Book Review: Ring of Steel

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War Iring of steel coverby Alexander WatsonBasic Books, 2014The glut of World War I books that engulfed the centenary year 2014 has all but receded as the year itself begins to wind down, so it's possible to look back and discern the high and low points, the "Verdun: Apocalypse Then"-style quickies at one end of the spectrum and a handful of truly excellent studies at the other. And as so often happens in such situations, one of the best items is one of the last: Alexander Watson's mammoth book Ring of Steel, now out in a sturdy hardcover from Basic Books, is one of the most comprehensive and readable assessments of the wartime roles of Germany and Austria-Hungary ever published in English; the book is an impressive, thorough tour de force.Watson's story is told almost entirely from the perspective inside his titular "ring of steel," the resistance put up on all fronts to the war-making aggression of the Central Powers, hemmed in by the slog of fighting in France, along the Russian border, and by the impenetrable naval blockade of the British fleet. Throughout his book, Watson matches an indefatigable stamina for research (his End Notes and Bibliography combined are as long as most books) with a dramatist's eye worthy of a Robert Massie or an Allan Eckert, taking readers through the initial euphoria of the Great War's beginning to the rapid-fire reversals that soon encircled Germany and Austria in an ever-tightening circle of defeat.The ending of the story is well-known: the proud and bellicose Central Powers eventually sued for peace, first on favorable terms and then on any terms - and one of Watson's most fascinating insights (in a book full of such insights) is that it might not necessarily have ended that way. He refers to the Reich's decision, made in January 1917, to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare as "the worst decision of the war," not only because it virtually guaranteed the entry of the United States to the conflict but also because the conflict itself might have had an expiration date the Germans couldn't quite see:

Unbeknownst to the Germans, the exertions of the past year had almost bankrupted the British. Paying for food and raw materials such as steel, as well as semi-finished or finished armaments, was costing the Treasury two million pounds a day, and British gold reserves and securities were on course to being exhausted by March 1917. Meanwhile the French army, even more than its German opponent, was demoralized after the bloodletting at Verdun and on the Somme. Its disillusionment with its commanders would break out in a mass strike in the spring and summer of 1917. Most ominous, the Russian Empire was on the verge of revolution. Little over a month after the unrestricted submarine campaign started on 1 February, the Tsar was overthrown by a popular uprising, an event that could have upturned the strategic situation and gifted the Central Powers a real chance of triumph. Instead, as one great enemy gradually collapsed, another, thanks to the U-boat campaign, entered hostilities.

This assertion, that the Central Powers might have won the war if they'd just held the course a bit longer, is all the more refreshing for being so challengingly argued, and refreshing also is the cold, assessing eye Watson turns toward US President Wilson; our author at times seems to dislike him almost as much as the Germans did:

President Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian minister and a man who had devoted his political life to progressive causes, usually adopted a tone of moralistic condescension when addressing warring Europeans. His sanctimonious preaching on 'behalf of humanity' rankled with German leaders, who were well aware that the ships passing from America to Britain carried US-produced weapons and munitions intended to kill their subjects.

Looming over any study of the "bad guys" of World War I is the specter of the war's sequel, and how the humiliating defeat imposed on Germany and Austria-Hungary created a deep-seated anger that would find many willing avatars in the next generation. Watson sees that anger as quite literally reaching out from the grave:

Many individuals took comfort from thinking of the fallen as Christ-like martyrs or as reposing in deep sleep. The idea too that the dead looked on, or that like Christ or a sleep they must rise again, permeated national consciousness. The question of what they had died for and what they desired divided Germans across the political spectrum, but even republicans imagined the dead admonishing the living to resurrect the Fatherland.

Readers who've been hesitant to dive into this torrent of WWI books can safely start with this one. And no serious reader of military history should miss it.