1916: Twelve snapshots of a tumultuous year (Book Review)

Title: 1916: A Global History; Author: Keith Jeffery; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 438; Price: Rs.799

If somehow one could go back in time to about a century ago, the shape of world would have been unrecognisable. The number of independent countries across entire Asia and Africa did not even reach double figures, and Europe had even less than half of the countries then that exist now. But 1916 was an eventful year as a war that began in (and was bleeding) Europe began affecting distant stretches and in the crucible of conflict, pain and suffering, new nations sought to become reality.

The First World War’s outcome still hung in the balance but it had in Europe ground into bloody and futile battles of attrition, at increasing, irreplaceable, human cost, imperial possessions were restive across the globe, a whole system of life was disrupted and contours of the the world as we know were starting to emerge – though it would take another global conflagration for it to take a shape we can recognize.

But some seeds were laid – the Easter Rebellion in Dublin indicated that an independent Ireland was a matter of time away, and the efforts of various contributors to the war had various reasons and outcomes. British colonies like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, not to mention the Turkish core of the Ottoman Empire saw their soldiers’ exploits strengthen national identities, while for men from various foreign ruled parts of Asia and Africa or even many stateless Europeans, it was a bid to showcase their suitability for more preferential treatment and eventual self-rule.

It doesn’t need access to a time machine to get an atmospheric journey through this tumultuous year – all that is needed is this detailed but extraordinary vivid account by a leading historian and author of over a dozen books dealing mostly with Irish, British and military history.

Jeffery, whose previous work included a riveting history of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service in its first four decades of existence (1909-1949), in this work, which present the year’s happenings in a dozen chapters – each intended to represent a month, with focus on a major event or battle taking place then but this not confined to Western Europe like most standard histories.

He uses the case of poet Rupert Brooke, who died while on his way to the Eastern Mediterranean to his place of deployment, to shift widen focus away from the Western Front, observing “any study of the the 1914-18 war which concentrates mainly on that region is profoundly flawed or limited” as he reminds us it was a “World War”.

Thus while January sees the the final evacuation of Allied troops from the Gallipoli Peninsula, February, the (ultimately pointless) Battle of Verdun begin, March portrays the crazy front between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies (to be later made famous by Ernest Hemingway), April sees the gallantly tragic Easter Rising in Dublin, and May, the inconclusive naval battle of Jutland, but then the focus shifts.

June takes up the Eastern (Russian) Front where the Brusilov offensive is on, July deals with Asia (Russian Central Asia where compulsory enrollment led to widespread violence and stern retribution, India where military enrollment was always not as voluntary was generally portrayed and China, nervous of Japanese intentions getting desperate to join the war but only allowed to send a labour corps) and August sees us in Africa, where the conflict, though deemed a sideshow, was no less exacting, much abusive on natives and would have profound implications for colonial powers.

September sees us back in Europe as the Battle of Somme begins, October in Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey, November in the US where Woodrow Wilson’s narrow victory over Charles Evan Hughes in the presidential polls will have profound implications – and not only for the war, and December in Russia where the year ends with mystic Rasputin’s murder. An afterword ends with the tantalising premise – and prospects of – a negotiated end of the war in this year itself.

But what makes this work as compelling for a general reader is that this roller-coaster journey is not just confined to war and soldiers but is bursting with all sort of fascinatingly extraordinary men – and women – including journalists, nurses and people who just want to live their lives their way – or just live!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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