The First World War

Hew Strachan

This is fantastic, memorable stuff. The ‘Great War’ told in terms of real people’s lives; told in a way that makes one understand, well beyond the sort of rote-learning sense of history one might recall dimly from some long-ago school lesson, why this was, indeed, a World War.
A quick excerpt:
“Think of lying on the ground where the hot sun is beating directly on your backs; think of yourself buried in a hole with only your head and hands outside, holding a gun. Imagine yourself facing this situation for several days, no food, no water, yet you don’t feel hungry; only death smelling all over the place. Listen to the sound of exploding bombs and machine guns, smoke all over and the vegetation burnt and of course deforested. Look at your relatives getting killed, drying and finally dead.”
This was how Fololiyani Longwe of the King’s African Rifles recalled his First World War service. His memories were not very different from veterans of the war in Flanders and France. And yet one title being used for the war as it was being waged was the Great European War. Some subsequent interpretations of the war have been similarly negligent. According to this view, the war was an unnecessary conflict waged between states whose ismilarities were more marked than their differences – a sort of European civil war. As a result of its self-destructive folly Europe foreited its collective position as the leader of the Western world, a status assumed – eventually – by the United States. Moreover, if the Great European War was truly a global war, it became so only after the United States entered it in April 1917. Fololiyani’s testimony corrects such arrogant used of hindsight. He was one of over 2 million Africans who served in the war as soldiers and laborers: 10 percent of them died, and among the laborers the rate may have reached 20 percent. These were casualty rates comparable with those on the western front.

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