John Toland, chronicler of Hitler and the Rising Sun, is back with another blockbuster of a book, this time dealing with the events at the close of World War I in 1918. His accounting of the campaign along the Western Front and of the intrigues behind it and within revolutionary Russia has all the strengths and weaknesses of a blockbuster.
The action sweeps from the heady policymaking of Washington to uprisings in Vladivostok, from the bloody mire of trench warfare to air battles in the blue skies over Flanders Fields. But Toland seems more comfortable dealing with strategy and the grand plan than with tactics and the individual tragedy. He is good, for instance, on such matters as the British obsession with maintaining escape routes to the channel ports; the fierce but reckless offensives of the Germans; and the backstage performances of such as the gritty Marshal Foch ("He shall not pass!") and President Wilson, intent upon making the world safe for democracy in this war to end all wars.
But much of Toland's information has been gleaned from official archives and memoirs of professional officers (a notoriously dangerous source); and the result is curiously top-heavy. The confusion of the front lines, the war-weariness of the soldiers, and the details of the mutual slaughter are often shunted to the background in favor of the machinations of diplomacy and the drama of grand personalities.
Also there is a subtle but disturbing jingoism throughout. For example, in the text Toland himself refers to the Germans as "the Boche" (French slang, "blockhead" or "cabbage"); he is condescending toward idealists like Wilson ("burdened at times with crippling temperamental defects"); and is capable of announcing flatly, "French workers, inflamed by left-wing pacifists, were disgruntled." The implied judgment that the war had to be fought hardball (a la Forch) and that anyone who did not understand that was muddled or dangerous is an arguable thesis but one deserving more open discussion.
American involvement, as one might expect, is detailed -- from Pershing's insistence on fighting as a unit and a moving account of the famous "Lost Battalion" to Wilson's threat of a separate peace. Even such a skeptic as Teilhard de Chardin was brought to wonder that the doughboys were able to bring such an innocent bravery to a war deadened by years of attrition.
As Toland notes, extraneous forces often shaped the course of the war. The brilliant strategy of Operation Michael was aborted by the looting of drunken German soldiers, and the shadow of Bolshevism created hysteria in the German high command. Perhaps the most important factor in hastening the end was an outbreak of influenza that decimated both the troops and the home fronts; over 400,000 Germans perished, weekly fatalities averaged over 4,000 in England and Wales, and over 1,200 one week in Paris alone.
In its scope, "No Man's Land" is a useful book; but for analysis it does not rival Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory" or Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August." The raw material is clumsily handled; even as a movie, it will need a director.