How could Europe’s leaders have “allowed the First World War to happen, then continued it for four more years?”by Bronwen Maddox / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
General JC Campbell, VC, addresses 137th Brigade from the entrance to the Riqueval Tunnel near Bellicourt, France, 2 October 1918 © Imperial War Museums
The battlefields of the Somme are little more than an hour’s drive from Calais, one reason why so many of those who set out on the sombre tour of the memorials are British. After all, the seven-day bombardment which preceded the 1st July 1916 assault on the German lines—the worst day in the history of the British army—could be heard in Kent and in Hampstead. Memoirs are full of accounts of British soldiers on leave being stricken to silence, transported so quickly back to the world of armchairs, newspapers, hot meals, and a family utterly uncomprehending of the lice, disease and constant fear of shells of those in the trenches.
Ahead of next year’s centenary of the start of the war, and the four years of commemorations which will follow, the understated but well-established memorial trail (the “Circuit de Souvenir”) which loops across the 450 miles of the Western Front, is preparing for a swell of visitors. The high chalk downs which rise above the River Somme are now farmed into neat, 10-acre fields of wheat, but the slopes are punctuated with clusters of white crosses at odd angles, soldiers buried where they fell; many-fingered signposts, adorned with red poppy symbols, point the way to the hundreds of cemeteries from the war, some up dirt farm tracks. Those who run the ceremony at the Menin Gate at Ypres in Flanders, where every evening at 8pm since 1928 the Last Post has been sounded, think that thousands may assemble over the next few summers.
But after that? Will the memory of the Great War fade, as the stories move beyond immediate family history? The last surviving British soldier, Harry Patch, died in July 2009, aged 111. Afghanistan and Iraq appear to have made Britain once again more conscious of death and sacrifice during war, judging by the greater numbers gathering for Remembrance Day. But equivocation over how we should commemorate the centenary reflects the uncertainty about what will be remembered of the war that shaped modern Europe, and the continuing debate about what judgements should now be made. In October, Jeremy Paxman, the broadcaster and the author of one of the books reviewed here, criticised comments made by the Prime Minister over the anniversary of the war. David Cameron called for a commemoration “like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations”; Paxman said that “only a moron would ‘celebrate’ the war.”
Publishers have poured out books ahead of the centenary. The best of these address with sophistication, passion and some new material the central questions that have dominated debate for a century. There are, in essence, three questions. The first, which has attracted most academic research, is about the causes of the war, and whether Germany bore moral responsibility—as Article 231 of the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty had it. The second is about the military decisions that left a total of around 10m soldiers dead and twice as many wounded, as each side, for four years, tried to break the stalemate of the Western Front. This is at the heart of recent disputes about whether commemorations—and school lessons—lean too much towards the “war poets” accusation that commanders dispensed stupidly and casually with the lives of those they sent to the front; that British Tommies, and their counterparts brought from across the British empire to fight, were “lions led by donkeys.” The third is about the aftermath—about how much of modern life should be traced back to the cataclysm that shattered Edwardian Britain, about the legacy of the terms of the peace, and about whether the loss of life was worth it.
As Winston Churchill wrote afterwards: “No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening. The measured, silent drawing together of gigantic forces, the uncertainty of their movements and positions, the number of unknown and unknowable facts made the first collision a drama never surpassed.” It has been a point of fascination from the start that such slaughter could have followed from a few shots—that is, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, in Sarajevo on the morning of Sunday, 28th June 1914, by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist acting for a shadowy Belgrade-based group called the Black Hand.
In the “July crisis” that followed, old alliances were triggered to ratchet the continent forwards towards war. The Austrian government demanded retribution from Belgrade; on 5th July, Germany promised support for Austria, while Russia, with French encouragement, mustered forces in defence of its old ally Serbia. Britain, watching, had to decide whether to observe an old promise to Belgium to defend its neutrality; after German forces began to move on France by advancing into Belgium, on 4th August, Britain joined the war.
As Max Hastings says in his new book, Catastrophe: “Posterity has puzzled endlessly over how the leaderships of the world’s greatest powers, mostly composed of men no more stupid or wicked than their modern counterparts, could first have allowed the war to happen, then continued it for four more years.” Many of the best of this year’s crop of books set out to answer that question, notably those by Margaret MacMillan, Sean McMeekin and Hastings himself, although their conclusions are very different.
Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History at Oxford University, in The War That Ended Peace, delivers a sweeping but immensely readable account of how these decisions were taken. It is an impressive feat, drawing widely on primary and secondary material, and threaded with anecdotes. She is subtle and clear on the insistence by Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, and Prime Minister HH Asquith “right up to the outbreak of war that Britain had kept a completely free hand as far as France was concerned,” and not committed itself to war. “That was technically true but it was not the whole truth,” she notes. Yet there are two evasions which end up compromising what is otherwise the outstanding work published this year on the subject.
The first is the ambiguity of her view on Germany’s culpability. MacMillan is, on the whole, part of the revisionist current, which has argued that Germany was not bent on war and looking for a pretext to establish its dominance over the continent. That debate started as soon as the guns fell silent (some would argue it started even before they first fired). The revisionist view takes as its guiding text the famous pronoucement by David Lloyd George, who succeeded Asquith in December 1916, that Europe had “glided, or rather staggered and stumbled” into war.
This was the thrust of much analysis for several decades after the war, and still a strong strand after the Second World War. But in 1961, Fritz Fischer, a German historian, provoked a storm with a book citing evidence that Germany had drawn up detailed plans for annexing and controlling much of Europe, and arguing that, therefore, it had planned the war. For all the adherents won by the “Fischer school,” the modern consensus has leaned back towards a more complex picture. Recent writers have focused more on the wider pressures on the European alliances from China, Central Asia, and Africa and from colonial disputes. Christopher Clark’s excellent The Sleepwalkers, published last year, is one of the best works in this vein. As Clark argued recently in the London Review of Books, “On the eve of the July crisis….the British Foreign Office was on the verge of …seeking a rapprochement with Germany. Far from being inevitable, in other words, this war may actually have been improbable.”
MacMillan’s text falls awkwardly on both sides of this line. Her aim, she says, is to give a portrait of those at the top of government and military, to understand their decisions better. Yet while appearing to reject the “Germany-to-blame” thesis, and aiming to show how national decisions were intertwined, the disproportionate weight she gives to the analysis of Germany and its mobilisation tilts her text in the opposite direction. Her conclusion seems a further evasion: the view that “there are so many questions and as many answers again” and that “perhaps the most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals, who had to make the choices between war and peace….[and] their world, with its assumptions.” She does, pushing herself towards a judgement, accuse the leaders finally of “a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be,” and of a “lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war”. Her final pronouncement is that: “There are always choices.” But her extreme care not to judge the early 20th century by the perspective of the 21st seems a retreat to an unhelpful relativism. She leaves unsettled the question of how much room she thinks those individuals, in that context, had to choose, and indeed, how we should regard those decisions now.
Sean McMeekin takes a different approach in his lively, boyish staging of the month of crisis, July 1914: Countdown to War. He is good on the central actors, as in his portrait of the haunted-looking Grey, who delivered one of the most-remembered lines of the war: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” McMeekin argues, importantly, that in July 1914, Grey, ill and struggling against fading sight, failed to appreciate how much Moscow and Belgrade were manoeuvring towards war. McMeekin’s account is particularly worth reading for the weight it puts on the French and Russian contribution in taking the continent to war, drawing on his excellent previous book The Russian Origins of the First World War (2011). He comes to the verge of overstating his case; he risks portraying Germany as merely reactive. But it is a refreshingly original counterpoint to the traditional focus on Germany above all.
You could not accuse Max Hastings of taking refuge in relativism, in his authoritative and immensely readable argument. The inside cover of his book is a picture of an Edwardian idyll, perhaps in the golden summer before the war broke: parasols, punts, straw boaters under the trees; the back is of sprawled, dead bodies in a field. Yet one of the account’s many strengths is that Hastings argues that the forces of social upheaval were already at work so strongly in Britain and across the continent to Russia, that the idyll is something of a myth. In Britain, between January and July 1914, militant suffragettes set more than a hundred buildings on fire, including churches and schools. The movement for Irish independence was strengthening, and labour unrest was roiling the country—nearly 41m working days were lost to strikes in 1912. Further east, the 1905 revolution had spread through the Russian empire; socialism was rising in Germany.
Hastings is resoundingly firm in his final judgements. “It seems mistaken to brand the 1914 rulers of Europe, and especially those of Austria and Germany, as sleepwalkers, because that suggests unconsciousness of their own actions,” he says. “It is more appropriate to call them deniers, who preferred to persist with supremely dangerous policies and strategies rather than accept the consequences of admitting the prospective implausibility, and retrospective failure, of these.” He concludes that “the case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame,” given that “even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win.” It is an interesting, subtle charge that “the greatest mistake of the German leaders was to view their grand ambitions through the prism of warriors, supposing that power could be secured and increased only through battle, and grossly underrating their country’s economic and industrial might.”
Moving onto one still-current dispute, he adds that “it seems a conceit on the part of later generations” to assert that in obeying the orders to fight, soldiers “exhibited ox-like stupidity.”
That opens the second area of debate: the question of how the war was fought. The sheer numbers killed and wounded are breathtaking by the standards of today’s combat. Estimates vary; Hastings offers one bald tally of the losses by the main protagonists: “The war cost the Hapsburg empire 1.5m dead, Germany two million, Turkey 770,000. The British empire lost more than a million dead, over 800,000 of them from the United Kingdom; the Russian and French empires around 1.7m apiece.”
The contemporary reaction to these losses is Jeremy Paxman’s prime target. His account, he says, was prompted partly by the death of his great uncle Charlie in Churchill’s ill-conceived 1915 attack on Germany’s ally Turkey in the Dardanelles. Paxman sets out to challenge the common notion that the generals were as guilty of stupidity and of indifference to the lives of those they commanded, or that the willingness of ordinary soldiers to fight is now incomprehensible.
As he points out, the war is now best known to schoolchildren through the war poets, who put words to the horror and rage felt by millions, and also kept alive the anger at the leaders. Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is surely the most savagely bitter anti-war poem ever written; Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General,” about a figure who “did for” his men with his attack on Arras, derided the entire military command.
The scale of the loss of life in the war is almost impossible to imagine, eclipsing recent conflict. The attack on German defences near the French town of Arras, in spring 1917, often counted a British victory, was one of the most costly of the war; 158,000 casualties for barely any gain; today, the turf between tall trees is still mounded and pitted by the blast of the shells. The horrors of Passchendaele, where men and horses drowned in the grey, sucking Flanders mud, has an enduring place in national memory. But the case which Paxman sets out to challenge is best caught in accounts of 1st July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme.
For an account that captures the rage that so many have felt, it is better to turn not to the recent crop of books but to last year’s Into the Silence by Wade Davis, a Canadian historian. Davis writes, of one decision which contributed to the men’s fate: “To guarantee discipline and order, [Field Marshal Douglas] Haig [British commander on the Western Front] insisted that the advance on the German line be done at a deliberate walking pace.
“Within the first hour, perhaps the first minutes, there were more than 30,000 dead and wounded. By the end of the day, there was not a British soldier alive within the German wire. Not a village had been taken, nor a single major objective achieved. Machine guns cut the men down like scythes slicing through grass. Those few who reached the German front line were incinerated with flamethrowers, blown up by bombs, or riddled with bullets and left condemned to hang on the wire ‘like crows shot on a dyke,’ until their flesh fell from their bones.”
By the end of the morning, Kitchener’s New Army—volunteers recruited by the Secretary of State for War to replace the savage losses in the regular divisions—“was no more,” he writes. “Its soldiers lay in rows, their tunics red with blood. ‘We were two years in the making,’ wrote Private AV Pearson of the Leeds Pals [a unit formed by volunteers from Leeds], ‘and 10 minutes in the destroying.’” It was, Davis adds, “the biggest disaster in the history of British arms.” A total of 19,240 were dead, and more than 35,000 wounded, “a figure that would double by the end of the third day of a battle that would rage for four months.”
After 140 days, more than a million were wounded or dead across the Allied and German lines. The British line had advanced just six miles, four miles short of Haig’s target for the first day. “Thirty million shells would be fired,” writes Davis, and “the battlefield, a few score square miles, [was] covered in layers upon layers of corpses, three and four deep, bodies bloated, bones sticking up randomly from the ground, faces black with blue-bottle flies.”
Of all the attempts to capture this horror, one of the most ambitious this year is by Joe Sacco, the graphic artist, who has drawn the day of 1st July over 15 frames, inspired partly by the Bayeux Tapestry. It is packed with compelling historical detail: the field kitchens; the horse ambulances; General Haig walking around the grounds of the Château de Beaurepaire; an Indian cavalry unit moving up to the Front. Yet the neat cartoons fail to capture the moments of carnage. Little figures fly in the air from explosions; too few are shown dead or injured to come close to the reality. They cannot match the power of photographs or words of those who were there.
Paxman, in arguing against the common condemnation of the military command puts much weight on poor communications. The generals, some miles back from the front line, had no way of knowing what was happening as they sent more waves forwards. Many will find this unconvincing; Haig’s son, years later, struggled to explain why his father had never visited casualty clearing stations. But Paxman has on his side more than a few military historians. One view, which some refer to as the “learning curve theory,” argues that it is impossible to judge the decisions of 1914 even by the perspective of 1918, so rapid was the rate of change in weaponry and tactics. The forces went into battle in 1914 with cavalry and bayonets among their armory (Haig, when accepting an honorary diploma in 1925, still maintained that he “felt sure that as time went on they would find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as they had ever done in the past”). Yet within a few years the forces had tanks, poison gas, vastly better machine guns, aircraft capable of firing forwards and dropping bombs, air traffic control, depth charges, and aircraft carriers.
It is a fair point that in some respects the weaponry of 1918 resembled that of 1939 more than it did that of 1914. It is true, too, that the commanders did learn from experience in their planning of attacks. But it is still hard to argue that the loss of life was necessary for the gains achieved, or that the tactics deployed did not owe much to the notions of class and duty at the time.
Paxman is particularly good, however, in showing how much a modern perspective distorts our understanding of those notions. He says of the junior officers, who led men into this slaughter but died in great numbers themselves: “These young men have frequently been considered figures of fun—upper-class numbskulls who marched their men into machine-gun fire and greeted fatal wounds with a light ‘ouch.’” We fail to recognise, he argues, that many “saw the war in the spirit of a crusade for civilisation.” The “anti-establishment sentiments” of the poems of Owen and Sassoon “fit the mood of our times, but not of the boys who whistled while doing what they conceived to be their duty.”
None of these recent books do justice to the aftermath of the war; most do not choose to address it, although Margaret MacMillan delivers an elegantly concise last chapter called “Epilogue: The War.” None comes close to the feat performed by Paul Fussell, the American cultural historian and literary critic who died last year. In The Great War and Modern Memory, he traced its effects not just on literature but on pub closing hours, British Summer Time, allotments, paper banknotes, and an enduring national suspicion of the press.
Paxman, however, summarises well how class barriers were shattered. “In just over four years, 5,704,426 men had served in the army. Shared experience of fear, pain, tedium, cold and wet had changed the way they saw the country to which they returned. As a political force, the aristocracy was finished.” There was a leap in trade union membership, and in strikes. The split in the Liberal Party consigned it to the wings of British politics. Women got the vote in 1918 (if over 30, with some property). Hastings is astute, too, in observing that “within a decade of the armistice the British body politic which took the nation to war conspicuously lost the confidence of many of those who fought it. Soldiers, especially, recoiled from what they saw as the moral debility of the society to which they returned.”
For nations, the war set their fortunes for decades, some in unexpected ways. Analysis of the legacy of Versailles is much-covered ground of its own, of course, as is the boost that the United States received from making and selling weapons and other goods to the Allies, laying the ground for the “American Century.” But Hastings deftly notes that while Serbia “paid a dreadful price for defying Austria in 1914,” in the end it achieved “one of history’s most notable Pyrrhic victories,” securing the creation of Yugoslavia. Japan, he adds, “became the only belligerent to emerge from the struggle with exactly the prizes it sought on joining the Allies in 1914, acquired at negligible cost in blood and cash.”
For Britain, while it emerged with empire extended, it was the beginning of decline. As Paxman puts it: “The war is the great punctuation point in modern British history, the moment when the British decided that what lay ahead of them would never be as grand as their past; the point at which they began to walk backwards into the future.”
Was it worth it? British pride in the victory of 1945 is comparatively straightforward, as is the conviction that the Nazis were worth fighting, but there is a steady drumbeat which asks whether the same was true of the First World War. Hastings and Paxman, more interested in that question than the professional academics, are refreshingly combative in arguing that the war was not futile. As Hastings says: “Once the struggle had begun, it would be entirely mistaken to suppose, as do so many people in the 21st century, that it did not matter which side won. The Allies imposed a clumsy peace settlement at Versailles in 1919, but if the Germans had instead been dictating the terms as victors, European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit.”
That is an honourable conclusion towards which to argue. These books all grapple, in different ways, with the problem of making judgements about a time of such different beliefs and fears. As Paxman says, “it is precisely because [the war] changed so much that we understand it so little.” A quest to improve that understanding is, a century later, still valuable. Having pursued that quest, however, there is no cause to avoid at least some judgements, not least that, from the perspective of modern Europe, the outcome could have been even worse.
As Hastings concludes: “To argue that the western Allies should have accepted German hegemony as a fair price for deliverance from the mudscape of Flanders seems as simplistic and questionable a proposition now as it did at the time.” Many might find too airy his final words, almost by way of disclaimer, that “all sacrifice in all wars is just cause for lamentation.” But they might still share the view that “those who fought and died in the ultimately successful struggle to prevent such an outcome did not perish for nothing.”
Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914 by Max Hastings (William Collins, £30) The War that Ended Peace: how Europe abandoned peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan (Profile, £25) July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin (Icon, £25) Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman (Viking, £25) The Great War. July 1, 1916: The first day of the battle of the Somme, an illustrated panorama by Joe Sacco (Jonathan Cape, £20)
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