The Making of the First World War

Gary Sheffield considers an examination of the causes and consequences of the First World War through a series of key moments

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Reviewed by: Gary Sheffield
Author: Ian FW Beckett
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £18.99

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With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War approaching, the number of new books on the conflict is already increasing rapidly. Many will be lacking research or originality, but this book will stand out from the dross.

A distinguished military historian, Professor Ian Beckett’s record is such that one can guarantee that anything by him is worth reading, even if – as is the case here – one does not agree with all of his arguments.

Building on the format of PMH Bell’s Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War (Yale, 2011), Beckett has selected 12 ‘pivotal points’ from 1914–18. His avowed intention is, by moving away (in part, at least) from the ‘decisive battles’ approach, to “provoke debate on the wider consequences of the war by suggesting alternate ways of identifying key moments in a conflict”. He does just that, providing an eclectic mix of case studies that give much food for thought.

Some of Beckett’s studies are of events that shaped the course of the war. These include, for example, the flooding of the river Yser by the Belgians in October 1914, which helped protect the Allied right flank in Belgium. Other subjects include the entry of the Ottoman Empire in the war as well as the German decision to attack on the Lys in April 1918.

However, Beckett also analyses events of wider significance, including the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Balfour Declaration of that year, which, by promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine, affected the future course of world history – the present-day Middle East bears the imprint of this decision.

Ian Beckett’s analysis of the role that the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign has played in the creation of Australian national identity is particularly interesting although, like the other case studies, it is too short to do more than whet the appetite for a more substantial discussion.

Based largely on secondary sources, the sum of the various component parts is a thought-provoking book that certainly repays reading. It breaks away from a narrow interpretation of the First World War and is all the better for it. Breaking the surface at various points is Beckett’s deep scepticism about the effectiveness of the British Army’s learning process. Beckett and this reviewer are on different sides of this dynamic and lively debate and there is not the space here to rehearse the arguments in any depth. Suffice it to say that his blunt statement in the book that the German army “adapted more quickly to the changing nature of warfare than the Allies” is, to my mind, not convincing; it lacks nuance and disregards much recent research into the British and French armies. Moreover, his unfavourable comparison of Allied gains on the Somme in 1916 with German gains in March 1918 is effectively meaningless, so different were the circumstances and consequences: while the Somme gave the Allies a solid strategic success, the initial and partial German success of March 1918 – as Beckett shows – only led to disaster.

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Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham. His most recent book, The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (Aurum, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2012 Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military Literature