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In the Shadow of the Great War

It is interesting but perhaps not surprising that, as this conflict-torn century nears its end, the shadows cast over it by the Great War of 1914-1918 seem in some ways longer, darker, and more daunting than ever before. For what that struggle meant and did changed the course of history more than any other in modern times, including its great successor war of 1939-1945. Consider only a few of the consequences of the Great War, offered here in no particular order. It brought the end of the Romanovs, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the emergence of a Communist system that blighted so much of humanity for the rest of the century. The war also made possible the growth of Fascism and its peculiar German variant, anti-Semitic National Socialism. This ghastly and expensive struggle shattered a Eurocentric world order, shifted the financial center of gravity to New York, nurtured Japanese expansionism in East Asia, and, at the same time, stimulated anticolonial movements from West Africa to Indonesia.

The aerial bomber, the U-boat, and poison gas brought mechanization to the art of killing, making the latter less personal and yet also more far-reaching in its effects. Industrialized labor, trade unions, and socialist parties gained in power, while the landed interest declined. The social and political position of women was transformed in various aspects, despite predictable resistance. The war produced a cultural crisis, in the arts, in ideas, religion, literature, and life styles. It also exacerbated ethnic and religious hatreds, in Ireland, the Balkans, and Armenia, that scar the European landscape today. The Great War is therefore not some distant problem about dead white males on and off the battlefields. Its origins, course, and consequences are central to an understanding of the twentieth century. Any high school, college, or university that does not accord importance to teaching its meanings is shortchanging the present generation of students and discrediting itself.

It is thus not surprising that monographs continue to appear on every aspect of the Great War—its memorialization, its effects on gender, its cultural and psychological dimensions, its varied faces of battle, its economic repercussions—as do the occasional general and synthetic works. Obviously, the sheer number and variety of the specialized works makes the composition of any synthesis so much more challenging. But, thank heaven, there are always a few bold souls in every decade willing to accept that challenge, venturing where the more prudent among us dare not go.

The first of the two general treatments considered here, John Keegan’s The First World War, shows both the merits and the perils of a single-volume synthesis. Keegan is probably the best-known military historian in the Western world today and his remarkable book The Face of Battle is an international classic, sometimes emulated but never equaled. He has always been a graceful prose stylist. Both his military expertise—he taught for many years at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst—and his gifts of expression are greatly in evidence here.

Keegan’s work, then, is a joy to read, colorful, romantic, elegiac, sometimes brutal. His description of the many photographs and early newsreel images of French and German soldiers marching to war in 1914 is (almost) as pleasurable as reading Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s travelogues or Patrick O’Brian’s novels:

The faces glow in the bright sun of the harvest month and there are smiles, uplifted hands, the grimace of unheard shouts, the intangible mood of holiday, release from routine. Departure had everywhere been holidaylike, with wives and sweethearts, hobble-skirted, high-waisted, marching down the road to the terminus arm-in-arm with the men in the outside ranks. The Germans marched to war with flowers in the muzzles of their rifles or stuck between the top buttons of their tunics; the French marched in close-pressed ranks, bowed under the weight of enormous packs, forcing a passage between crowds overspilling the pavements. One photograph of Paris that first week of August catches a sergeant marching backwards before his section as they lean towards him, he like a conductor orchestrating the rhythm of their footfalls on the cobbles, they urgent with the effort of departure and the call to arms.

His work is also powerful and emotional. For example, I had always known of the bloodbath on the first day, July 1, 1916, of the Battle of the Somme, when British and Imperial troops were machine-gunned en masse as their generals ordered them forward in solid formation toward the German lines—my grandparents’ generation supplied the cohorts to the famous Tyneside Irish Brigade, whose near 3,000 men were reduced in a couple of hours to a few hundred survivors, physically undamaged but shockingly traumatized. But I had not known until now that many German machine-gunners felt such revulsion at the slaughter of fellow human beings that they ceased firing to let the wounded or exhausted Tommies crawl back to their trenches. Perhaps no greater scar was inflicted upon the British Empire in the twentieth century than on that half-day, when the 100,000 troops who marched forward suffered 60,000 casualties.

The First World War, then, is above all a military historian’s book and will delight Keegan’s many fans. But his newest work is not much more than that, and in no way is its publication, as the British dust jacket claims, “a major historical and literary event.” There is really nothing on the causes of the war, on that fateful combination of passions and misperceptions that swept Europe over the brink. As a military narrative, this is very much a story of the war on the Western front, especially as seen from the British viewpoint, and I was struck by how much it resembled such traditional narratives as that composed by my former boss, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, over half a century ago.1 By contrast, Chapter Seven, entitled “The War Beyond the Western Front,” contains a mélange of campaign narratives—the cruiser war at sea, the Serbian campaign, Italy’s fighting, the war in East Africa, and the Salonika and Gallipoli landings—all briskly treated in fifty-three pages before the author returns to his more detailed analyses of Verdun and the Somme.

Overall, the war at sea gets much less coverage than that on land, and the war in the air even less. The Middle East campaigns are briefly discussed. There is little or nothing on the home front, on war propaganda, on the role of women and labor, or on the critically important mobilization of the war economies. The conclusion, if that is the right term to describe Keegan’s reflections on the tragedy and folly of war, is scanty in the extreme. One gets the feeling that the author’s heart was not fully into this undertaking once he moved away from the topics he knows best, the killing fields of the Western and Eastern fronts.

In that respect, the second work under review, Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, could not be more different. He has strong messages to advance and a wide range of subjects. His book has caused great controversy in Britain itself, where its author is variously described as the most brilliant young historian of his generation or as a gadfly or a political ideologue. His book is weighty, learned, accompanied by thousands of footnotes and a truly daunting bibliography of secondary works; and it is also reinforced by archival sources from the Public Record Office, London, to the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. It is possibly the most important book to appear in years both on the origins of the First World War (with six chapters and 173 pages), and on the nature and impacts of that conflict (eight chapters and 259 pages).

It should be made clear immediately that The Pity of War is not an attempt at a complete, detached synthesis, and for two reasons. The first is structural. This book really is a series of linked, analytical essays, each of which attempts to answer one of the ten “big” questions that Ferguson poses at the outset, such as: Was the war inevitable? Why did Britain intervene? Why did men keep on fighting for so long, and then cease fighting in 1918 so quickly? The second reason is that, among its many bold arguments, The Pity of War has put forward a really distinctive and deliberate claim—that as a “world” war this struggle both was unnecessary and was chiefly the fault of the British—which of course has caused so much of the fuss in Ferguson’s own country.

There is much to admire in The Pity of War. To begin with, it is the best effort this reviewer has seen to integrate economics into those well-known debates about the World War’s origins and aims that are so often the preserve of military and diplomatic historians. Ferguson’s earlier works, on banking and business in Hamburg and on the House of Rothschild, are vast and rather sophisticated exercises in economic history, which stand him in equally good stead here.2 The author is very good on Europe’s pre-war economy and especially on the heated discussion during the pre-war years of the Polish banker Ivan Bloch’s hypothesis that a Great Power war would most likely never occur because of the horrendous damage it would inflict upon Europe’s populations and economies. Ferguson is excellent on the vital topic of the mobilization of resources, with comparisons of Allied incompetence and the rather better German record for most of the war. And his book includes a very interesting argument about paying for the war and the question of reparations. “The real problem with the peace,” he writes, “was not that it was too harsh, but that the Allies failed to enforce it: not so much ‘won’t pay’ as ‘can’t collect.”’ Here, as elsewhere, his text is opinionated and radical, and many economic historians will be uneasy at his iconoclasm. But if they wish to challenge Ferguson’s views, they will have to battle him, archive by archive and footnote by footnote. He certainly knows how to stir the pot.

Other aspects of this book are also impressive. There are some truly insightful remarks about the literature of war and its many varieties, comical, celebratory, fascistic, horrific, tortured, bitter—as scholars, poets, and simple folks across Europe sought to convey the impossible to their readers. He draws on the work of such writers as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Henri Barbusse. The memorials of war (which Keegan also nicely features), its art and music, are all mentioned in Ferguson’s text, and he gives a fine account of wartime public opinion and of the evolution of propaganda, especially on the home fronts; in this respect Ferguson is more skeptical than Keegan about the images of Europe’s populations going joyfully to war in 1914 and has some nice counter-examples of the then resistance. The very detailed and provoking analysis of pre-war Anglo-German diplomacy and politics certainly entitles this study to a place among the basic works on that classic topic “The Origins of the First World War.”

  1. 1

    B.H. Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (London: Cassell, 1977; originally appeared as The Real War 1914-1918 in 1930).

  2. 2

    Niall Ferguson, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 (Cambridge University Press, 1995); The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998).

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