An eye-opening study of the final hours of a war that threatened never to end.
The global bloodletting of 1914–18 was a phenomenal waste to begin with, or so many modern historians believe; as Persico (Roosevelt’s Secret War, 2001, etc.) writes, “It may be that the only value to mankind coming out of World War I was to provide the ultimate test of what human beings can endure under monstrously inhuman conditions and yet maintain their humanity.” Those conditions were monstrous indeed, no thanks to the combat leaders on all sides; Persico quotes, for instance, a British corps commander who complained that “the men are too keen on saving their own skins. They need to be taught that they are out here to do their job. Whether they survive or not is a matter of complete indifference.” More than five million on all sides died in the first five months of the conflict alone, and the carnage continued unabated for three more years, until by November 1918 the German Kaiser was finally persuaded to yield to the Allies. Amazingly, and depressingly, once the arrangements were made for the armistice to begin at the resonant 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, the British Empire, and the US were ordered to fight on; Allied forces along the Western Front were even commanded to attack only hours before the armistice was to go into effect, the idea apparently being to secure as much ground as possible before peace broke out. As a result, more died on November 11, 1918, than on D-Day a quarter-century later. Persico reconstructs these closing-hour events with grim irony, making them of a piece with dozens of instances of previous folly. And though he focuses closely on the final moments of the war, he ably encapsulates the whole conflict in a highly readable narrative.
First-rate, and evocative of why the war to end all wars was anything but.