Hart is a renowned historian whose particular interest is World War I, its battles, politics, and results. The Last Battle deals with the final year of the war to end all wars.
The continuation of massed charges through no man’s land existing between the two sides setting men against all the mechanized killing machines that were developed to kill as many of them as possible. The book is scheduled for publication at a time that roughly coincides with the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918 and provided for a short period awaiting the more definitive Treaty of Versailles that set out the formal terms of the surrender of Germany to the allies – England, France, and the United States.
Battles during the months prior to the armistice included the fifth battle of Ypres, the Sambre, the Selle and the scene of the United States’ greatest contribution to the war effort: the Meuse- Argonne. Hart utilizes a method he has perfected in his other books dealing with the war which is to find written pieces by men fighting in the battles, that describe what they felt and experienced and incorporate those pieces into their proper places allowing the reader to get more of a feel for what happened.
There are , in effect, three sections of the book. The first is a description of the battles with the horrendous slaughters that are part and parcel of massed charges across a short stretch of land between two sets of trenches separating the two sides. The next segment concerns the participation by men with the feeling that the war will shortly be over and wanting to live and return to normal life. The final section brings into play the somewhat reluctant feeling of many soldiers about leaving the comradeship of being part of a band of brothers and having to go it alone in civilian life. They have had decisions made for them for the years spent in the trenches and now will go it alone.
The world is different after the conflict: attitudes and mores have been shaped by a global conflict that killed and wounded millions, a flu epidemic that strikes and causes probably more casualties than the war did. The conditions of the participants are radically changed with the U.S. emerging as a great power, Germany bankrupt after funding their war and having to pay reparations assessed against them by the allies that placed the blame for the conflict on them. England and France drained of young men and with their own enormous war debts. Worse, another world war less than 20 years after WWI ends looking like a continuation of the first and merely waiting for another generation of men to be readied to rush into combat.
Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president, presented Germany with a 14 point program to accept in order to reach an agreement to end the conflict. This was basically accepted. Wilson was in a unique position to place himself into the group that handled the details to end the conflict. He had won the presidential election in 1916, taking office in 1917 with the slogan, “He Kept us out of War.” Then several months after the election he found cause to enter the war on the ally’s side. With neither side having sufficient strength to make war on the U.S. it may have been a carrot handed to Wilson to entice him to enter the war on the ally’s side in order to have a strong voice in setting the terms of any peace treaty.
Peter Hart has the gift of being able to present nonfiction as an interesting read with his audience coming to an understanding of what it really meant to be subjected to the horrors of war and the battlefield. Very well done.
3/18 Paul Lane
THE LAST BATTLE by Peter Hart. Oxford University Press; 1 edition (March 1, 2018). ISBN 978-0190872984. 464p.