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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review: Cataclysm by David Stevenson

Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy by David Stevenson
Paperback, 624 pages
Basic Books
May 11, 2005

Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Source: Personal purchase for my Masters class

David Stevenson’s widely acclaimed history of World War I changes forever our understanding of that pivotal conflict. Countering the commonplace assumption that politicians lost control of events, and that the war, once it began, quickly became an unstoppable machine, Stevenson contends that politicians deliberately took risks that led to war in July 1914. Far from being overwhelmed by the unprecedented scale and brutality of the bloodshed, political leaders on both sides remained very much in control of events throughout. According to Stevenson, the disturbing reality is that the course of the war was the result of conscious choices—including the continued acceptance of astronomical casualties. In fluid prose, Stevenson has written a definitive history of the man-made catastrophe that left lasting scars on the twentieth century. Cataclysm is a truly international history, incorporating new research on previously undisclosed records from governments in Europe and across the world. From the complex network of secret treaties and alliances that eventually drew all of Europe into the war, through the bloodbaths of Gallipoli and the Somme, to the arrival of American forces, and the massive political, economic, and cultural shifts the conflict left in its wake, Cataclysm is a major revision of World War I history.
It is easy to understand why Cataclysm is used as the primary textbook for many classes on the First World War. In its one volume, it is absolutely jam packed with an immense amount of information covering all the angles that someone would want to look at the war from. There are viewpoints for each of the countries involved, what led up to the war, and how the war played out (year by year), and the resulting repercussions. It can certainly be used throughout an entire semester (I know from experience!).

I found the book to be an extremely dense read – after just a few pages I felt tired from reading it and had to put it down; because of that it took me a lot longer to read. There was a lot of facts and numbers, to include armament counts, death tolls, etc. Honestly, I think every statistic that could possibly be given was included in this work. That is excellent if you have a detail driven interest in the war, but for an everyday reader if was intense.

In terms of layout, it is fairly well done. Part 1 is the prelude to war, Part 2 looks at the various aspects of the war, Part 3 looks at the actual progression of the war to its conclusion, and Part 4 is the legacy of the war. Part 2 is the drier of the parts and is primarily where the extensive detail mine is. It is broken up into chapters such as “War Aims and Peace Negotiations”, “Technology, Logistics, and Tactics”, “Manpower and Morale” Part 3 is broken up by years and the general themes of who had the advantage. There are several maps located in the introduction of the book that I think would have been better placed within the appropriate chapters as quite frankly I forgot about referring back to them throughout the reading. When it comes to a discussion of war I find maps to be highly important and should be embraced with the discussion. I’m fine with the photographs being included in one section toward the middle of the book as they add more of a well-rounded overall experience, but are not absolutely necessary.

Overall, this is an excellent presentation on the First World War, but it is not light reading by any means.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Also by David Stevenson:

1914-1918: The History of the First World War

With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918

Highland Warrior

Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Scotland, 1644-1651

Find David Stevenson: Website

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