Review of “The Somme” by Peter Hart

The combined British and French offensive in the Somme River Valley of 1916 was one of the deadliest battles in the history of warfare. It lasted from July 1 until the middle of November when winter weather compelled a relaxation of hostilities. The British suffered 419,654 casualties, with 131,000 dead; the French had 204,000 casualties; the Germans 450,000 – 600,000.

The original goal of the British was to break through the German trenches on the western front, their first objective being the village of Bapaume, which lay about 5 miles behind the first German trenches. When the breakthrough proved impossible, the offensive continued in order to relieve pressure on the French, who were engaged in a battle of similar magnitude at Verdun. In the end, the British had moved the front line forward a few hundred yards, and the German trenches remained substantially intact. The village of Bapaume remained in German hands.

Bapaume, France, during World War I, May 1917

Hart’s narrative takes us from the first day of the battle, when the British incurred 57,470 casualties and 19,240 dead, to its sanguinary climax. He covers in significant detail virtually every significant attack, and there were many. His technique is to give a general overview, and then fill in the details with extensive quotes from letters written by the participants. Looking back nearly 100 years, one has to marvel at the literacy of the British army.

The book is a treasure trove for the serious student of World War I. However, it, like the battle itself, takes its toll on the reader. There were a great many individual attacks, all with agonizingly similar results: a heavy artillery barrage was followed by a “charge” of infantry men weighed down by their battle impedimenta, and a virtual slaughter in no man’s land. Sometimes the attackers actually made it to the German trenches, but even when they succeeded in taking the trench, they were seldom able to hold it because a prompt counterattack drove them back to the original starting line.

Cheshire Regiment, British Army, in a typical trench in the Somme, 1916

During the course of several months, the British adapted their tactics slightly, but only slightly. They learned that the intensity of the artillery barrage was crucial to any success. They became more adept at the “creeping” barrage that landed just ahead of the advancing infantry. The men learned to use shell holes for cover, but usually found them already occupied, often by corpses. The first tanks were introduced by the British in this battle, but though they at first terrified the Germans, they were very slow and prone to frequent mechanical breakdown.

Hart’s criticism of the British generals, Douglas Haig in particular, is less harsh than that of most other analysts I have read. Haig believed that the Germans might have prevailed in 1914 if they had only persevered in their attacks a little longer, and he did not want to make the same mistake. Thus, the British Army dug in for the long haul, and suffered heavy casualties that it could ill afford, for insignificant tactical gain.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Moreover, to win the war, Haig reasoned that it would not be sufficient merely to take back the French territory lost. The German army had to be defeated. To Haig, it was a waste of manpower to engage in battles in other theaters, as the “Easterners” like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill advocated. Hart opines that Haig and (his second in command) Robertson “may have been unimaginative, they were definitely ruthless when required, but above all they were hard, practical men and they were entirely right” in assessing how to beat the Germans in the situation they faced.

There were political as well as strategic considerations in play as well:

“Even if Haig had fully realized the depth and breadth of the losses suffered by his assaulting divisions on 1 July he could not have aborted the offensive without seriously jeopardizing the Entente Cordiale with France and Russia … They were unlikely to look on with any great sympathy if Britain tried to evade her share of the ‘butcher’s bill.’”

Evaluation: Hart’s favorable analysis of Haig is pointed and controversial. (Some of the epithets that have been applied to Haig include “The Butcher of the Somme” and “The Worst General of World War I.”) It is also very terse, taking up no more than 15 pages of a 550 page book. The remaining 530 pages support Hart’s characterization of the military leadership as “unimaginative.” I would not recommend this book to anyone who did not want to read a blow-by-blow account of a five and one-half month battle.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Pegasus, 2009

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Review of “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent” by Robert W. Merry

James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, is one of the most successful yet least known “consequential” occupants of that office. Polk’s presidency lasted only one term (he voluntarily chose not to seek an additional term); yet he added huge territories to the United States. In addition, he put government finances on a dependable basis by establishing an independent treasury and helping to pass an important tariff bill.

James Knox Polk

Robert Merry brings the enigmatic Polk to life with his detailed biography, A Country of Vast Designs. In it, we meet other colorful politicians like the great spokesman for the institution of slavery, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun; the great compromiser, Kentucky’s Henry Clay; former president Martin Van Buren; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In addition, we learn that Polk’s scheming, ambitious, inconsistent, and somewhat disloyal secretary of state, James Buchanan, often worked to thwart Polk’s policies in order to foster his own presidential aspirations. And in the background, exercising a significant influence on political discourse and Democratic Party politics even a decade after his own presidency, was Polk’s mentor Andrew Jackson.

Polk’s first major accomplishment after his presidential victory over Henry Clay was the settlement of the dispute over the Oregon Territory with Great Britain, with whom the United States had jointly administered the area since 1818. Through tough negotiation and the threat to go to war over the issue, Polk was able to settle on a boundary of 49 degrees north, ceding to Britain what is now British Columbia, but getting for the U.S. all of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

The Oregon Territory, established by the Oregon Treaty

Polk also spearheaded the annexation of Texas, which greatly angered Mexico and triggered the Mexican War in 1846.

[Historians today generally concur with the assessment of Abraham Lincoln, a Congressman in 1848, who maintained that Polk had deceived Americans about the cause of the war, which he said ensued after incursions by Mexico across the border into America. Lincoln said in his typical style combining fact with humor:

I carefully examined the President’s messages, to ascertain what he himself had said and proved upon the point. The result of this examination was to make the impression, that taking for true, all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him.”

Lincoln averred that in fact, it was upon Mexican soil that the U.S. commenced hostilities, rather than the reverse. But the country, driven by the idea of “Manifest Destiny” to expand the country’s borders, and avid to get the large piece of territory at stake for its own, chose to ignore the facts.]

The war continued until 1848, and became very unpopular. Nevertheless, it resulted in the conquest and incorporation into the U.S. of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. One of the military heroes of the war, Zachary Taylor, went on to become president.

A key issue complicating the annexation of western land was the expansion of black slavery into the new territories. Polk’s position appears to have been much like Lincoln’s early opinion: he wanted first to preserve the Union at all cost.

Evaluation: Merry paints a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable president. Although well written, the book contains a great amount of detail on the maneuverings of politicians and cabinet members, which makes for thorough history but somewhat sluggish reading or listening. It is a comprehensive work for serious students of history, but may be a bit much for the casual reader.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 3, 2009)

October 2, 1869 – Birth of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi was born on this day in history in a Hindu merchant caste family in coastal Gujarat, in western India, and later trained in law at the Inner Temple, London.

Gandhi had a fascinating life, but most Americans don’t know much about him. He was married at age 13 – to an older woman, no less – she was 14. As a young boy, Gandhi was shy and fearful, frightened by the idea of thieves, ghosts, snakes, spiders, and even the dark. He hated leaving the safety of his home.

Yet Gandhi managed to overcome his fears, and grew up to work for Indian rights in both India and South Africa. He spoke to huge crowds advocating freedom and nonviolence, and organized marches, boycotts, fasts, and protests. He was a prolific writer, not just about political issues but on health matters. He also spent a total of nearly six years in prison.

But it took some time for him to overcome his inhibitions. In 1888, Gandhi left his family behind, moving to London so he could study law.

Gandhi as a young attorney in South Africa

Gandhi as a young attorney in South Africa

At age 22 and now a lawyer, he returned to India. He failed to succeed there and took a job as a lawyer for a distant cousin in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, he was shocked at the treatment of Indians by the racist white government, and began speaking about nonviolence as a means of protest. In 1894 he founded the Natal Indian Congress to fight for Indians’ rights. Gandhi eventually called his strategy of passive resistance “satyagraha,” which means “firmness for truth and love.”

Gandhi moved back to India in 1915, where he received a hero’s welcome and continued his work for social reform and independence from colonial rule by Great Britain. He used fasting, a boycott of British products, and most notably, a protest against British control of salt. India was surrounded by salty ocean waters, and salt was readily available from the ocean or from shallow salt pans typically located along the coast, but the British would not allow Indians to collect, produce, or sell their own salt. They could only buy salt from the British, and it was heavily taxed.

On March 12, 1930, Gandhi, now aged 60, began his historic Salt March. He led around 80 others (including an American journalist) on a 24-day, 240-mile trek to the seaside town of Dandi. When he arrived, he committed the illegal act of scooping up a small handful of salt from the mud in the beach. This simple symbolic act made headlines around the world and ignited a campaign of mass civil disobedience.

Gandhi on the Salt March

Gandhi on the Salt March

Gandhi, needless to say, was taken to jail. But a female Indian poet, Sarojini Naidu, took over the protest and led nearly 2500 marchers to the Dharasana Salt Works. British-led police brutally clubbed the marchers upon their arrival, even though the protesters did not fight back or even try to defend themselves. Once again the news was broadcast to the world.

Gandhi continued to agitate, get arrested, and go on protest fasts that were increasingly harmful to his health.

At the outset of World War II, Gandhi opposed providing any help to the British war effort and he campaigned against any Indian participation in the World War II. He condemned Nazism and Fascism, but prioritized independence for India.

Smithsonian reports:

By 1942, Prime Minister Churchill felt enough pressure to send Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, to discuss a change to India’s political status. But upon learning that Cripps wasn’t actually offering full independence and that current Indian politicians would still have no say in military strategy, the Congress and the Muslim League rejected his proposal.”

Gandhi, nearing age 73, led a new round of protests, calling for the British to “Quit India” in a 1942 speech in Mumbai made to the National Congress Party.

Gandhi in August, 1942

Gandhi argued that this was the moment to seize power:

Here is a mantra, a short one, that I give to you. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra is ‘Do or Die.’ We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery. Every true Congressman or woman will join the struggle with inflexible determination not to remain alive to see the country in bondage and slavery.”

He added, perhaps in anticipation that this movement would not go over well with the Raj (the name for British-controlled India):

Take a pledge, with God and your own conscience as witness, that you will no longer rest till freedom is achieved and will be prepared to lay down your lives in the attempt to achieve it. He who loses his life will gain it; he who will seek to save it shall lose it. Freedom is not for the coward or the faint-hearted.”

The Congress agreed that Gandhi should lead a nonviolent mass movement, passing the “Quit India Resolution.” The British government responded quickly, and within hours after Gandhi’s speech arrested Gandhi and all the members of the Congress Working Committee.

Gandhi’s arrest lasted two years. During this period, his long time secretary died of a heart attack, his wife Kasturba died after 18 months’ imprisonment; and Gandhi himself suffered a severe malaria attack. He was released before the end of the war on May 6, 1944 because of his failing health and necessary surgery; the Raj did not want him to die in prison and enrage the nation.

At the end of the war, the British gave clear indications that power would be transferred to Indian hands. At this point Gandhi called off the struggle, and around 100,000 political prisoners were released, including the Congress’s leadership.

In 1947, Britain finally enacted the Indian Independence Act that declared British India would be divided into the two countries of India and Pakistan (the latter country designated for Muslim peoples). Gandhi was opposed to the separation, fearing it would cause more problems, which it did, and which remain to this day. Gandhi, now elderly and frail, worked hard to prevent a civil war in India until his assassination on January 30, 1948.

Mahatma Gandhi writing a letter in January 1948. Courtesy: mkgandhi.org

Prime Minister Nehru said upon announcing Gandhi’s death:

The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.”

Besides Gandhi’s influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., others profoundly influenced by Gandhi included Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the Myanmar freedom activist, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gandhi’s actual first name was Mohandas, but most people know him by the name given to him from midlife on, “Mahatma” which means “Great Soul.”

Review of “Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West” by Christopher Knowlton

This is one heck of a good book, so full of interesting historical facts and vignettes that you will be driving everyone around you crazy as you read by calling out repeatedly, “Listen to THIS!”

It tells the story of the open-range cattle era and the rise of the cowboy from the perspective of its economic origins. But if that sounds dry, don’t be deceived. Knowlton, a former magazine writer, understands how to hold your interest. As far as the story he wants to tell, it is one with contemporary relevance. He writes:

“One goal here is to shine light on the psychology and greed that drive an investment mania, and on the financial and human catastrophes that result from the bursting of a commodity bubble.”

He sees this history not only as a morality tale about those who devote all their dreams (not to mention money) on speculative financial bubbles, but as an opportunity to study the environmental disasters that were both caused by the cattle boom, and which contributed to its demise.

He also wants you to know the real story of the American cowboy, and how different the reality was from the iconic and heroic myth that has grown up around cowboys and that is portrayed in books and movies. He explains:

“The work was hard, dirty, and monotonous – hardly the exciting version depicted in the dime novels and the eastern press. . . .”

As one cowboy noted in his memoirs, it was “a continual round of drudgery, exposure and hard work which beggar description.” In addition, “the job of a cowboy entailed an astonishing number of ways to get hurt or killed: “You could fall from your horse, you could be kicked in the head while roping a steer; you could be gored by a horn, you could drown while crossing a river, you could be caught in quicksand,” etc. And there were many less-than-fatal perils of the job, such as the torment of insects, sunstroke, sun blindness, infections, lack of medical care, grueling hours, and the long winters with no work at all.

Rancher and trail boss Charles Goodnight is credited for inventing the chuck wagon in 1866 to serve men on the cattle drives; they became ubiquitous across the open range.

Furthermore, the stories about “cowboys and Indians” were exaggerated as well. Relatively few skirmishes took place between these two groups. In fact, by the time the cowboy movement began out West after the Civil War, the numbers of Native Americans had been drastically reduced by disease and starvation, and in any event most had been moved to reservations.

How and why did it get portrayed otherwise?

As it happens, the story of the cattle era is also a story of fake news; news manufactured to spur immigration to aspiring new states, to drive profits, to justify killing Native Americans and lynching rivals, and to build up the careers of those wanting to capitalize on this particular definition of the American character. Knowlton argues that the cowboy myth, so appealing to Americans, has even influenced America’s foreign policy.

Finally, this book focuses on three young men in particular who were drawn to participate in the cattle boom: a rich Englishman, a rich Frenchman, and a rich American, Theodore Roosevelt, who of course went on not only to become the U.S. President, but also to be one of the leading conservationists in American history.

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands

When the Civil War was over, the Confederate economy was devastated, and the impoverished young men of the South had no way to make a living. It was in Texas, the author reports, that the era of the Cattle Kingdom was born. Thus, as the author reports, at the peak of the cattle boom a majority of cowboys were white southerners, many former Confederate cavalrymen.

In Texas, there was an abundance of cattle, although before the Civil War, cattle were not valued for meat, but rather for their hides and tallow. Americans ate more pork than beef, because pork was easier to preserve. But that was about to change, thanks to the incentives and innovations of the cattle ranchers.

At the peak of the migration, “the largest forced migration of animals in human history,” some ten million cattle would be driven north out of Texas, accompanied by half a million horses and some 50,000 cowboys.” (Knowlton also devotes space to the rise of prostitution out West. It was in fact in Dodge City, one of the cowboy towns that sprang up, that the term “red-light district” was first coined, derived from the name of the red glass panels in one of the brothels.)

Dodge City in 1874, from Ford County Historical Society

And here’s a question for “Outlander” fans: What did the Highland Clearances after the Battle of Culloden have to do with developments of the American cowboy movement? The answer is surprisingly relevant, because the British were very big investors in the American West. But I’ll let readers discover the answer to that one by reading the book.

Some of the most interesting information in the book has to do with all the innovations and changes that the cowboy era brought, such as the rise of the meatpacking industry, and the influence of its automation innovations. In fact, as the author reports, meatpackers developed the first assembly lines, and it was from studying the process at Chicago slaughterhouses that Henry Ford came up with the idea of using a similar method to produce cars. The meatpackers also radically changed the American system of business procedures and management practices. Even the story about how Chicago got to be the epicenter of the meat business is fascinating.

Swift and Company
Packers, Union Stock Yards, Chicago, 1893

And as refrigeration was developed to get all this beef to eastern markets, Americans began to switch their eating habits. A trio of restaurants in New York known as Delmonico’s helped popularize eating steak. Delmonico’s is also credited with being the first American restaurant to allow patrons to order from a menu à la carte, as opposed to featuring fixed menus. Who knew?

Delmonico’s, Beaver and Williams Streets, 1893

Then there was barbed wire, which, invented to help solve the problem of wandering cattle, totally changed the husbandry of cattle. And, as the author points out, it would also come to play a significant role in the incarceration of people as well as livestock.

As for environmental disasters, perhaps the biggest one was the killing off of the bison. As Knowlton stated, “if the cattle were to come, the competing buffalo would have to go.” He declared:

“. . . nothing could match in numbers, poundage, and sheer waste the slaughter of the bison, or the speed with which this animal approached extinction. …in a stunningly short period of time, less than twenty years, the bison were forced to the edge of extinction, with no more than 325 surviving south of Canada.”

Bison skulls to be used for fertilizer, 1870

There were a number of contributing factors to the bison slaughter, not unrelated to the cattle boom. One was the expansion of railroads and telegraph lines, especially in response to the needs of the cattle business. Advances in firearms made killing these generally docile animals “the big-game equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.” The U.S. military also abetted the slaughter in their efforts to deprive Native Americans of food so as to facilitate their “herding” into reservations. Even the fact that female bison hides were preferred by hunters led to the animals’ rapid extinction.

And what about the demise of the cattle era and the bursting of its economic bubble? Overgrazing, drought, corruption, greed, incompetence, growing conflicts between cattle barons and cowboys, and absentee management all played a role. But the nail in the coffin came from the brutal winter of 1886-1887, later known as “the Big Die-up.” Temperatures in the Great Plains went as low as sixty degrees below zero in places, accompanied by high winds and deep snows. It was the coldest winter on record. When it was over, nearly a million head of cattle were dead, some 50 to 80 percent of the herds across the northernmost ranges. Knowlton describes it as “the greatest loss of animal life in pastoral history” – at least, from environmental, rather than human causes.

Train stopped during Blizzard 1886. Ford County, Ks. Image courtesy Kansas Historical Society

Evaluation: I can’t begin to tell you all the fascinating things you will learn in this book. It’s a book I never thought would interest me, and yet it is one of the most absorbing and even exciting books on history I have ever encountered. I can’t sing its praises enough. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Review of “War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World” by Max Boot

Max Boot’s War Made New uses the theme of differences in warfare technology as the organizing principle for a history of warfare for the last 500 years. Many decisive military confrontations became routs because one side employed weapons, tactics, or organization that were superior to those of their opponents.

In particular, Boot discusses how the following four technological “revolutions” were instrumental in producing revolutions in military affairs: (1) the Gunpowder Revolution; (2) the Industrial Revolution (encompassing developments in rifles, railroads, and steamships, inter alia); (3) the Second Industrial Revolution (tanks, torpedoes, superfortresses and firebombs); and (4) the Information Revolution. But he issues the caveat that “no technical advance by itself made a revolution. … Even if a country figures out how to harness military power, it still needs the wisdom to know the capabilities and limitations of its war machine.” He emphasizes that organization, training and leadership are also necessary to achieve victory. With this in mind, however, he argues that military adaptation to breakthroughs in technology resulted in seismic shifts in the balance of power among nations.

Boot provides the background and detailed descriptions of actual combat of several campaigns to demonstrate the effect of intelligent adoption of the new technologies produced by each of the four “revolutions.” In every case, the earliest effective adopter of the technology vaulted into greater worldwide prominence by decisively defeating its adversary. Boot’s narratives of the conquests of Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War (1631-32), the British slaughter of the Mahdi’s army at Omdurman (1898), and the American triumph in the First Gulf War (1991) are particularly illustrative. In each case the winner easily achieved smashing victories over opponents that outnumbered or nearly outnumbered the winner.

F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter used in the First Gulf War

Military technological predominance does not last forever; in fact, it can be very short-lived. For example, the Nazi’s blitzkrieg tactics (armor supplemented by close air support) shocked their opponents from 1939 to 1941, but shortly thereafter the Americans and British won control of the air, and the Soviets won most of the major tank engagements. The monopoly of nuclear weapons enjoyed by the United States lasted only three years before the Russians developed an atomic bomb of their own.

Boot’s final chapters give a glimpse of things to come on future battlefields. Robotics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence all presage new ways of waging war. America’s current predominance is being challenged (at least locally) by China, which has developed its own stealth fighter planes and is building a formidable navy.

One reviewer, eminent historian William McNeill, criticized the book because he felt it omitted important events and failed to analyze crucial non-military aspects of the events it did treat. However, I think Boot’s aims are less ambitious than an all-encompassing treatise on warfare for the past five centuries. He states:

“I will not attempt to challenge most of the theses put forward in a number of prominent recent works that have sought to explain the [entire] course of human development…. Rather than attempting to supplant them, this book will supplement them by highlighting the importance of certain vital military developments in the making of the modern world.”

Evaluation: War Made New is very readable. It can be treated as a series of vignettes because each battle or “revolution” is independent of the others. On the other hand, it can be read as organic whole because of unifying themes.

Note: The text includes maps, pictures, and many footnotes.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gotham, 2006

June 28, 1914 – Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Did it Really Cause WWI? Review of “The War That Ended Peace” by Margaret MacMillan

Anyone under the illusion that the outbreak of World War I was the result only or even mainly of the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Serbia will be disabused of that conception after reading this thorough account by Oxford University scholar Margaret Macmillan. In fact, after reading this book, one can only wonder how war was averted until 1914.

Macmillan provides a detailed introduction to all the major players in European international affairs at the turn of the 20th century. She also reviews the alliances, competitions, hostilities, jealousies, and the sociological currents feeding the inchoate war machine: in particular, inflated senses of honor, nationalism, imperialism, and what one might call a racist interpretation of Darwinism.

At this time, the major European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) were competing for hegemony in several dimensions:

First, they wanted to be seen as strong and powerful military states.

Second, they wanted as big a share of the colonial pie as they could grab. Colonies could be exploited for natural resources, laborers, soldiers, and the psychological benefit of the impression of world dominance. Britain and, to a lesser extent France, had stolen a march on the others by gobbling up large tracts of Africa, India, and China. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was correctly viewed as on the verge of dissolution, which would soon open up great opportunities for colonizing oil rich areas of the Middle East. Germany in particular was trying to make up for lost time. Each of the powers feared that if it didn’t leap into the fray first, it would lose out, and a hated rival would steal “its place in the sun.”

0909MC20

Third, each, albeit in varying degrees, had a sense of racial and/or ethnic superiority, which contributed to their determination to dominate lesser groups.

Fourth, the very powerful memes of nationalism, radicalism, and anti-Semitism all were roiling around in the air and causing destabilization.

An important factor adding to instability was the fact that no one Power was in position to dominate the others. Accordingly, all the Powers sought to ally themselves with any other strong Powers whose interests did not conflict too seriously with their own. By 1910, Europe had divided into two rather hostile (but not yet warring) camps: (1) the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (rather reluctantly) Italy; and (2) the Entente—France and Russia and (maybe) England.

Europe1914

Members of both the Alliance and the Entente perceived their own agreements to be primarily defensive in nature. But MacMillan points out that those same arrangements seemed to outsiders to be offensive in purpose. As a result, every continental Power perceived itself to be surrounded by hostile forces, and endeavored to prepare for what seemed like an inevitable outbreak of war.

In addition, advances in technology, particularly railroads, made it possible to mobilize a country’s army in a much shorter time than in previous years. This situation created pressure on the others to be ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Otherwise, you could be caught at a great disadvantage, if an enemy Power was ready to deploy before you were.

Thus, Europe was a powder keg, with players just waiting for an excuse to light the fuse.  The Balkans, being the most volatile area at the time, was merely the most likely source of the much-anticipated spark.  [Ironically, Europe had weathered at least three very close calls (the Moroccan Crisis and two Balkan Wars) between 1908 and 1913 that had nearly resulted in war but were smoothed out in the end. But the pressure was building, and no leader took the necessary steps to defuse the new crisis adequately.] After the death of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia that could never be accepted, and the game was on.

Discussion: This is a detailed history of the period immediately preceding World War I, rather than a history of the war itself. To that end, MacMillan tells you everything you always wanted to know about the situation in Europe at that time. While she spreads plenty of blame all around, she is probably in the camp assigning the most blame for the war to Germany, with its possibly insane kaiser and its power-hungry and ideologically extremist ministers.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

One criticism is that the author could have forgone the minutiae about the predilections of various ministers and their wives for fishing or gardening and the like. Instead, she would have served readers better by adding background on the influential writers of the time, such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose popular book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) argued that Germany, constituted primarily of the (allegedly) superior Aryan race, needed to come out triumphant in the never-ending struggle among ‘the chaos of races.” [Chamberlain was British, but later became a German citizen.] The anonymous and infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903, and positing a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, was also widely translated and disseminated. Many of the racist tracts at the turn of the century, such as The Social Role of the Aryan by the Frenchman Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1899) explicitly cited Darwin to provide a scientific imprimatur to the advocacy of racial eugenics. These ideas caught fire among the political and intellectual elite in Europe at the century’s end, and indeed, were still fueling social policy before and during World War II. Some background on these writings would have provided a much-needed explanation for the currents of thought that roiled these turbulent times, and would have helped displace another commonly held misconception that it was mainly the unsatisfactory resolution of World War I that resulted in World War II.

Evaluation: This book is an excellent addition to any World War I library. MacMillan provides a fascinating backstory to many of the events leading up to the war. While some may take issue with her emphases, this book is definitely worth consideration.

We listened to an audio version of this book. The narrator, actor Richard Burnip, is quite competent and has a delightful British accent. Our only complaint is that each disc ended and then started over with nary a breath in between.

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 25 compact discs by Audible Ltd. Books on Tape, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2013

June 24, 1941 – The German Army Occupies Vilna

As the Holocaust Museum online site explains:

Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The population of the city was 200,000 at this time, including over 55,000 Jews. In addition, some 12,000-15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland found refuge in the city. Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.”

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

The destruction of the Vilna Jewry began soon thereafter.

Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” It was an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and had a number of famous institutes of research and education, including the Jewish Scientific Institute, YIVO. The book Stronger Than Iron reports on the fate of Vilna Jews from the moment the Germans came in June, 1941 until the Soviet liberation in September, 1944. Some seventy thousand Jews died. The author notes that “by the most optimistic assessment only one thousand Jews [of Vilna] survived.”

I have read quite a few books written by Holocaust survivors, but I think this one stands out because of the astute observation skills of the narrator, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Vilna, Lithuania. (The book was originally written in Yiddish by Theodore Balberyszki, and translated into English by his son Mendel.)

As you read about the amazing sequence of events that led both Theodore and his son to live in spite of all they endured, you will understand how rare and crucial this eyewitness account actually is.

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

Mendel Balberyszski, in his Preface, explains the title of this book:

“My book is entitled Stronger Than Iron, for a human being had to be stronger than iron to endure the savage brutality and hatred of the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers, who were determined to implement a policy of the extermination of Vilna Jewry.

One had to be tough as iron to absorb the blows of the ‘good’ German during the slave labor; to survive when the body was swollen from hunger; to overcome disease and lice and to work from dawn till night in rain, snow, blizzards, winds, frost and heat.

“One had to be tough as iron not to collapse physically as well as morally when witnessing the pain of an old mother, of one’s wife and most importantly of one’s little children who all of a sudden, from a beautiful, cultured, materially secure life, were thrown into the abyss of need, confinement, dirt, hunger and horrible suffering.”

Evaluation: I will say that, in spite of having read many survivor accounts, I found this book riveting. If you are at all interested in this genre, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Note: There is a good article on Vilna Jewry and what happened to them on the online site of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gefen Books, 2011