Nelson’s History of the War

The visions of the First World War which have been left to succeeding generations are desolate landscapes of mud and tree stumps, of men ‘going over the top’ in jerky film and lines of blinded and maimed soldiers shuffling back.
It is almost impossible now for people to recall what it was all about, why it started and why the campaigns were fought as they were. There is a comfortable feeling that mocking dead leaders is quite safe because they cannot answer back.
But among the accounts written at the time by the people who were living through the events are the remarkable and vibrant 24 volumes of John Buchan’s History of the First World War, written as the war proceeded, with the craft of a brilliant writer of narrative and the insight of a man who had close access to much secret information.
Lt Col Buchan, as he was known when he became Director of the Government’s Department of Information, had a clear grasp of the geo-politics of the conflict and the sweep of his pen was vast. He caught the political tides flowing through Europe to carry the reader into the campaigns and the battles in Europe and the Middle East with the graphic skill of the storyteller. Describing Verdun he wrote, ‘The German strategy was that of a woodcutter who strikes first on one side of the trunk and then on the other. But his method is useless unless each stroke of the axe cuts out a substantial wedge, and this the German blows had failed to achieve’.
Only a brilliant story teller would have the confidence to describe Gallipoli at the time of the landing as ‘a paradise of curious and beautiful flowers – anemone, grape hyacinth, rock rose, asphodel and amaryllis. Up this rock garden the Australians race’. How much more graphic is Buchan’s contrast in the imagination, how much closer one feels to that arid ground.
There is an eerie ring for contemporary readers in the reminder of the role of Serbia in the conflict and as the events of the period unfold, particularly the Russian revolution, the reasons for the shape of contemporary Europe suddenly become much clearer in the light shed by Buchan’s compelling narrative.
Buchan worked with generals and politicians and understood the pressures they endured but he had the sensitivity to appreciate the dogged success wrought by the ordinary soldiers in the field. ‘Yet’, he concluded, ‘when all due praise has been given to famous leaders it remains true that the hero of the war was the ordinary man. Victory was won less by genius in the few than by faithfulness in the many’.
Twenty four volumes is a formidable read for anyone today but Buchan’s detailed descriptions of the actions and the thinking behind them, along with the huge collection of appendices ranging from the dispatches of the field commanders to political notes, timetables of events and the maps which graphically illustrate the campaign descriptions make this an absorbing read for anyone who wants to understand something of how the Great War felt at the time.
Alasdair Hutton, 2001