Keith Jeffery argues in this new historical study that in 1916, the Great War expanded from the bloody fields of Europe and attained global reach, becoming, he believes, a true world war, one that in many important ways continues today.
He begins his march through 1916 in December 1915, as the Allies finally determined that their ill-conceived invasion of the Dardanelles at Gallipoli was a failure and withdrew, an operation that concluded in January. From there, he visits France and the iconic Battle of Verdun that started in February and lasted for most of the year.
He then examines the Italian-Austrian Front before turning to the Irish rebellion on Easter Day. The subsequent chapters examine the sea war, principally focusing on the North Atlantic and North Sea battles, and the Eastern Front, where the Central Powers fought against Imperial Russian forces.
As his study of the calendar year continues, Jeffery visits Asia — India, China, Southeast Asia — and Africa, mostly focusing on East and South Africa, then he returns to Belgium, where the Battle of the Somme, possibly the most iconic and certainly the bloodiest battle of the war, commenced in July and cost more than a million lives before it sputtered to an inconclusive halt in autumn.
The final three chapters concern more repercussive developments, particularly in the Middle East and Balkans, where the Allies, in particular, set the stage for a century of violent conflict among pan-Islamic, Arabic and Semitic peoples. After that, Jeffery offers a skirting overview of Woodrow Wilson’s abandonment of American neutrality, then he concludes in December with the bizarre and mysterious assassination of the Siberian monk, Grigorii Rasputin, an event that Jeffery and most historians believe led to the Russian Revolution.
Jeffery’s almost literal march around the globe and through the calendar of 1916 unfolds with workmanlike precision. His complete knowledge of the war’s history is impressive and astonishing, and his revelations of research conducted for this volume are highly impressive. He reaches into obscure archives and minor publications of the time and demonstrates thorough knowledge of both the domestic and international political pressures that were at work around the globe.
As Jeffery scans and summarizes these vast materials, describing the clash and competition of states and cultures, though, he often tends to gloss over the horrific human cost of the war, especially in the farthest reaches of civilization.
He details unfathomably bloody battles, often in obscure locales, enormous dislocations of people, deliberate genocidal eradications, mass migrations of refugees, rape and pillage of innocents, gatherings of slave laborers and forced conscriptions of colonial troops. He almost dispassionately cites numerical statistics with encyclopedic efficiency but with little acknowledgment of the humanity.
What is not lost on him, though, is the irony that what should have been just another spat between France and Germany could so tragically reach into the lives of people who had no idea what the whole conflict was about, many of whom, actually, could not have found Europe on a map.
The astonishing number of sideshows that developed into significant national movements, including the Irish Rebellion, the establishment of Australia’s and New Zealand’s national identities and the birth of Turkish pride, seems to indicate an awakening of militant nationalism around the world.
The stirrings of ethnic, cultural and religious distinctiveness emerged forcefully as the war raged and geopolitical control became vital to the European powers. Many of these movements, Jeffery argues, particularly the pan-Islamic awakening, found their modern origins in that fatal year.
Jeffery’s account is enlivened by individual anecdotes. Most of these profile intrepid and uncommonly courageous people who have been obscured if not utterly lost to history, but they played vital and dynamic roles. He writes of the Scottish nurses who were shipped to the Eastern Front to work with the Russian wounded and of other women and men who served as spies, diplomats, emissaries, mercenaries, ambulance drivers and medical assistants, humanitarians in this most inhumane of conflicts. These fascinating individual stories are all too brief in his study; still, they remind us of the greatest shame of war: the ultimate anonymity of so many who risked so much and often died so courageously.
Students of the war will learn little here that they didn’t already know; others may find themselves numbed by the recitations of statistics and parade of obscure place names, many of which have changed over time. Maps would have helped this otherwise well-composed and closely researched volume, but it otherwise offers a nice addition to the centennial commemoration of a global tragedy.
Clay Reynolds is a professor of arts and humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. His latest novel is Vox Populi.
1916: A Global History