Book Review - 1916: A Global History, by Keith Jeffery

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Keith Jeffery, 1916: A Global History, Bloomsbury (2015). £12.99

I picked up 1916: A Global History on a whim in Waterstones last year as it looked to have an interesting concept, solely considering one year in the middle of the war but from a truly global perspective. However, I have to say I was disappointed with the book overall and I don't think it really achieved its declared mission.

The book begins with a lengthy chapter concerning late 1915, which itself felt like a demonstration of the limits of the book's concept: 1916 could not be entirely singled out from what came before. After wading through this, the rest of the chapters were then separated by geographic area. These regions certainly spanned the globe from the Izonso to the Balkans, the USA to Russia, but by taking them one at a time the book stops being global and starts being international. Jeffery considers the world in discrete units, rather than as a whole, unlike the implication in the introduction. I would personally have preferred if the chapters were split chronologically, allowing correlations to be identified across the world.

Then, within each of the chapters Jeffery rarely sticks to the stated region. The narrative wanders, with the chapter discussing the French at Verdun ending with a description of New Zealand's Unknown Warrior. Little connection is made between the two and this disorganised nature further frustrated the book's narrative.

Moreover, there is an odd weighting given to the key events of 1916. For instance, a whole chapter devoted to the Gallipoli campaign (which barely encroached on 1916), while only two pages cover the Battle of Jutland. I recently attended a lecture by Andrew Buchanan, who talked of the need for precision in global histories to balance case studies with overall trends and in Jeffery's book, it felt that this was off. This was something Arthur Marwick did exceedingly well in The Deluge, where so many topics are discussed both in terms of how they fit the overall trends, as well as through particular localised examples.

I think I was mostly disappointed with 1916: A Global History because it seemed such an exciting premise for a book. I was keen to read something that could contextualise the state of war in 1916 in light of all the active fronts. But maybe also, Jeffery inadvertently proved why nothing of that calibre exists: a global look at any year in history would be exceedingly difficult to complete fairly and comprehensively, let alone one as pivotal as 1916. I did learn several interesting tidbits of information, but this won't be a book I recommend in a hurry.


Image source: Times Higher Education

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