No Man’s Land by John Toland is a book about the First World War, as the abundance of evidence in the title suggests. It is a very comprehensive and lengthy account of the war, throughout using many official memos, documents, and various journals to showcase the varying perspectives on both sides of the conflict. While mainly focusing on the Western Front, the infant Soviet Union is also talked about a bit (perhaps too much), though the various other sides of the war in the Middle East, the Italian front, and the Bulgarian front are glazed over. And that is for the better in the larger narrative. The book is really about the famous hell that was the trenches in 1918.
And what a hell the book paints it to be. But far from the illogical slaughter it is usually made out to be (okay, not that far) this book made me realize that in the situation, it made good military sense. With faster transportation and longer ranges and accuracy of weapons, a larger front was needed to contain an enemy army. With a longer front comes a higher need for cover, and without tanks to break enemy lines, massive artillery barrages are the only way the trench defensive networks could be broken through. Now, this might not be what the book intended to tell me. But it gives the reader a good enough feel for the people involved that I believe they could simply have not reached another conclusion about how the war should be waged. And even though the trenches were a grinding hell, the book accurately depicts the great surges that were required to break the lines, and the enormous amount of movement needed to capitalize on a victory.
The book runs through many battles, all along the front, by the various forces. All accounts are of people who lived through the war (for obvious reasons). From Patton strolling through the battlefield, collecting retreating units and sending them forward again; to the British artillery officer Patrick Campbell, who dealt with a series of characters and ineffectual commanding officers; to the German Franz Seldte, in charge of creating motion pictures out of battlefield scenes. Through talks of both advances and retreats, where 90% casualties were easily expected, and communication so limited that individuals had little to no idea what they were supposed to be doing. Up to the Field Marshals: Douglas Haig, Ferdinand Foch, and Paul Hindenburg. And it ends with the politicians: Prime Minister Lloyd George, representative Colonel House, Premier Clemenceau, and Chancellor Prince Max.
The book covers from high to low all throughout the year in a very well researched and orderly manner. Everything is presented, as a historical book should, in a manner that does not judge, but only tells. The reader is left to make their own judgments about each of the various people presented. The author seems to put more into judging people who later wrote biographies and deleted some of the more rousing passages from various texts, though that is left to the footnotes.
The things that are presented in extravagant detail and the things that are almost glossed over are sometimes puzzling, as is the reasoning of which get better treatment, but that is very little of the book. Overall, it is quite excellently written, and a great in-depth look at the final year of the Great War. The things everyone knows, and the things only the few would know are all presented fascinatingly.
It is a bit of a disappointment to me that the negotiations preceding the Treaty of Versailles and the treaty signing itself were kept out of the book, but it was already at 450 pages when it does end, just after the armistice celebrations. It took me more than a month (with a vacation where I didn’t read much) to finish the book, and the pages are dense enough that going is slow. This, of course, does not diminish the quality of the work.
If one is at all interested in the last year of the first Great War, and has the time to devote to this book, it is great for both the casual and historic reader, with its only detriment being its length, and some might consider that a bonus.