally) trying best to figure out dozens of new ideas, concepts and machines in the worst possible conditions. Results were of course messy and very misunderstood. This book brought it out and showed that contrary to popular belief, change was constant and progress was made. And that for every new change, more work was then needed to figure out step two.

A very good book, I highly recommend it.

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