Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Unknown War

The Unknown War
© 1931 Winston Churchill
396 pages

The war to end all wars, what Sir Winston Churchill aptly described as the world crisis, began when a Serbian partisan assassinated the heir of Austria-Hungary's throne, setting into motion a Rube Goldberg diplomatic catastrophe.  Despite  the bloody spotlight quickly moving to the German invasion of France, and the English response, Austria's war against Serbia created an altogether different war in the east. Not here were the long, country-spanning trenches. The east was a front of movement and maneuver, but one denied consummation by the Central Powers' fixation on their western foes. The Unknown War, penned  by Churchill as part of his large history of the war in the 1920s, is a sweeping history of the conflict.

 Its sheer level of detail will no doubt be appreciated  by students, as Churchill is obsessed with not only diplomatic wranglings but the step-by-step maneuvering of the armies as they clashed in great battles.  The east contained no static front, and Germany's greatest victories came through risky attempts at envelopment. The German high command was slow to realize the potential of the Eastern front, so resolved were they that France was a more promising target. Time and again resources were taken from the East to fill the graves of the west, attacking places like Verdun, despite great victories in the east that seized Russia's rails and best positions. Austria, too, had its distraction once erstwhile ally Italy attacked it. The Italian command was in no danger of accomplishing anything, but Austria's fury at betrayal turned into counteroffensives that relaxed the hand at Russia's throat. Though Churchill writes the tsar's domain was on the verge of a comeback, victory was stolen at the last moment by the sudden Bolshevik coup.  (Those scoundrels!)  Churchill's happy talent for oratory translates for the most part into his writing; parts of it are narrative in the truest sense of the word, in that their cadence is speechlike.  The disastrous Gallipoli campaign is lightly touched on; most of the chapter concerns itself with how the invasion forced the Central Powers to devote a little more attention and manpower to the eastern fronts, to break Serbia and open it up as a channel of munitions to aid the Turks. The English exercise, a horror in its own right, is simply blamed on accidents and an incompetent commander on the ground.

The author's personal defenses aside, this is probably a solid lead for  those with an interest in the eastern front, but virtually no background.

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