Sunday, 24 October 2010

The World Crisis - Winston Churchill 1911-1918

This truly is a fantastic book. I have made several false starts in trying to review this book. First of all I thought about starting with what an excellent and entertaining read this has been. But is entertaining really the right way to describe an account for one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history ?

Ignoring the subject matter, here we have a book that has been written in such a way, that at no time did it feel like reading a book. It felt more like, sitting in a Chesterfield with  Winston Churchill opposite, re accounting his tales. There are several points throughout the text, which he addresses the reader directly. Either asking for the reader to  pay attention, asking a rhetorical question or revealing his feelings on a certain situation. I'm sure fiction writers would probably learn a lot from the style as it certainly works very well at keeping the reader engaged. My favourite such moment, was when the Russians were objecting to the potential presence of the Greeks in Constantinople and being generally a bit Nancy.

Winston Churchill says:

Feeling this situation, as I did, in every nerve of my body, I was acutely distressed. The time-honoured quotation one learnt as a schoolboy -”Quos Deus vult prius dementat *”- resounded in all its deep significance now that conditions as tragic and fate-laden as those of ancient Rome had again descended upon the world. 
 *those whom a God wishes to destroy he first drives mad

The language used is great. He is a true master of using the words hitherto and viz.  I have been trying to slip viz. as much as possible into documents I write at work since starting to read this.

The other thing about the style, especially in regards to the Dardanelles is, here is a man defending himself. If I ever had to defend myself in court, then I would re-read this book before preparing my defence...

The second way I thought of starting this review was by giving an introduction to the start of the First World War. Two problems with that. The first, is how much time have you got ? The second is, this is a book that is and isn't about the war.

It’s not in the strictness of sense a history book. Nor is it in the strictness of sense a Journal. What we have here, is someone who could write history and also a front line witness to the events they were writing about.

I would also say, that if you are unfamiliar with the events of the Great War, then this is not the book to start with (start with this one instead). Where this book excels is, some of those events of the war, such as the Siege of Antwerp which most books about the first world war give a section too; Listing of the preludes, the planning, the battle and aftermath etc. Here we get a lot more personal account. Whilst the numbers et al are still there, we get some get a good glimpse into the mind of Winston Churchill. He privies us with this thoughts into the impending disaster and we get glimpses of exchanges of telegrams between himself and Whitehall.  He is desperate to get involved in the action. Heading over there as soon as he can. He even offers his resignation from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty to take up the necessary military rank , so he could take responsibility for the British forces in Antwerp - This offer was refused. 

The other thing this book gives us a more human picture of some of the key people in the war. The descriptions of Sir Henry Wilson (Chief In General of Staff)  and his use of vocabulary are a fantastic insight.  Sir Henry would describe politicians as “frocks” and refered to Clemenceau (French prime minister) as “Tiger” - even addressing him as such. He would also often start in meetings with phrases such as “Today I am France..” or “Today I am Belgium...”  and using that to get to the to the root of his point. We also find out that Marshall Foch sometimes used to give military propositions in a pantomine nature. 

For the historian, this book is awash with letters, telegrams,  ables, charts and maps. One criticism, they are faithfully reproduced from the original book, but with the advent of printing technology, it would of been nice to get some modern updates - some of them are quite hard to read.

There is also some really good analysis in there. Especially the chapter entitled Britain Conquers the U-boats with full breakdown of figures of strength and comparisons between the two sides. This is then matched against losses and outputs of merchant shipping (on both sides) and is accompanied by, a probably more interesting than it sounds here write up.... 

    So that was how I was thought about opening up on this review, but it is post mortem where it should begin. After reading this book, one of the most harrowing things from it, is the realisation that the decision for so many, was made by so few.  In the case of the Dardanelles, we have a sombre tale of indecisiveness and hesitation which ultimately cost the lives of over half a million men.  In Robert Nivelle (French General) and his self named Nivelle Offensive , here we have a tale of a man so blinkered by his past success, that he refuses to take advice from all quarters (other French commanders, British commanders, French and English politicians) telling him to change his plan. The result is 300’000 french casualties in less than a month, with no notable territorial gains and an army onthe brink of mutiny. 

Then there are the meat-grinders that are  Passchendaele  and the Ludendorff Offensive. With around 800’000 casualties each. What makes this particularly stygian, is whilst the horrors of a war of attrition maybe noted by those in the decision making power, the men fighting them simply become statistics in tables and allied to enemy death ratio’s.  Key decisions are bickered about and halted by things such as loss of face and by others with personality traits that do not ideally belong in the guise of co-operation. 

The Romanian disaster is - well a definition of the word disaster 

The First World War, is sometimes refer ed to as the ‘boys war’, in terms of the young men who were fighting at the front. I think you could also apply that to those who were also in charge. This is where this book is unique and stands out. I think Churchill’s skills as a historian, cause him to write a more balanced and argumentative journal of his involvement in the war. He knows he can not white wash events, as he would be letting the historian in himself down. So he has painstakingly given all sides of an event, quoting from official history's from both sides and adding italics where he does not agree, or wants to labour a point. He is a blunt as I think you can reasonable expect of the criticisms he gives to other people. He is also keen to defend at great lengths, those who criticised him,making sure the argument is clear.  I very much doubt, a modern politician would be able to write something as balanced. 

It’s through this, we get a glance into the people and the minds of those who made the decisions.Sadly, I don’t think the world at the top is too different from that of 1911-1918 and those mistakes have and will continue to be repeated. 

The World Crisis, 1911-1918 (Amazon Link)

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Churchill's WW1 Memoirs, he developed his writing style between the wars and in his 6 volumes of WW2 memoirs he speaks to the reader continually throughout the books.

    In doing so Winston inspired me to write a book called What Churchill Would Do which takes his talents for managing WW2 and applies them to modern business.

    Incidentally with the recent explosion in the use of E-books (mine is available as a kindle download) I wonder how long it will be before we see the complete works of Churchill on Kindle for example.

    Incidentally the next big project Churchill took on after his WW1 memoirs was Marlborough his life and times, a fascinating autobiography of his great ancestor. My favourite read of Churchill's.

    Stuart Finlay



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