1917: War, Peace and Revolution

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By 1917 all sides in the First World War were at a stalemate. The Battle of the Somme had already led to huge casualties on all sides. By January 1917, having lost a million men either killed, wounded or captured, France needed to end the war. Similarly, Russia was on its knees, with 4.5 million killed, wounded or sick, food shortages and inflation.

Stevenson shows that, far from being a “defensive” war, it was about imperial ambitions. Britain wanted to extend into Mesopotamia and Palestine. Germany planned to dominate Poland, Lithuania and Courland and take over Livonia, Estonia and Ukraine to the east and Luxemburg and Belgium to the west. Russia wanted Poland and control over the Dardanelles. France wanted the return of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhine, the Austro-Hungarian Empire wanted the Balkans, while Italy wanted areas with Italian speakers. Japan wanted islands from Germany, to clear German shipping out of the east Asian Pacific area and move into China.

A major part of the book is devoted to analysing the debates at top levels of government and the military. Aiming to defeat Britain in five to six months, Germany took the decision to sink as many boats as possible around the British Isles so as to cut off essential supplies. This meant abrogating the “Sussex pledge” of avoiding merchant vessels. It risked sinking merchant vessels, thus antagonising other countries. It was a miscalculation that led to the US government finally entering the war.

Stevenson discusses a series of disastrous offensives, aimed at bringing a quick end to the war. French Commander Nivelle orchestrated an offensive on the Western Front in April 1917, costing the lives of 134,000 French troops and 6,500 Senegalese shock troops. Their hands froze so they were unable to use their rifles.

Planning the Battle of Passchendaele, another disaster, in the summer of 1917, General Haig reckoned with 100,000 casualties a month, while Lord Milner thought that “to get the enemy away from the Belgian coast was worth half a million men”.

A later section discusses the role of India in the First World War, the impact this had on stimulating discontent with British colonial rule alongside the reverberations of the 1916 Easter Rising, the Russian Revolution and the campaigns for home rule.

In 1914 India already had garrisons in Egypt, China, Singapore and the Indian Ocean. The Indian army was also deployed in east Africa and Basra in Iraq and made up one in three on the Western Front in 1914-15. India played a key role in supplying essential war materials such as sand bags and guns, which created shortages and inflation. India was expected to pay for its own army yet Indian soldiers were barred from becoming officers.

Stevenson outlines debates leading to the Balfour declaration on Palestine and covers the involvement of other countries drawn into the war. He succeeds in showing how debates on high were shaped by pressures from below as well as imperial ambitions.