Browned Off and Bloody-Minded
The British Soldier Goes to War, 1939–1945
by Alan Allport, 424 pages. (Yale, $40).
Approaching World War II as a social history of those who served in the PBI (poor bloody infantry), Allport examines the British Army’s evolution over the six years of conflict. Essentially a “large, well-run country estate” in 1939, its public-school educated officers held the new war recruits—most of them working class and often barely educated or out of their teens—in disdain, as did Winston Churchill. The new infantry returned the favor, and a them-and-us mentality developed. That is one part of Allport’s story, but he also addresses the experiences of these young recruits, who suddenly found themselves in lands far removed from the orderly, “white-faced” world of Britain—North Africa, Italy, India, Burma. Quotes from memoirs, diaries, and letters convey the fear, courage, confusion, and bravado of men fighting far from home and not at all certain whether their leaders are leading them toward victory or just to death. The heroes that emerge in Allport’s overall picture are the NCOs, who in the teeth of combat, kept their men moving forward. One officer, Christopher Seton-Watson, who was often at the sharp point of the fighting, summed up the German soldier versus the British soldier as the product of “a nation with war and military discipline in its bones” versus “a nation that can outfight and outmanoeuvre its opponents and at the same time laugh and be careless and refuse to be crushed and dehumanized.” And that is the picture Allport paints of the PBI.
Antiquity and Its Legacy
by Alfred S. Bradford, 192 pages. (Oxford, paperback $24.95).
As part of the Oxford Ancients and Moderns series—created to “illustrate that how we think about the past bears a necessary relation to who we are in the present”—Bradford goes into the deep recesses of Western civilizations in a quick survey of wars from the second millennium bc through the 20th century. He then moves on to consider the philosophical arguments made throughout history regarding the morality and inevitability of war—from Plato to Cicero to early 17th-century Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius to more contemporary thinkers and their ruminations on the bombings of World War II.
The book ends with short chapters examining war writing and war images, but it is the first chapter on the Iliad that is the most powerful. Bradford sees Homer’s vast poem as the key to Western concepts of warfare, and he dissects its notions of heroism, loss, brutality, and pervasiveness. “In the world of Homer,” Bradford writes, “war permeates everything and involves everyone.”
The Russian Army in the Great War
The Eastern Front, 1914–1917
by David R. Stone, 368 pages. (University Press of Kansas, $34.95).
Stone, a military historian who focuses on Russia, explains in his introduction that this book is “a brief synthesis of scholarly research on Russia’s experience in fighting the First World War.” As such, it begins with the shape, makeup, and character of the Russian army in 1914 and ends with a quick look at the new Soviet militarism under the Bolsheviks. In between, Russia’s victories and reversals—in Galicia, Poland, the Carpathians, and the Caucasus—are described from a military, political, and geopolitical perspective. Threading through this is Stone’s theme of “contingency…the impact of specific events and individual choices…on history’s direction.” He frequently offers brief what-if scenarios, particularly as regards the turns the war might have taken in the Romanovs’ favor, and what those turns might have meant for Russian—and world—history.
The Oxford Illustrated History of World War II
edited by Richard Overy, 400 pages. (Oxford, $45).
While this volume does have scattered illustrations, it relies mostly on the writings of university historians to probe the causes and implications of total war. These scholars bring depth to the typical narrative of World War II, tracing its roots and outcomes to economic conditions in the post–Great War decades, territorial ambitions, diplomatic trends, and geographic realities. The conduct of the war in European and Asian theaters is examined as are the national interests that led to alliances and the ways in which total war absorbed civilian as well as military life. A final chapter describes the personalities and circumstances that led to the next long-running conflict—the Cold War.