Ian Beckett’s ‘The Making of the First World War’


When I posted details of that 1918 list of Great War books, someone asked me for my own list of 100 best.
Well, I’m thinking about it, but one definite candidate will be a book I’ve been reading recently, The Making of the Great War by Ian F.W. Beckett.
This doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive history of the War, but instead chooses twelve key moments that defined the War, and were crucial either to its progress or to the way it shaped the twentieth century, and presents an illuminating essay on each of them.
These key moments are not always what you would expect. At the start of the War he chooses, not the Battle of the Marne, but the flooding of the Yser in October 1914 as the key moment that made the trench stalemate on the Western Front inevitable. This essay puts into focus King Albert of the Belgians and the decisions he made. He was, as Beckett says. ‘a prickly ally of the British and French’ and ‘technically, he was not an ally at all, for, throughout the war, Albert maintained the fiction that Belgium remained a neutral country defending its territory as an “associated” rather than an allied power.’ The description of the difficult choices that Albert had to make contained much that I did not know.
The next two essays head eastward, looking at Turkey’s entry into the War and the Australian contribution at Gallipoli, which Beckett presents as a crucial stage in Australian nation-building, and a key ingredient in the Australian myth. (He has some sharp words about how this myth was presented in the Mel Gibson movie.)
Myth is important, too, in the essay on ‘The Power of Image’, which considers how the documentary The Battle of the Somme shaped perceptions of the War and set precedents for later conflicts.
There are also essays on the rise to power of Lloyd George, on air-raids and on submarine warfare. I learned something from all of these, and from the piece on the Balfour Declaration, which explains Middle Eastern complexities with welcome clarity.
The last essay is an interesting one, since he diverges from what seems to be the prevailing view among British military historians – that Allied generalship won the war by skilful strategy during the last hundred days. Ian Beckett argues instead that the German generals lost the war by the mistakes they made after the March offensive. I’m not entirely convinced – since, after all, they only lost because the Allies were able to take advantage of these errors. Still, it’s a bracing argument, as are those of all the essays.
If the centenary gives us more books of this quality, we shall be very lucky.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 20, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I greatly enjoyed this book as well, though primarily for the chapters on the flooding of the Yser and the Somme film. I share your reservations about the final chapter, and about Beckett’s apparently anti-learning-curve perspective in general; I asked Gary Sheffield about this and found him to be in basic agreement. But then, Beckett rather airily dismisses Sheffield by name (in a footnote, if I recall correctly), so I suppose that isn’t much of a surprise.

    Still, largely a very impressive and useful book. I’ve long wanted an accessible, chapter-length treatment of the flooding of the Yser that I can recommend to those friends of mine who have no idea that it happened, and Beckett’s does the trick admirably.

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  1. […] Simmers at Great War Fiction has a short, mostly-positive review of Ian W. Beckett’s The Making of the First World War, which came out late last year.  […]

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