No Man's Land: 1918, The Last Year of the Great War (World War I); by John Toland; Bison Books (September 1, 2002); ISBN 10: 0803294514

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in the open car.
At precisely 11:00 am, on November 11th, 1918, the guns of World War I finally fell silent in Europe. It was the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of the fourth year of a war that — inconceivable though it was when viewed in retrospect — had actually begun because of the assassination of only two people: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, at the hands of a Serbian fanatic. Thus, Ferdinand and Sophie became the first casualties in the European conflagration to come, a conflict that would, in due course, come to be known as "The Great War". However, they would not be the last: in fact, before the conflict that their pointless murders had ignited finally ran its long bloody course, the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and his wife would be followed by those of another ten million people; and a whole generation of European youth (two out of every nine Frenchmen, for example, who went to the front never came back) would ultimately be consumed — either physically or psychologically — by the industrialized slaughter of a new type of warfare in which hostile armies turned to trenches, machineguns, barbed wire, breech-loading artillery, and poison gas to work their terrible business on the battlefield. Tragically, the armistice that began on November 11th between the Central Powers and the Western Allies did not bring about a halt to the fighting everywhere; in fact, the killing would continue in Russia between the Bolsheviks and their political rivals, and in parts of the crumbling Ottoman Empire well after the guns fell silent on the Western Front. But, on the bloody battlefields of France and Flanders, the killing had finally ended. However, along with the killing, the power of many of Europe's oldest royal dynasties, the long-established borders of nations, and even the shared (if imperfectly realized) European political ideals that had underpinned a century of relatively peaceful (acknowledging, of course, the comparatively short duration Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and Franco-Prussian War of 1870) continental order also came to an end.

Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Eric Ludendorff
In "No Man's Land: 1918, The Last Year of the Great War", Pulitzer Prize winning author, John Toland, revisits the major events, diplomatic, economic, political, and military that combined, in the course of 1918, both to shape the ultimate outcome of the First World War, and to plant the seeds for the next more cataclysmic European war that would erupt a mere generation later. The scope of Toland's carefully-researched work is surprisingly wide; and although the focus of author's narrative, as might be expected, is on the Western Front, important events in Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and even the Middle East are all considered as part of his ambitious study.

German troops during Operation Michael, March 1918
In structure, Toland's book follows a relatively simple and orderly chronological outline. Hence, the author begins his narrative by introducing both the dominant political actors and the senior military commanders on both sides before launching into a detailed description of the last great German offensive in the west, Operation Michael, in the spring of 1918. Interestingly, it is while describing this massive German attack and its Janus-like effects on both the mood of the Allied leadership and on the morale of the German high command, that Toland is able to examine the complex relationships that connected the various heads of state to their generals, and how those various (often stormy) relationships actually affected the day-to-day events on the battlefield. To this end, the author catalogs, among other things, the almost mystical power of Ludendorf over the German Kaiser; the deep enmity (bordering on mutual loathing) between the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and his top commander in France, Field Marshal Douglas Haig; the petty jealousies and mistrust that colored relations between the French leader, Clemenceau, and most of his senior military commanders; and finally, the intransigence of the American general, "Black Jack" Pershing who, in his adamant refusal to parse out newly-arriving American troops to front line duty under French and British commanders, drove his fellow Allied generals into fits of frustrated anger. This portion of the book, in some ways, presents a startling portrait of powerful men faced with enormous challenges, who, at the same time that they grappled with truly life-or-death issues, nonetheless allowed themselves to be influenced by the petty resentments and infantile grudges of the "schoolyard".

 Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
The first few chapters of "No Man's Land", clearly illustrate both Toland's strengths and his weaknesses as a historical writer besides describing the near success of the Michael Offensive. By way of example, when it comes to the personalities of the major historical players, and the dynamic diplomatic, military and political interactions that produced the key strategic choices of these same leaders, he describes events both clearly and with a refreshing lack of personal bias. When it comes to his battlefield descriptions, however, the author seems to be on much shakier ground. Some writers can, in the space of a few carefully-crafted sentences, distill order from confusion and convey a real sense of the ebb and flow of a particular battle. Regrettably, John Toland, whatever his other talents, is not one of those peculiarly-gifted writers. In fact, in spite of my several attempts to follow his account of military developments during Operation Michael with a set of my own detailed maps of the battle areas, I found it virtually impossible to assemble his descriptive passages into any kind of comprehensible narrative of the actual battlefield events being related. [This, by the way, points to a particularly frustrating characteristic of the "No Man's Land" presentation: maps of any kind are scarce and, in the few instances when they are included, add nothing to complement the narrative flow of the book.]

Lloyd  George, Clemenceau and Wilson arrive at Versailles
As Toland's careful chronicle of the war moves from spring to summer, and then to fall, and the Allies shift from the defensive to the offensive, two particular heads of state, dramatically different both in their personal attributes and in their guiding philosophies, gradually emerge from between the pages of "No Man's Land" as crucial to the shape and timing of the armistice that will finally bring the Great War to an end in November, 1918: the exofficio dictator of wartime Germany, Erich Ludendorf; and the American president, Woodrow Wilson. One, through his intransigence and overarching arrogance, would end up guaranteeing a ruinous end to Germany's four-year struggle against the Allies, and an unstable (even toxic) future for the political life of the post-war Germany to follow; the other, blinded by his own idealism and an overweaning (almost messianic) self-confidence, would, in spite of his noble intentions, ultimately serve mainly to put a legitimate face on the disastrous peace terms that the victorious Western Allies chose to impose on their prostrate enemies in the bitter aftermath of World War I.

General John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing
arrives in Boulogne, June 1917
"No Man's Land", although it is a clearly written and carefully-researched book, is certainly not my favorite work on the First World War; nontheless, it is still a consequential and enlightening study of the final months of "The Great War" and as such, it is a worthwhile (if somewhat lengthy) read for both serious and casual students of history alike. Moreover, the book is nicely illustrated with period photographs, some of which are relatively unknown; unfortunately, as remarked upon earlier, it is extremely disappointing when it comes to usable maps. As a writer, Toland is at his best when he is describing, with surprising clarity, the complex interplay of communiques and dispatches that flew between the key decision-makers on both sides of the trenches during the many moments of crisis that punctuated these final decisive months of 1918. He is considerably less skillful when he attempts to describe the moment-by-moment chaos of the battlefield.

US Troops manning a 37mm cannon at Belleau Wood
John Toland, Pulitzer Prize or no, occupies a curious place among that relatively large body of authors who write or have written (Toland passed away in 2004) books dealing with "popular" history. If, for instance, military history "buffs" are asked to name their five favorite writers, his name will rarely if ever come up; yet, once his name is actually mentioned, it is almost always recognized immediately. One reason for this quasi-obscurity may well be because Toland's treatment of some of his historical subjects has been eccentric enough to gain relatively widespread notice, if somewhat less than widespread approval. For example, his biography of Adolf Hitler, although meticulously researched and generally well-written, nonetheless has to stand out as one of the few genuinely nonjudgmental, if not outright sympathetic studies ever written by anyone, anywhere, about the German dictator and architect of the Holocaust. Thus, my guardedly positive verdict on "No Man's Land" should probably come as no surprise to those readers who have come this far. Given both the book's strong and weak points, I feel I am obliged to rate "No Man's Land" at three-and-a half stars: it is most assuredly an excellent study of the cascading rush of events which pushed the belligerents, sometimes against their wills, to finally accept the war's end, despite a battlefield outcome that was curiously unsatisfying to both sides; unfortunately, the power of the book's narrative, as already noted, weakens appreciably every time the story shifts from the diplomatic, political, and economic fronts to the bloody and often inconclusive fighting that raged back and forth between the opposing trench lines that scarred the entire length of the Western Front. This is certainly not a critical flaw, but it is not a trivial one, either.

Meuse  Argonne  Offensive
Finally, as a sort of postscript, I should note that because of Toland's decision to limit his inquiry to the final year of the Great War, comparisons between "No Man's Land" and Barbara Tuchman's wonderfully-crafted study of the tragic mistakes and miscalculations that propelled otherwise reasonable men into starting World War I, "The Guns of August", are inevitable. And while each author writes with his or her own distinctive voice, the two books, nonetheless, complement each other nicely. Tuchman's book, at least in my view, is the more emotionally engaging and gracefully written of the two, but both are still important studies of their respective historical periods; and as such, they each have a great deal to offer to any reader who is genuinely curious about the events that lead up to and then ended the First World War and with it, Europe's relatively brief "Age of Innocence".

Recommended Reading

Besides allowing me time to surf my favorite wargaming sites (as well as almost getting heat stroke), my recent break from blogging also permitted me, at long last, to catch up on some of the reading that I had, for one reason or another, been postponing for far too long. Since my main interests, at least when it comes to military history, have always been in those topics relating to World War II, the American Civil War, and the Napoleonic Wars, I decided, this time around, to concentrate on subjects about which I was considerably less well-informed. World War I, dreary as the topic might be to most contemporary students of military affairs, seemed like a good place to start.
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