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Review: 1916: A Global History, by Keith Jeffery
Bloomsbury, 2015. 436 pp. $32

As my regular readers may be tired of hearing by now, I care passionately about the First World War, and, like any historian, I also care about how my favorite subject is portrayed or perceived. I admit to being rabid about this, but I have my reasons, which, I like to think, go beyond the mud pie that I made with my own two hands (meaning my own book).

Rather, as the event that arguably shaped the twentieth century, the First World War still lives within myriad conflicts, as in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, or the former Soviet Union, to name only three. I can’t imagine trying to understand those problems without the proper historical background, so I think historians (and novelists) who choose the First World War have a double duty. Not only should they try to dig past commonly held myths and misperceptions (because otherwise we won’t learn what we desperately need to know), writers should make the people and the era come alive (because otherwise we won’t bother to learn anything).

Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street), Dublin, after the Easter Rebellion (public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), Dublin, after the Easter Rebellion (public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

To me, 1916 falls short on both counts, though in fairness, it’s a large task. Jeffrey starts with Gallipoli and ends with Rasputin’s assassination, also visiting Africa, Asia, Ireland, and Poland, among others. He covers the iconic battles of 1916 (Verdun, the Somme, Jutland), the Asian laborers recruited to toil in the war zone, and pays overdue homage to the hundreds of thousands of Africans who fought, fetched, or carried during the white man’s war. To get nerdy for three seconds, the author praises Hew Strachan, the Oxford historian whose excellent work has emphasized the war’s global breadth rather than just the Western Front, a focus Jeffery sets out to emulate, with some success. So far, so good.

Even better, Jeffery finds room for a raft of remarkable figures whom I’d never heard of. Frances Farmborough was an English governess in Russia who became a nurse on the Eastern Front; she even took photographs that enrich the historical record. Flora Sandes, born in England of Irish parents, served in Serbia as a nurse and as a soldier. John Henry Patterson, an Anglo-Irish veteran of the Boer War and a big-game hunter, raised, equipped, and (defying orders) armed a Jewish brigade.

Jeffery’s at his best, I think, where he seems most at home, Ireland. (He teaches at Belfast and has written about Ireland before.) I like his thoughtful, persuasive chapter on the Easter Rebellion, which captures the events, heartbreak, and passions, as well as their reach abroad, especially to the United States. He finds something new to say about Gallipoli and its impact on national feelings, no easy feat. And anyone who wants to know what Verdun felt like to the soldiers who rotated in and out every couple weeks will find it here, in horrific detail.

But 1916 is an odd book. If you blink while reading the introduction, you’ll miss the author’s scheme to base each chapter on an event in a given month. (Dating the chapters would have helped some.) Moreover, I’m not sure how you can select a single year, even one so significant, because global reach or iconic battles apply just as well to, say, 1917 or 1918.

Further, the reach is hardly global. The Germans nearly vanish, the French flicker in and out of sight, and the Belgians (my mud pie) might as well be trees. The Dutch never appear, though their neutrality influenced politics, economics, and the North Sea blockade. The chapter on the United States deals rather heavily with British intelligence officers and how they misled the American government–fascinating, but a peculiar emphasis. It’s also typical of 1916, whose voices are almost exclusively English or Irish. Not surprisingly, they usually express concerns and interests common to those nations, so that the worldwide lens has a peculiar, Anglo-Irish slant. Part of that has to do with available sources and what languages they’re written in, but still.

As for the story, 1916 can be hard going. Despite a profusion of facts, the vivid whole seldom materializes. The Anglo-Irish cameos offer a chance to add spark or provoke wonder, but they lack depth or face. Photographs help, but in the text, these men and women are talking heads, collections of statements and attitudes. People make history; that’s why it matters. Yet Jeffery pays little attention to character, even with a singular figure like Rasputin (though we get a blow-by-blow description of how British journalists broke the story of his murder).

One figure whom Jeffrey tries to sketch is Woodrow Wilson, an attempt that illustrates the unfortunate perpetuation of myth. Taking Wilson’s words about his Scotch and Irish heritage at face value–again playing the Irish legacy card–he casts the president as he wanted to be seen, a visionary statesman. Like many myths, this one has a grain of truth. But the larger truth is that Wilson’s less agreeable qualities, which included vain self-righteousness, doomed his vision from the start. Moreover, in that context, Jeffrey plays with another, related myth, that there could have been peace negotiations in 1916, had the Allies only been willing to listen. Again, the larger truth offers a more nuanced picture, and I wish Jeffrey had at least considered it.

Read Hew Strachan’s single-volume history, The First World War. It’s a terrific introduction to the subject but also a fine addition to other books.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.