Old, Old Story

No Man's Land: 1918, The Last Year of the Great War

by John Toland
Doubleday, 651 pp., $17.95

The End of Order: Versailles 1919

by Charles L. Mee Jr.
Dutton, 301 pp., $15.95

Great War and World War, or in more conventional terms, World War I and World War II. These two wars take a large place in the history of the twentieth century. More than any other events they stamp the century as an age of troubles. Yet at first glance they appear to have shrunk into the distance: Great War more than sixty years away, World War thirty-five. The veterans of the Great War are few, those of the World War are dwindling. Despite this the memories of both wars are still very much alive. Oddest of all, the memories of the Great War seem more alive than those of the World War. Aged men are still filing their recollections in public archives. Revelations are pursued and sometimes found. Controversies provoke more acrimony than any over the World War. Here is a topic worth some reflection. Why should the Great War live longer than the World War in folk memory?

It is not as though there were more to remember. The World War was far more exciting; it ranged widely over the globe; it provided everything from dramatic defeat to crushing victory. Perhaps it has counted less for this very reason. The World War was a prosaic war. By and large it was efficiently conducted despite some great errors. The political leaders and the military commanders came up to the standard of their responsibilities. It is still possible to argue, say, over. Churchill’s preference for the Mediterranean or Roosevelt’s putting Europe before the Pacific and the Far East. But it is easy to grasp from the record why these and other decisions were made. Even the most closely guarded secrets have been in large part revealed. In short few mysteries remain to be solved about the Second World War.

With the Great War things are very different. It took people by surprise. War governments had to be improvised even in the countries such as Germany that imagined themselves to be well prepared. Despite pronouncements about war aims it was difficult to discover what, apart from victory, the Great War was about. The methods of conducting the war were also puzzling. In retrospect the record seems to offer four years of stalemate, with futile operations that achieved nothing except casualty lists that grew ever longer. On a more practical level the Great War is still the more attractive subject for the writers of popular history. There is more doubt, there is more speculation, there are more surprises. Above all there are more fruitful diaries and memoirs, still breathing the anxieties of that distant war. For those who regard high-minded gossip as the stuff of history, the Great War is undoubtedly a more rewarding field. What public men say to each other in private or the reactions they record the same evening in their diaries often provide rich material. As a mere humdrum historian I accept gossip as light relief and consider that there are deeper excavations to be made into the past.

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