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  • The Great War: An Imperial History
  • Patrick H. Brennan
The Great War: An Imperial History. By John H. Morrow Jr.London and New York: Routledge, 2004. 352 + xvi pp. $43.95.

The genesis of The Great War: An Imperial History lies in the author's efforts to impart a sense of the profound impact the First World War has exerted on the lives of his American students, who, he [End Page 108] laments, know little of the conflict. Generally speaking, the result is eminently suited for undergraduate teaching, a survey that attempts to "tie it all together"—from roots to aftermath—by drawing on the latest insights into not just the war's military and diplomatic but also its economic, social, and cultural elements. In a historiography the author decries for its Eurocentrism, Morrow's persistence in exploring the colonial aspects of the war—and the impact of the predatory imperialism of the belle époque as a critical cause—constitutes one of the book's strengths. He is also to be admired for rejecting the still pervasive popular—and simplistic—view that the war was a cruel, tragic absurdity. "The European powers went to war to determine who would control Europe and the world," he writes. "The stakes proved enormous, and the statesmen and generals . . . were no innocents" (p. 36 ).

Morrow is stronger on the story of the home front than on military tactics and particularly the "learning curves" that are the focus of current military writing on the Western Front. Although General Pershing's limitations are openly discussed, there is too much emphasis onthe American military contribution—the fact that the American Expeditionary Force held the longest stretch of the Western Front in 1918 only reflected the fact that there was little chance of a German attack along much of it, and hence it could be held by the brave but still ill-trained and ill-led American troops. In a book designed to unveil the story of the war far from its European center, Morrow's account of von Lettow-Vorbeck's romantic but minor East African campaign is excessive—it was not here, after all, that war experiences leading to the rise of self-determination movements among Africans are found. In contrast, his discussion of the various wartime revolts in French Africa, matched with the account of Blaise Diagne, the senior black government official in Senegal, who attempted, though with less success than, for example, Canada's Robert Borden, to translate the raising of military manpower for the imperial power into autonomy within the empire, is extremely worthwhile. Indeed, his account of the impact of the war on black Africans, black Americans, and black West Indians, tens of thousands of whom had fought in it, is especially informative and moving. The Great War would have benefited from more discussion of the war's impact on India and China. Similarly, in its brief accounts of Canada and Australia (which, though not "European," were still imperial possessions, and which provided over one million troops between them), he fails to mention that the achievement of autonomy did not prevent the former Canadian Dominion's imposition of conscription in 1917 from permanently alienating its French-speaking minority, a result that cripples the country still. [End Page 109]

Unfortunately, irritating typos and outright errors abound—General Brusilov's highly successful breakthrough offensive in 1916 apparently captured a mere 15.6 square miles of territory (p. 138), General Robertson (chief of the Imperial General Staff) is referred to as Robinson twice on the same page (p. 194), Canada's Currie is transformed from corps commander to prime minister (p. 272), and the Ottoman Empire is reduced to 0.8 square miles of territory by war's end (p. 307).

The closing chapter—the book's most engaging—offers a concise elaboration of the cultural and social turmoil caused by the war, and not just its political, diplomatic, and economic fallout. Morrow correctly laments that the "literary and intellectual predilections of the few, not the actions of the many, have formed the basis of much of the history and legacy of the war" (p. 315), not the least accounting for the pervasiveness...


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