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Book Review


William Kelleher Storey, The First World War: A Concise Global History. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010. Pp. xi +193. $19.95 (paper).


     Lasting for almost four and a half years and causing the death of over 9 million soldiers, the First World War—also known as the Great War—was a lethal conflict triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina.The war was also made possible by the arms race and the military competition between the Central Powers and the Triple Entente (aka the Allies), the two power blocs that were formed in Europe during the preceding decades. Through its related effects (famine, waves of refugees, epidemics, unborn children, etc.) this military conflict caused even more staggering losses, leading—according to some estimates—to the loss of another 50 million lives. The end of the war led to the fall of major empires (the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman ones), and the redrawing of the political map of Europe and the world. And if this were not momentous enough, the effects of the First World War triggered another major conflict 20 years later, the Second World War, which made the Great War to be the first episode in a series of genocidal conflicts that ravaged humanity during the twentieth century.

     Although the historical significance and global scale of the First World War have been ascertained for long, narrating the specific developments that made the war global, within the confines of a short volume, is a daunting task. William Kelleher Storey has approached it from a set of chronological, geographic and thematic perspectives. Chronology and geography are the main organizers of the volume's four main chapters in which the author looks at the origins of the war in the imperialist rivalries preceding its outbreak in 1914 (Chapter 2), the global theaters of war stretching from Europe to Africa, the Middle East and the high seas (Chapter 3), the intensification of the conflict in 1916–1917 in the form of a war of attrition waged mutually on each other by the Central Powers and the Allies (Chapter 4), and concludes the book with a discussion of the end of the war and its impact on the postwar period (Chapter 5). The organization of the book along these lines allows for clear coverage of the main developments but challenges to a great extent the author's ability to consistently focus on the history of military technology and the war's impact on the environment as the two specific thematic threads embedded in his overall argument.

     While this is a problem, the book excels in its condensation of a very large secondary literature on WWI into an easy to follow, well written and compelling narrative. Storey's discussion of the Western, Eastern and Southern fronts opened between the Allies and the Central Powers in Europe pays attention to the specific conditions that led to trench warfare in Western Europe and allowed for a more mobile type of warfare in the East. The author also meaningfully contrasts the differences in the types of trench warfare on the flat-land and low-elevation-dominated landscape of the Western Front, where soldiers constantly faced flooding and mud and had to fight their way through swamps and marshland, and the same type of warfare fought at much higher elevations between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, on the Southern Front in the Tyrolean Alps, where it was rather blizzards, precipices, and ice that challenged the combatants. Allied failures at Gallipoli and Thessaloniki—where British, Australian and New Zealand troops landed in 1915 with the goal of knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war, and after the failure of that project, with the aim of creating a southern front in the Balkans—are also discussed with an attention to these places' topography and how that made Allied progress against the Central Powers difficult.

     Discussions of the battlefields—especially those on the Western Front—as sacrifice zones "in which leaders deliberately sacrificed men, animals, trees and land for the greater good" (p. 36) in a war waged for the complete exhaustion and bleeding to death of the enemy, and of the flooding of the nearby lowlands around the Yser River—a strategy used by the Belgians in 1914 to stop the advancing German army from taking Nieuport, their last stronghold on the coast—described by the author as the successful use of an "environmental opportunity" (p. 41) in wartime, are interesting openings in the direction of an environmental history of WWI. Geography also put British warships trying, in their action against the Ottoman Empire, to push through the Straights of Dardanelles in the spring of 1915, at a disadvantage since land-based guns were more effective and more precise than guns located on ships. Similarly at Gallipoli, the way each side "applied manpower and technology to topography" mattered a great deal (p. 74). Conversely, as one of the author's many examples highlighting the importance not just of the connections between war and environment but also technology, a discussion on p. 130 of the advantages and disadvantage of gun machines mounted on push- versus pull-propeller airplanes documents how aerial battles drove airplane designers on both sides to find more efficient ways for the use of gun machines in air combat.

     The war was fought not only in the air and over land but also over control of the seas, where although hesitant to directly engage the British in sweeping naval battles, Germany was successful in waging submarine war against Allied ships, and after the declaration of unrestricted warfare in 1915, against neutral ships as well. While the role of submarine warfare in WWI is rather a well known topic, a special strength of this volume is its coverage of little known episodes in the war between German ships and their opponents on the world seas such as the role played in the early stages of the war by the German cruisers Königsberg and Emden in the Indian Ocean, the battle between a smaller German fleet and a British one in the South Atlantic over control of the Falkland islands, which led to the former's sinking, as well as the more successful role of German ships in defending Istanbul against a Russian attack coming from across the Black Sea.

     Another special strength of the volume—in its attempt to document the global character of the war—is the inclusion of whole sections on the fighting between the Germans and the British in Africa and the German trained Ottoman forces and the Allies in the Middle East. While Togo, a rich German colony in equatorial Africa, was overrun during the first month of the war by British and French troops, German forces held out for over a year in Cameroon. Though by 1916 they had lost their colonies in equatorial Africa, the Germans held out for much longer in German East Africa (today's Tanzania) and German South-West Africa (today's Namibia), causing constant worry to the invading British troops trough their guerilla tactics. Similarly, Ottoman forces receiving logistical support from German experts were successful until the very end of the war in stopping British advances in Mesopotamia.

     While Germany as a land-based empire, and as a result of its efforts to provide logistic support to the Ottoman Empire and wage a defensive war in Africa, was less successful in mobilizing colonial troops to fight on the Western Front, France and Britain who had easy access to their numerous overseas colonies, successfully mobilized such constituencies. Thus Indians fought for the British in Mesopotamia, and West African troops for the French in the trenches of WWI in Northern France, playing no small role in the ability of the latter to make up for the large amount of human losses they had suffered in the battles of Verdun and the Somme.

     In order to complete the picture of WWI, the author also discusses the nature of the war of attrition in which the belligerents engaged from 1916 on, its effects on the home front, the war's impact on women's employment in the heavy industry and other factory-related work (which, as a result of droves of men being constantly sent to the front, rose to unprecedented levels), the economic consequences of the war in the belligerent countries, including the response of men of culture (writers, painters, and musicians) to the war as a whole. This is rounded up in the last chapter of the book with a discussion of the end of the war, the Versailles Peace treaty and its effects on the defeated Central Powers, as well as the war's overall impact on the shaping of the interwar period.

     This striving for global coverage and thematic totality, presented in a very readable prose (with only a few factual errors such as the description on p. 92 of the Romanian troops' retreat in 1916—after the German occupation of the southern part of the country—as having taken them to Russian Moldavia, a geographic identification which ignores the fact that Romanian Moldavia also stayed in Allied hands), enables the author to produce a valuable synthesis that could be successfully assigned to introduce students with little knowledge of WWI to the topic, as well as serve as a compelling reading for a general audience. What is lost in the process—as highlighted before—are only the monographic qualities of the work, which with its intended focus on the development of military technology and the environmental impact of the war, could have grown—if pursued more consistently—into another important monograph on WWI.

Alexander Vari is an associate professor of history at Marywood University, specializing in modern Central and Eastern European history. He can be contacted at


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