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A History of the Great War
By John Buchan in 4 volumes


This work in its original form appeared in twenty-four volumes between February 1915 and July 1919, and was therefore written and published for the most part during the progress of the campaign. Begun as an experiment to pass the time during a period of enforced inaction, its large sales and the evidence forthcoming that it met a certain need induced me to continue it as a duty, and the bulk of it was written in the scanty leisure which I could snatch from service abroad and at home. Any narrative produced under such conditions must bristle with imperfections. It will contain many errors of fact. The writer cannot stage his drama or prepare the reader for a sudden change by a gradual revelation of its causes. His work must have something of the apparent inconsequence of real life. He records one month a sanguine mood and a hopeful forecast ; three months later he will tell of depression and of expectations belied. He must set out interim judgments, and presently recant them.

After much reflection I decided to revise—and largely rewrite—the book in order to give it perspective and a juster scale, and I was moved to this decision by my view of the value of contemporary history. Sir Walter Raleigh, in the preface to his History of the World, excuses himself for not writing the story of his own times, which (he says) might have been more pleasing to the reader, on the ground that "whosoever in writing a moderne Historic shall follow truth too neare the heeles, it may happily strike out his teeth." To Napoleon, on the contrary, it seemed that contemporary history was the surest. "One can say what occurred one year after an event as well as a hundred years. It is more likely to be true, because the reader can judge by his own knowledge." Between two such opinions reason would seem to decide for the second. Till a few hundred years ago historians almost exclusively chronicled events of which they had been spectators. The greatest of all wrote what was in the strictest sense of the word contemporary history. Thucydides played his part in the first stages of the Peloponnesian War with the resolution of becoming its chronicler, and he saw the ebb and flow of its tides, not as political mutations, but as moments in the larger process of Hellenic destiny. With such a writer, living in the surge of contemporary passions, and yet with an eye abstracted and ranging over a wide expanse of action and thought, no reconstructor of forgotten ages from books and archives can hope to vie. For the scholar in such a case competes with the creator, the writer of history with one who was also its maker; and the dullest must thrill when in the tale of the struggle for Amphipolis the opponent of Brasidas is revealed as Thucydides, son of Olorus.

There are special and peculiar reasons why the future historian who essays to tell the whole tale of the Great War will find himself at a disadvantage. The mass of material will be so huge that even a new Gibbon or a second Ranke, grappling with it in many libraries, will find himself overburdened. Some principles of interpretation he will need, and will no doubt devise, but the odds are that such principles will be academic and artificial. The details of this or that battle may be clearer in the future when war diaries and personal memoirs have multiplied, but I believe that the main features of the war can be more accurately seen and more truly judged by those who lived through it than by a scholar writing after the lapse of half a century. The men of our own day, from the mere fact of having taken part in the struggle, are already provided with a perspective, a perspective more just, I think, than any which the later historian, working only from documents, is likely to discover.

Again, in a contest of whole peoples psychology must be a matter of prime importance; mutations of opinion and the ups and downs of popular moods are themselves weighty historical facts, as much as a battle or a state paper; and who is to assess them truly if not those who themselves felt the glow of hope and the pain of disillusion? Lastly, the contemporary has, perhaps, a more vivid sense of the great drama if he has appeared on the stage, were it only as one of a crowd of citizens in the background. I cannot boast with Raleigh that I have been " permitted to draw water as neare the Weil-Head as another; but for much of the war I was within a modest distance of the springs. My duties, first as a War Correspondent and then as an Intelligence officer, gave me some knowledge of the Western Front; and later, in my work as Director of Information, I was compelled to follow closely events in every theatre of war, and for the purposes of propaganda to ake a study of political reactions and popular opinion in many countries.

My aim has been to write a clear narrative of one of the greatest epochs in history, showing not only the changing tides of battle, but the intricate political, economic, and social transformations which were involved in a strife not of armies but of peoples. I have tried—with what success it is for others to judge—to give my story something of the movement and colour which it deserves, and to avoid the formlessness of a mere compilation. The book is meant to be history on a large scale, printed as it were in capital type, and to keep the proportions I have omitted much detail of great interest which can be found in works dealing with individual military and naval units, limited battle-grounds, and special spheres of national effort. But in one respect I am conscious that I have departed from a just proportion. The book is written in English, and intended primarily to be read by the writer's countrymen. Hence the part played by Britain has been described more fully than that of the other belligerents, though I trust this prominence deliberately given to British doings does not appear in my general criticisms and judgments. One point I would emphasize. No confidences have been betrayed, no privileges have been claimed or used, no matter included which cannot be fairly regarded as public property. The book is indeed the opposite of an official history. It does not pretend to lay open sealed archives; it is a personal not a professional record, a chronicle of individual observation, private study, personal assessments. In a work so full of details there must inevitably be mistakes, but I have striven earnestly to tell the truth, so far as I could ascertain it, free from bias or petulance or passion. The story is too noble a one to be marred by any "vileinye of hate."

With regard to the method followed: The pages are not "documented," for to quote authorities would have doubled the size of the volumes. References to sources are usually given only when some point is still in dispute. In the early part, when the British Army was small, brigades and even battalions are mentioned; in the later, the normal unit is the division and, in most chapters, the corps. No fixed principle has been followed in spelling foreign names ; I have used the forms in which they are most likely to be familiar to the general reader. I have had the advantage of the knowledge and advice of a very great number of soldiers, sailors, and civilians among nearly all the belligerent nations, some of whom have been so kind as to read my proofs. To these, my friends, I offer my warmest gratitude, and I only refrain from the pleasure of writing their names because I have sometimes had the temerity to differ from their views, and I hesitate to involve distinguished professional men in any responsibility for a work which in every part represents an independent exercise of my own judgment. To one helper, however, I must make special acknowledgment. Mr. Milliard Atteridge from the late months of 1914 has assisted me in analyzing reports, in verifying references, in correcting proofs, and especially in the preparation of the maps. But for his most capable and unwearying aid the book in its original form could not have been written.

J. B.
Elsfield Manor, Oxon.

Download these volumes here
Volume 1  |  Volume 2  |  Volume 3  |  Volume 4

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