Illustrated History of the First World War
The Strategy of Victory, 1914-1918: The Life and Times of the Master Strategist of World War I, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson
Ordeal of Victory
The First World War
From a distance of fifty years it is more obvious than ever that the First World War—far more than the Second—was the great turning-point of modern history. By 1918 the epoch which opened in 1815 was over; and what happened between 1919 and 1945 was little more than the completion of the process of erosion. Of course, the collapse of the old order was not simply the result of the war. From around 1905 there were plenty of signs that the bourgeois synthesis was disintegrating; and competent historians—such as Elie Halévy—have seen in the outbreak of war in 1914 the response of the old order seeking to forestall incipient social revolution. It was their miscalculation, their belief that a short, sharp thrust could restore their fortunes, that ushered in the great period of change.
The effect of the First World War was therefore to bring into relief the hidden and unresolved tensions which had been gathering strength ever since the closing years of the nineteenth century. It weakened the framework of society and made it easier for new forces to emerge. But when, and how, and why, between 1914 and 1918, did these consequences become apparent? “It is not the same world as it was last July,” Walter H. Page told President Wilson in October 1914; “nothing is the same.” After fifty years we are better placed to evaluate Ambassador Page’s remark. As a prognostication of the ultimate outcome, four years later, it is remarkably perspicacious; as a description of the situation at the time he was writing it was far from literally true. Even after their great encircling movement had brought the Germans to the Marne, British and French generals expected victory and a return to “normalcy” before the end of 1914. When on September 13 Sir Henry Wilson predicted that “we should cross into Germany” with a month, his opposite number on the French staff had no hesitation in reducing the estimate to “three weeks.”
For us today the residuary interest of the military history of the war of 1914-18 is not merely to see how and why these predictions were unfulfilled, but rather to establish the long-term consequences of the failure to force a quick decision. On the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914, we may expect a spate of books of which the present batch is probably fairly typical. It will be a pity if they do no more than fight the old battles all over again. All the books here reviewed are concerned pretty narrowly with the course of military events. Mr. Taylor’s is exceptional because, with the true historian’s eye for perspective, he never makes the mistake of discussing the military events in isolation. As treated by Mr. Terraine, Captain Falls and Mr. Bonham-Carter, the war has the appearance of a deathly game of chess played by blindfold generals with human pawns. For Mr. Taylor it was the crucible of a new society. It is this superior standpoint, above the parties…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.