No Man's Land

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

By habit historians have become fond of (or, perhaps, obsessed by) talking about turning points or watershed epochs in history. Often a reader encounters the aggressive attempt to find that moment in the past that somehow encapsulates the elements of what had come before it, and which simultaneously laid the ground for what was to come. John Toland has chosen, in this his tenth book on an aspect of twentieth century history, the year 1918 as just such a moment of conclusions and beginnings. Certainly, there is nothing original in focusing on the year World War I ended as closing an age that would not be seen again. As to whether the year 1918 holds, in its historical tracings, the root secrets of the world that was to come into shape is a more problematic proposition.

A decade ago, Geoffrey Barraclough, in a short volume entitled Introduction to Contemporary History, argued that the year 1917 was the pivotal point for the subsequent course of history—marked as it was by the two-stage revolution in Russia and by the intervention of the United States into World War I. He maintains that those two events foreshadowed the eventual “eclipse” of Europe and the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two global superpowers. Toland’s argument, by contrast, is neither as broadly gauged nor as compelling as Barraclough’s. Moreover, by framing his book within the strict chronology of the year 1918, Toland foregoes any treatment of the Versailles Conference in 1919 that sought to remake the map of Europe, and which—in the minds of some—wrote a peace treaty that was bound to end in war.

A reader may question Toland’s claims for the significance of the year 1918 in a broader context. No one can argue that, once having chosen the year, he fails to stick with his choice. The book’s action begins on New Year’s Day of 1918 and proceeds painstakingly through the armistice on November 11. Within the chronological framework of those eleven months, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author manages to bring on stage a panorama of figures. A few such Toland summonings seem a bit contrived—not the least among them are passages describing the fretting young lance corporal Adolf Hitler in the trenches.

Militarily the strategies of 1918 differed little, if any, from what had come before. Whatever else might have reached its turning point in 1918, it was hardly the mentality of the commanding officers. Their thinking still followed the notion of marshaling men and munitions for a concentrated assault that would produce a breakthrough in the enemy lines, which, in turn, would cause a shift in the Front, which had barely shifted since late 1914. Neither had there been a great change in the weapons used, save for the fact that mustard gas was more readily available and more likely to be deployed. The use of mustard gas, however, was problematic in itself since a shift in the winds could send it right back in the direction from which it was fired. A sophisticated knowledge of meteorology was more important to its successful use than any other single factor.

The situation, however, had altered, and, one might say, it had shifted primarily because of the events of 1917. Russia was out of the war, and the Bolsheviks left no question about their intentions to be out of it by pursuing peace with Germany and sealing that peace in March, 1918. This, in itself, gave Germany a victory in half the war, accompanied by tremendous gains geographically and in matériel at the cost of the new leaders in Russia. Ostensibly, the victory in the east gave the Germans every reason to hope that a transfer of troops no longer needed there to the west would swing the war in her favor against Britain and France. The counterweight, or obstacle, to this action was the intervention of the Americans. Only in 1918, as Toland is at pains to...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)