The last battle: endgame on the Western Front, 1918
by Peter Hart
published by Profile Books in 2018
Hardback 395 pages plus acknowledgements, end notes and index. Illustrated.
ISBN 978 1 78125 482 0
Reviewed by Chris Baker
Peter Hart is amongst the most prolific of authors covering the Great War and will be known to many readers of my reviews. He is a larger than life character, with his CV including periods as the Imperial War Museum’s accomplished oral historian (which I believe he still is); Labour Party activist (I am not sure whether he still does that); punk rocker (he definitely still does that); speaker; battlefield guide; father and family man. His “Fire and movement” is certainly amongst the best books written during this centenary period and covers the opening moves of 1914.
In “The last battle”, Hart has moved on to the final weeks of the war and the high-tempo series of overlapping offensives carried out by the Entente allies that ended with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. It is a period laden with its own mythology, with supporters of the Americans, Australians, Canadians and tanks all staking a claim for their favourites as having won the war. The undoubted military defeat of the German armies is often dismissed, with the economic collapse of Germany, the “stab in the back” at home and the explosion of revolutionary activity all being used to mask and excuse what actually happened.
The book focuses mainly on the battles of Meuse-Argonne, the Canal du Nord and the Hindenburg Line, Flanders, Selle and Sambre and Mons. I found it lucidly written and easy to follow, and helped by some very good and clear maps. The author has a happy knack of blending a high-level of abstraction (the politics, grand strategy and operational) with the personal and minute, and making it work for the reader. Battle descriptions rarely come below, say, brigade level, but the detail below that comes from many quotations from the personal papers, memoirs and other records of individuals. In such a work, it is of course necessary to combine sources from all of the belligerent nations and to some degree this is achieved: the book does lean a little towards British and Commonwealth sources but there are good American and French contributions. I would like to have seen more German content at the personal, individual level, but I know at first-hand how difficult (and expensive) that is for an author.
I have read hundreds of battle narratives from all sorts of sources, and have even written a few myself. If I had one over-arching criticism of them as a genre it is that they often lose the connection between the events and the men. There is often a dearth of empathy. Either that, or they flip to the other end of the scale and present an overly sympathetic view and lose the technical grit of the action. The author’s skill, ably demonstrated in this book, is to strike a balance. I found Hart’s descriptions of post-war demobilisation and the parting paragraph saying that for all too many of the participants the fighting was not their last battle in life to be particularly striking.
Overall, the narrative is highly educational and “The last battle” certainly makes for a good read.
I have some minor quibbles. The “Imperial German Army”: not really, although I understand it as a shorthand. The “Fifth Battle of Ypres”: not really, unless you count the Battle of the Lys as a fourth one, and it wasn’t. But these are things that can discussed with the author over a pint. Until he leaves the table and gets up to be a punk singer again, that is.
The Long, Long Trail was listed in the acknowledgements in this book and the publisher kindly sent me a review copy, which may differ from the final product.