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.”

Then there is Ferguson’s remarkable Chapter Twelve, entitled “The Death Instinct: Why Men Fought,” in which he addresses a topic which most of us find incomprehensible: since human beings usually don’t want to die at an early age and since their being ordered over a trench top to advance upon enemy machine guns almost certainly meant that they would die, why did men keep obeying orders to attack, day after day, campaign after campaign? When Haig preordained that bombardments would cease ten minutes before the British attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, veterans of Gallipoli quailed in their shoes because they knew from that past experience that the enemy would have the chance to come up from the bunkers, man their machine guns, and slaughter the advancing troops, that is, themselves. Nonetheless, they too went “over the top” when the orders came.

Ferguson discusses various explanations ranging from the “stick” of military discipline (particularly ferocious in the British army) when applied against cowardice and desertion to the “carrots” of patriotism and esprit de corps; but he ultimately settles on the much more disturbing conclusion that Freud may have been right in his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” that men unconsciously en-joy aggression and killing, were actually thrilled by battle, driven by vengeance, and even careless about losing their lives. Such a hypothesis can never be proven but there is an impressive marshaling of evidence to suggest that many combatants thought that way.

In view of these obvious intellectual strengths, why has The Pity of War caused such a fuss? The answer lies in the three linked arguments at the center of the Ferguson thesis: that it was chiefly Britain’s leaders who were to blame for making the July 1914 crisis into a world war, for the latter was not inevitable; that Imperial Germany was not the threat to Britain and her Empire that Hitler was to be (and that, in fact, if the British had not so ruinously expended the resources of Western civilization in their efforts to destroy the Kaiser’s Germany, Hitler would have “eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter…)”; and that, given German dominance of Europe and its institutions today, it was simply not worthwhile to waste men and treasure. Or, to use Ferguson’s words,

Had Britain stood aside—even for a matter of weeks—continental Europe could therefore have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today—but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars.

Here, then was the “pity” of war, in all the possible meanings of the word; and because the ghastly tragedy of 1914-1918 was avoidable, it deserves to be labeled as “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.”

All this, as Wilhelm II used to say, is “strong tobacco,” and it’s therefore not surprising that a cottage industry has grown up in the British press seeking to explain Niall Ferguson and where he comes from. He appears on television, writes Op-Eds on current affairs, has a successful and influential spouse, commutes to Jesus College from his Oxfordshire farm, and commands vast advances for his future books. All this, plus the fact that he has written so much so quickly, has provoked many murmurings amid the dreaming spires. He is likened to that original tele-don and intellectual gadfly A.J.P. Taylor, whom he deeply admires, and to his unorthodox and controversial doctoral adviser, Norman Stone. As if this were not enough, Ferguson is also the editor of another book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals,3 in which he and fellow historians speculate on how the world might be different had nine momentous events been different. What would have happened, for example, if George III had averted the American Revolution, or Hitler conquered Britain and Russia, or JFK not been assassinated? These counterfactual essays are fun. We all play such games, but the reader is never sure how seriously such arguments are being advanced. Much the same has been said about The Pity of War.

A different interpretation of what Ferguson is up to is altogether more political and ideological. Some critics have described him as one of the intellectual “sherpas” of the new Toryism in Britain—pro-Thatcherite, jealous to preserve England’s independence, wary of today’s Europe (and the US), unhappy at the loss of Empire, and deeply aware that it was the two great European wars fought in this century that emasculated British power.

Ferguson’s political message, if that is the right term, seems more nuanced and less pointed than those of Maurice Cowling and John Charmley—especially the latter’s claim that Churchill was a fool to fight on after 1940-1941—but there are similarities of tone and especially style that make such associations seem plausible. In any case, the powerful reactions to Ferguson’s thesis—like the angry Tory reactions to the euro or to Scottish devolution—offer an interesting insight into the uncertainties of the English people, especially the traditionalists, as they nervously await the next century.

Yet it is unnecessary to speculate on Ferguson’s political intentions in order to call into question the chief arguments of The Pity of War. The author can be challenged on more appropriate grounds, namely, on his interpretation of the historical evidence, especially that relating to pre-war British and German policies. Put bluntly, the Ferguson thesis is not borne out by the full array of historical facts, for there are many weighty arguments against those deployed in this clever, revisionist work.

Since the central part of that thesis concentrates on how best we are now to understand British and German policies between around 1900 and 1920, a counterargument should also concentrate on that subject.4 Take, for example, Ferguson’s strictures against the British government in power just before the outbreak of war, especially the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith and the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, for their confused policies toward Europe and for not making their position clear to the continental powers and to their own people. This is not a new criticism—both the left and the right in Britain attacked Grey on these grounds in the 1920s, although obviously for opposite reasons. The left felt London should have warned Paris and St. Petersburg that it would never let itself get dragged into a European conflict, while the right claimed that, if Britain had clearly warned Germany that it would definitely intervene, Berlin would have been deterred from its aggressions. Either way, it seems, Sir Edward Grey was blamed.

But the plain fact was that Britain’s ambivalence about European intervention was directly related to, and greatly influenced by—perhaps one might even say determined by—the fractured state of British politics at the time. Having lost its large majority in the House of Commons during the critical elections of 1910, Asquith’s Liberal Party had much less of a free hand and it depended upon brokering deals with the antimilitarist Labour MPs and with Redmond’s Irish Party to get controversial legislation passed. Above all, Asquith and Grey were conscious that a majority of Liberal MPs, and many Cabinet members, were opposed to anything like a fixed military alliance with France; hence the secret and tortuous entente diplomacy, leaning toward France but never wishing openly to declare an alliance.

On the other hand, the government could also not state that it would wash its hands of any continental quarrel, regardless of its cause, for that would provoke the resignation of the powerful “Liberal Imperialist” wing of the party—including Grey, Haldane, Churchill, and Asquith himself—who would then ally with the nationalist Tories and forge a distinctly more assertive strategy against Germany and with France. All Liberals remembered that their disastrous split over Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland scheme in 1886 had put them into the political wilderness for nearly twenty years, and none wished to repeat that mistake. Better, then, to fudge the issue and hope that a casus belli simply would never arise.

Moreover, there was a certain Bismarckian cunning to not letting the European powers know whether and under what conditions Britain would intervene in a continental struggle between Austro-German and Franco-Russian alliance blocs. During the 1880s, the Iron Chancellor had refused to say whether he would come down on the side of the Habsburg Empire should Russia invade the Balkans or Constantinople, thereby deterring Russia from taking such aggressive actions and Austria-Hungary from assuming it had automatic German support. Grey’s diplomacy before 1914 was not dissimilar: by refusing to give France absolute guarantees of British backing, he hoped to restrain Paris and St. Petersburg from aggressively provoking Germany; but by also cautioning the Germans not to presume that the British Empire would stand aside, the Foreign Office hoped to deter any German strike westward should a crisis occur and to ensure a diplomatic solution instead. Eighty-five years later, this does not appear a totally stupid policy.

But perhaps the most doubtful part of Ferguson’s argument is his contention that Wilhelmine Germany, even if permitted to conquer and dominate all of West-Central Europe, would not have been a great threat to the future of the British Empire. It is true that the nature and purposes of Wilhelmine imperialism have been interpreted in various ways, so that some historians see Berlin’s policies before 1914 as being more blundering, haphazard, and defensive than they were aggressive and purposeful; and no one is saying that the Kaiser’s Germany came close to the sheer evil megalomania of Hitler’s Reich. But there is a vast amount of evidence, much of it collected by Fritz Fischer in his 1961 book Germany’s Aims in the First World War5 and later by Fischer’s students, that Wilhelmine Germany contained powerful groups that were expansionist and felt hemmed in by their existing boundaries and frustrated by their inability to create vast spheres of influence as the British, Russians, French, and Americans had done. Such powerful Germans, including both industrialists and Junkers from eastern Germany, were conscious of their expanding population and booming economy, and wanted to see a change in the existing territorial and political status quo both inside and outside Europe. Ferguson is entitled to say that the Second Reich also contained more moderate elements, a contention he amply details; but his suggestion that the Prussianized, antiliberal, militarized Germany of pre-1914 was more or less the equivalent of Helmut Kohl’s polity in the 1990s defies belief and has understandably caused his critics to wonder if he is exaggerating simply for effect’s sake.

By the same token, and returning to the British side of the story, how could any government in London, whether Liberal or Conservative, be sure that a Germany dominating Europe could be trusted? How could Britain feel secure when the last time such a circumstance had occurred, a century earlier, had also been the era of the nation’s greatest peril? Perhaps contemporaries were somewhat off the mark when they equated Wilhelm II with Napoleon, but the volatility and assertiveness of German policies and the noisy chauvinism of its more militant newspapers, pressure groups, and politicians clamoring for their “rightful” place in the sun were highly disturbing to Britons, including many who deeply regretted the passing of the traditional Anglo-Prussian friendship of the nineteenth century.

Above all, of course, there was the ever-growing, powerful, efficient German navy being built just two hundred miles across the North Sea, and this by a country that also possessed the most effective army in Europe. Not to have been concerned that a Germany triumphant on land would then switch even more of its resources to fleet-building, as Admiral Tirpitz urged, would have been folly. As Grey long-windedly told the Dominion prime ministers in 1912,

if a European conflict, not of our making, arose, in which it was quite clear that the struggle was one for supremacy in Europe,… then…our concern in seeing that there did not arise a supremacy in Europe which entailed a combination that would deprive us of the command of the sea would be such that we might have to take part in that European war. That is why the naval position underlies our European policy….6

These are hardly fears that should be dismissed, or relativized, as easily as Ferguson does; indeed, they are the sort of apprehensions—about the purposes and final aims of a rising, anti-status quo power, be it Athens or Philip II’s Spain—that almost always causes neighbors to take diplomatic and military precautions to protect themselves. Assuredly, some future revisionist historians will tell us that Soviet aims during the cold war were never as ambitious and awful as the West feared; but it does not follow from that argument that the democracies were inherently wrong to set up NATO, contest Soviet penetration in various parts of the world, and take a tough position during crises over Cuba, Berlin, and other hot spots.

The First World War was a catastrophe of unbelievable horror, suffering, and destruction, and it is reasonable to believe that if the leaders of Europe had anticipated even a part of its costs and consequences they would have striven with all their power to avoid it. None of them went to war to achieve what ultimately happened—shattered empires, crushed regimes, millions of deaths, ruined economies, landscapes blasted beyond recognition, and political and social convulsions. All of this so scarred and troubled later democratic leaders that, ironically, they went to extreme lengths in the 1930s to avoid another conflagration even in the face of Hitler’s increasingly open aggressions. After 1945, by contrast, different conclusions were drawn about the principles of intervention and nonintervention in Europe’s affairs. We are all wiser after the event.

But however much we may regret the disasters and holocausts that flowed from Europe’s decision to go to battle in 1914, it is far-fetched—and surely unhistorical—to place the chief responsibility for the First World War upon the British Liberal Cabinet and to argue that had Britain stood aside that tortured continent would resemble something like the European Union today. These and other sweeping assertions certainly make for a lively debate, and Niall Ferguson can confidently claim to have inherited Taylor’s mantle.7 Yet, after all his evidence has been considered, Ferguson’s speculations about the likely limitations of German policies in this period remain “nonproven” while much of the historical evidence about British decision-making points in the opposite direction to that he describes. Our author has tilted, ambitiously and deliberately, at many a windmill in this latest oeuvre and done historical scholarship a service in asking and then trying to answer his ten awkward questions; but, as with Don Quixote, when ambitions outreach performance even the boldest knight errant cannot avoid coming a cropper from time to time.

  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).

  3. 3

    London: Trans-Atlantic, 1998.

  4. 4

    A point of disclosure here. My own study, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin), published in 1980, goes over much of the evidence used by Dr. Ferguson in the first half of his book and reaches rather different conclusions. The Pity of War uses Antagonism and makes fair reference to it, I think, though without drawing the reader’s attention directly to these large differences. Perhaps this is just as well.

  5. 5

    Norton, 1967 (originally published in Germany as Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961).

  6. 6

    Quoted in Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Scribner, 1976), p. 231.

  7. 7

    One thinks especially of the controversy aroused by the publication of Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War (1961; Atheneum, 1983), which so offended traditionalists by arguing that Hitler had not wanted a European war in 1939 and that the British and French appeasers were chiefly responsible for that conflict coming about.