It might be said that Prit Buttar’s first work of history was a baptism of fire, one that was almost entirely due to the subject matter. Dr. Buttar chose to write about the campaign in East Prussia between the German Army and the Soviet Red Army at the tail end of World War II. He could have hardly selected a more dramatic or horrific moment in a war full of them. The campaign was filled with human drama, profound violence, and wanton destruction. The subject matter and stories which arose from the campaign must have been daunting to research and then retell, but Dr. Buttar was prepared from the start. The formative experience that laid the foundation for his first history book occurred when one of his patients, who had been a nurse in East Prussia during the war, told him about what she had witnessed when the Red Army invaded the region. To say that Dr. Buttar was intrigued would be a massive understatement.
The moment that former nurse told Dr. Buttar her story would only mean something if the good doctor took the opportunity to transcend time and place in much the same manner his patient did. Thankfully for those of us who always wanted to know more about the Eastern Front that was just what he did. Though Dr. Buttar has never divulged his patient’s name, one can only imagine the powerful effect that the woman’s experiences must have had upon him. A routine checkup was transformed into a moment that would change the English language historiography of the Eastern Front during World War I for the better. It also sparked the next phase in Buttar’s career, where he would become as much a doctor of history as he was a doctor of medicine.
The Passionate Amateur – A Doctor Finds His Calling
The upshot of that initial meeting between patient and doctor took eight years before it came to fruition. In 2010, Dr. Buttar’s Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany’s Eastern Front 1944-45 was published to widespread acclaim. Ironically, the book’s success spurred Buttar to not only research and write another work on World War II in Eastern Europe (Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II), but undertake the monumental task of writing a multi volume history of the Eastern Front during World War I*. With the centennial of the war fast approaching, there was certainly going to be a market for such books. The question was whether Dr. Buttar was up to the task.
The project would have taxed the resources of the most accomplished professional historians. There were a multitude of reasons why no one had ever written such a series in English. The languages were a barrier, archives were difficult to access, documentation was scattered, and the scale of the front was daunting. None of this was going to stop Prit Buttar. He may not have been a “professional” historian, but he was certainly an indefatigable one. Dr. Buttar would work assiduously to illuminate the shadowy Eastern Front for the English speaking world. He stepped into a historical breach. The Eastern Front was an area that very few historians in the western world had ever confronted. Those who had usually limited their efforts to a single volume on a specific battle. Passion combined with zeal, intellect fusing information with interpretation, a clear and concise writing style, these were the traits that Dr. Buttar brought to bear upon the project.
His efforts resulted in four volumes that together amounted to the first truly comprehensive history of the Eastern Front during World War I in the English language. From 2014 to 2017, Buttar published one book per year. Such a prodigious output required moving at warp speed when compared to other historians. The amazing thing is that Dr. Buttar managed to straddle the line between scholarly and popular history without sacrificing one for the other. While the books are readable by armchair historical amateurs, they are done to the highest professional standards. An academic would be more than proud to have these books as part of their resume. As for myself, I was ecstatic that Buttar had taken up the task to provide amateurs and professionals alike with a written narrative that enhances understanding of what occurred on the Eastern Front and why it mattered so much then and still does today.
Soldiers In Space – Deeper Into The Abyss
For anyone looking to read these books, I would suggest they start with the introductions provided at the beginning of each volume. These offer valuable context that explains why warfare on the Eastern Front was fundamentally different from that on the Western Front. These introductions also help explain why the war on the Eastern Front was so difficult to win. Some of the most compelling interpretation in the books concern these difficulties specific to the Eastern Front. It was Winston Churchill who once said, “in the west, the armies were too big for the land, in the east, the land was too big for the armies.” Dr. Buttar provides telling details and critical analysis showing that this was indeed true. For instance, in the introduction to the third volume, Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-1917 he says:
“In many respects, the fighting on the Eastern Front was very different, with the front line moving back and forth as the vast spaces of Eastern Europe allowed armies to exploit weaker areas. However, the very space that allowed for such movement also made a conclusive victory unachievable. As early as October 1914, the Germans had correctly calculated that it was impossible for armies to maintain operations more than 72 miles (120 km) from their railheads and both sides rapidly realized that there were few if any strategically vital objectives within such a radius.”
While several battles on the Eastern Front were decisive tactical victories, including Tannenberg, the Siege of Przemysl and Lake Naroch, they did nothing to relieve the stalemate. Such victories drew armies deeper into the vast spaces which swallowed armies. The war continued to grind on until it ground down the German, Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires. The latter of which imploded spectacularly in revolution.
An Unwinnable War – From One Extreme To The Next
The Eastern Front series by Dr. Buttar is not just a dry recitation of facts and obscure maneuvers that only make sense on a map. He sprinkles his narrative with first person accounts from officers and soldiers that bring the experience of warfare on the Eastern Front to life. Eyewitness accounts are used as invaluable aids to illuminate aspects of the fighting. Nowhere is this truer than in the obscure and catastrophic campaign of 1914-15 in the Carpathian Mountains. The fighting took place in some of the worst conditions of anywhere in the entire war. In Germany Ascendent: The Eastern Front 1916, Dr. Buttar intersperses his narrative on the campaign with first hand accounts such as this:
“On 23 January, we pushed forward into the frozen hell of the Carpathian battlefield…a blizzard engulfed the troops. The reports from those days are terrible. Hundreds froze to death every day. The wounded that were unable to drag themselves along were left behind to die….Pack animals couldn’t advance through the deep snow, The men had to carry their own supplies on foot. The soldiers went without food for days. Food rations froze solid at -25 C.”
This gives the reader an inside view of what it was like for common soldiers caught up in that cauldron of conflict the likes of which the world had rarely, if ever, seen before. The Russians ended up with the advantage in the Carpathian campaign, but in the process lost tens of thousands of troops for minimal gains which they would later have to abandon. In the final analysis, winning was akin to losing and vice versa. In this case, Dr. Buttar’s narrative shows that both the Austro-Hungarians and Russians fought themselves to exhaustion.
The conflict on the Eastern Front made winning a battle barely distinguishable from losing one. Nowhere was this truer than on the German side. A prime example of this was the Battle of Tannenberg, as complete a tactical victory as any army won in the war. Strategically the battle’s legacy ended up having major consequences, one of which was catastrophic. The team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff used to eventually gain command of the entire German military apparatus. They failed as miserably as all the other German commanders in breaking the stalemate in France and Belgium. In the process they proved that success on the Eastern Front could not easily be transferred to the Western Front. The war in the East was an entirely different one, to understand why read Prit Buttar’s series.
* The four volumes are:
Collisions of Empire: The War on the Eastern Front 1914
Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915-16
Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-1917
The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917-1921