In the British world, 1916 has a peculiarly dreadful resonance. More than nineteen thousand soldiers from Britain and its empire died on 1 July of that year, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a number incomprehensible to most of us, and more than six times the number murdered in the attacks on 9/11 that shook the world. The Easter Rising in Dublin in April, disastrously mishandled by the British authorities, precipitated the violent rupture between Britain and Ireland. The previous January the evacuation from Gallipoli had been completed, after one of the most damaging episodes of the First World War. At the end of May the Royal Navy, built up throughout the Edwardian era to a standard where it was supposedly as strong as the next two navies in Europe, accomplished what can best be described as a score draw against the German High Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. By the autumn, statesmen such as Lord Lansdowne were asking whether Britain should sue for peace, and in December Asquith was deposed as prime minister by Lloyd George.
Keith Jeffery’s book covers all these episodes, but much more: it is a global history, and its purpose is partly to remind us, through the events of this pivotal year, that the Great War was a world war. Andrew Roberts’s immaculately researched and sensitively written account of the Somme concentrates