[Cross-posted at Airminded.]
It’s been a good year for reading military history, but then it always is. If I had to recommend one military history book I’ve read this year it would be David Stevenson’s With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (London: Penguin, 2012). Stevenson’s previous book, 1914-1918 (published as Cataclysm in the United States), was a good survey of the First World War, even an excellent one; but it didn’t hint at the magisterial nature of this book. In fact, I was worried that With Our Backs to the Wall might simply prove to be a padded-out version of the 130-odd pages in 1914-1918 covering the same period. Of course my fears were groundless.
The first third of With Our Backs to the Wall provides the narrative backdrop for the rest of the book. Here, Stevenson explains the events of 1918: in particular the German gamble on the Western Front in the spring, the successful Allied defence and the ultimately even more successful Allied offensive leading to the Armistice. This section by itself is almost worth the cover price (especially if you bought it in paperback like I did): it’s easy to focus on the ‘classic’ period of trench warfare between 1915 and 1917 and forget the return to a war of movement in 1918. But where Stevenson really shines is in the following thematic chapters which explore how the war was fought in 1918, how it had changed since 1914 and why it didn’t continue into 1919, as was widely expected until the autumn. There’s something for everyone here: technology, intelligence, logistics, morale, finance, economics, gender. Of course the approach is necessarily largely synthetic, though Stevenson does often use primary source material to great effect. Each topic is treated in depth to a satisfying degree: even if you are familiar with the scholarship you are likely to find something worthwhile (as I did in the section on airpower), and if you aren’t you’ll learn a lot. But despite the density of the text and its length (nearly 550 pages excluding endnotes), I found With Our Backs to the Wall a compelling and even gripping book. Highly recommended. (But if it’s not to your taste, perhaps try Claudia Baldoli and Andrew Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy Under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945, London and New York: Continuum, 2012.)
So if you had to recommend one military history book you’ve read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?