Share This Article

1916: A Global History, by Keith Jeffery, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, 2016, $32

While lacking the dramatics of 1914 and 1918, much happened during the second year of World War I. Historians often concentrate on the fighting in France with nods toward Russia and the Middle East. Keith—a professor of British history at Queen’s University Belfast—casts a wider net. Here in chronological order the author presents 12 unrelated but engrossing essays either on the 1916 campaigns or events related to the war that usually, though not always, began that year.

In January 1916, for example, the last Allied soldier left Gallipoli. Keith skips the fighting to describe the evacuation, which, unlike the disastrous campaign itself, succeeded brilliantly. February marked the first attack on Verdun. This time Keith pays close attention to the campaign—the last German offensive until the desperate finale two years later. Verdun was that nation’s Gettysburg, a battle the Germans had to win or face defeat by an enemy with superior numbers and resources. It represents the epitome of the awfulness of industrial warfare, and Keith demonstrates that with a brilliant account chock-full of personal recollections from both sides. March featured the Fifth (of nine) Battle of the Isonzo, on the Adriatic coast just north of Trieste. The combatants in France held a low opinion of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies, and subsequent historians have not disagreed, but the slaughter on the Italian front was no less gruesome. Turning to the Easter Rising that April, Keith notes that the opponents in that side match fought with an incompetence matched on the war front, though Ireland ultimately did its part; despite the absence of conscription, nearly one-third of its young men served in the British forces.

Military buffs will have little trouble predicting subsequent chapters. May brings Jutland and the war at sea. June the Brusilov offensive and the Eastern Front down to the dramatic U.S. presidential election in November and Rasputin’s murder in December. July will trip them up, as Keith moves the Somme to September to emphasize its drawn-out miseries. July features a little-known but bloody uprising in Central Asia against Russian recruitment, which serves as an introduction to the immense contribution of India, China, Japan and other Asian nations.

Even within these scattershot chapters Keith is not shy about detouring to barely related subjects that capture his interest. The only recurring feature is lively, opinionated, consistently fascinating writing, so few readers will complain.

—Mike Oppenheim