- The First World War: A Concise Global History
Part of a series promising "concise . . . texts for the undergraduate" and also "books that advance world history scholarship," William Kelleher Storey's The First World War: A Concise Global History fits squarely in the former category. And while it delivers a workmanlike outline of what was once remembered as "the Great War," it cannot claim to achieve the latter. At first it seems that is one of the book's strengths. Those wishing to find an outline of the course of the conflict will surely find it here in well-written prose.
Yet there is something unsatisfying about the work, though it is hard to pinpoint a specific reason for disaffection. The author has an admirable subtheme, which "highlights environmental and technological factors" in addition to the usual, and usually much longer, histories emphasizing political, military, and social dimensions of a war that, arguably, shaped the postmodern world. Thus, woven throughout the text the reader will find references to battlefields where "leaders deliberately sacrificed men, animals, trees, and land for the greater good" (p.36), and aircraft—fighters, blimps, and even bombers—became "simply one more means of dealing death on the battlefield" and elsewhere (p. 131).
While such references are welcome, they provide few new insights and, given the intended brevity of the work, even less cogent analysis. [End Page 640] Take but one example, that of the German navy cruiser Königsberg, which indeed "helped to defend the coast of German East Africa until it was sunk it 1915" (p. 68). Left unmentioned is the fact she was, in effect, scuttled by her captain in the Rufiji River delta. Sailors then extracted her heavy guns and converted them to artillery pieces, which were hauled by hand, through swamp and savanna, to support General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's army, which was also defending the colony. The technological, to say nothing of the environmental, impact of this episode might well have added some colorful insight to Storey's account. As it is, he is left to opine in his conclusions that "the greatest changes associated with the environment and technology" were only on the individual level and "concerned people's experiences and memories" (p. 161).
To his credit, though, Storey has managed a more fully global account of the war than might be expected. He places the extension of the conflict—and even the fighting—into Africa and the Middle East appropriately in the context of other developments. Even the recruitment of Chinese labor is mentioned, albeit all too briefly. But the similar mustering of a South African Native Labour Corps did not make the narrative, no doubt sacrificed due to the altogether too concise nature of the text. But it is much more unfortunate that the author fails to mention the role of French African troops, either in relieving French army mutineers (or strikers, as Storey characterizes them) in 1917 or in providing manpower for the French occupation of the German Rhineland after the armistice.
In one of several efforts to give a more personal feeling to his account, Storey quotes the distress of an idiosyncratic British officer in observing the excesses of Africans in the East African Campaign. They "are mad on looting," he quotes Richard Meinertzhagen as writing, "whether it is the Askaris [African soldiers] or the porters, man, woman, or child. It is also difficult to stop the blacks from raping women, because they see them as property" (p. 134). Scarcely ten pages later Storey also describes German troops looting after successes on the western front in 1917, when they "stopped to plunder and gorge themselves [as they] foraged for consumer goods." Yet he almost justifies the latter behavior by suggesting some German soldiers "sent things back home, where...consumer goods were lacking" (p. 145). Readers may be troubled by this differential judgment of the horrors of war as "consistent with the imperialist sentiment of the late nineteenth century" (p...