In This Review

With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
By David Stevenson
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011, 752 pp
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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
By Peter Englund
Knopf, 2011, 560 pp
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The suddenness with which World War I ended had lasting effects, not least the belief, later exploited by Adolf Hitler, that the only explanation for Germany’s defeat was a “stab in the back.” Rather than the deadly stalemates of the trenches, which still dominate popular views of the war, 1918 saw fast-moving offensives. The Germans went first. With Russia out of the war, extra German divisions were available. But they had little time and were anxious to strike before the Americans applied the full weight of their power. Germany’s spring offensive made rapid gains, pushing the Allies back, leading to British Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s famous order to his troops to continue fighting “with our backs to the wall,” from which Stevenson draws his title. But Germany and its army were exhausted. The offensive petered out, and the Germans were soon in retreat. Stevenson’s book is a masterful, lucid analysis that does not simply tell the tale. It also considers in detail the factors of technology, morale, supply, economics, and politics that contributed to Germany’s defeat. The tactics of the Allies were more imaginative, the blockade they imposed made life miserable for their enemies, and their leaders were more astute and attentive to the need for stability at home. 

In a completely different book about the same war, Englund offers no comprehensive overview but instead reconstructs the conflict through the stories of a diverse cast of 20 people who lived through it. The book is an “intimate” history because Englund not only uses his subjects’ own words but also provides his own, sometimes sardonic commentary, supplying the background the reader needs to understand the characters’ situations and preoccupations. The cast includes a French civil servant who never heard a shot fired but wrote wry reflections on how a denial of the reality of war sustained morale in Paris. Another subject is a German seaman posted on a battleship that never saw combat; his only action came at the war’s end, when he participated in a mutiny. Others are engaged in the war far from their own countries: a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army, a Canadian married to a Polish aristocrat, a British nurse in a Russian military hospital. Like no other, this book brings out in a poignant and effective way the meaning of World War I for those who lived through it, and allows them to speak
to us almost a century later.