Was the First World War, like the French Revolution, a climactic event in the Western world? After it was over, constitutional monarchy buttressed by an aristocracy was no longer normal; nor was private property secure from state intervention; nor was the conflict of classes in Europe any longer mitigated by emigration to America. In the old days you could travel without a passport to anywhere on the Continent except the two despotisms, Russia and Turkey. No longer.

But something more than social change took place. In A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes tells us that reality changed. It changed because people came to believe in a myth that the war had transformed the world and its culture.

In Britain the myth told us that the old men, the generation in power in 1914, betrayed the young and sent them for no good cause to the Front, where they were slaughtered by stupid generals. The young men were also betrayed at home by patriotic women cheering them on and by civilians and profiteers living sheltered, sordid lives. Those who survived became ashamed of the romantic patriotism with which Rupert Brooke and his immediate contemporaries had greeted the war: as Hynes observes, the early war poets were inspired not by war itself but by the idea of war. The abstract nouns that came so readily to their lips, such as sacrifice and honor, became dishonored for a generation—perhaps forever.

At first all virtues other than patriotism, discipline, obedience, and endurance were disparaged. Modernism was dismissed as decadent, the avant-garde of Eliot, Pound, Lewis, and the post-Impressionists disappeared from view. Civil liberties were suppressed, The Rainbow was banned, galleries and museums were closed to save money, and the suffragettes disbanded.

Not until the massacre on the Somme and the Easter rising in Dublin in 1916 did writers begin to deal with the war, and even then works like Women in Love and Heartbreak House scarcely mention it. Lesser writers like H.G. Wells and Rose Macaulay did so by writing more as journalists than as novelists. It was the artists Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash, and William Orpen who were the first to depict the war as it really was. By 1917 men began to ask what they were fighting for. Siegfried Sassoon refused to return to the Front. He was saved from court-martial by Robert Graves, who pleaded Sassoon was shell-shocked. Shell-shock became a medical diagnosis that was gaining currency, as the psychologist W.H.R. Rivers argued that men should not be automatically shot for desertion or cowardice (284 of them were shot during the war). By 1918 the winds of dissent reached gale force and the members of the avant-garde found their voice again. Lytton Strachey delivered his polemic against the eminent Victorians and their culture for sowing the seeds of war. Bertrand Russell, E.D. Morel, and Sylvia Pankhurst protested the war, and were sent to jail.

When the war ended, the myth spread. The warriors found themselves still fighting wars: the class war, the Irish war, and the war for women’s rights. Hynes says that the war did not really end until 1926 with the defeat of the General Strike. It is true that those who created the myth were not a monolithic group. Graves disdained Eliot and disliked Pound. But the Georgian poets and writers who idealized the English countryside were as one in hating the old men. The old men, who had led them into war, were still there, ever more reactionary, hounding homosexuals and harassing the advocates of birth control. Disenchantment was the dominant emotion. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley proclaimed the defeat of liberalism politically and culturally.

In the culture conflict that Hynes describes, one side built monuments, the other planted mines. Cenotaphs, cemeteries, the tombs of unknown warriors were built while Keynes predicted that Versailles was likely to provoke a war of revenge and more cenotaphs and cemeteries. In Jacob’s Room Virginia Woolf demythologized her friend Rupert Brooke, whom she remembered as nothing like his war image. On the other side Colonel Repington, the Times war correspondent, argued that the generals were let down by the politicians and both were let down by the frivolous upper classes. Henry John Newbolt, the author of true blue nautical poems, declared that “our grandchildren will not be much moved” by Wilfred Owen and Sassoon. Galsworthy said that Forsytes would always be Forsytes. Patriotic movies financed with government funds were met with movies such as All Quiet on the Western Front. The myth emphasized that lives were lost, not battles won; and soon people did not ask what the war was like but what it did to the combatants, to society, to hope and expectations. Lawrence, Ford, even best-selling novelists like A.S.M. Hutchinson and Michael Arlen, were convinced that civilization was ruined for good. The heroes ended as damaged men, disoriented and directionless.


What Hynes means by the myth can best be illustrated by his choice of a fact that, true in itself, was magnified and idealized to mean something else. This is the myth of a lost aristocracy, the decimation of a particular class on the battlefield. The statistics show this was indeed true. But the fact got blown up to mean that the finest of the young generation, whatever was best in English society—old families, the heroic tradition of the eldest son taking the King’s Commission as an officer—had perished.

No summary can do justice to the thoroughness of Hynes’s research. He has established himself as among the foremost critics of English culture in the first half of this century. Every eddy of opinion is charted, forgotten books that once made a stir are brought to the surface, and the countercurrents of opinion are traced with accuracy and sensibility. Typical of his accuracy is his remark that possibly the first writer to depict trench warfare as it was is the progenitor of Bulldog Drummond, a regular officer who wrote under the name of Sapper. Typical of his sensibility is his selection of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to illustrate the most lasting loss. What was lost forever was romance. Never again would men and women feel what Tennyson and Christina Rossetti felt. The war withered their hearts.

The truth of Hynes’s analysis of the myth can be seen if the story is carried to World War II and beyond. The pacifism and disgust with war bred by the horror of the trenches were directly responsible for the disastrous British foreign policy of the Thirties. They were responsible for the wary, skeptical, mocking mood of the young who fought in the Second World War. Montgomery was to be criticized for being slow and cautious as a commander. But he knew he was commanding a citizen army brought up on the story of Passchendaele; he had to convince his men that he had deployed over-whelming superiority in aircraft and artillery and had made a foolproof plan. The myth was also responsible for conscientious objectors being treated humanely and for slotting men and women into jobs that suited their talents. The notion of war as something so loathsome as to be inadmissible surfaced again over Vietnam and over the Falklands, and the pacifist tradition fueled the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, with disastrous consequences for the Labour Party in the Eighties.

Yet the myth was not so overpoweringly persuasive as Hynes’s book suggests. Or rather it became possible for a young man between the wars in England to hold two concepts in his mind simultaneously: that war was bestial and an insult to civilization, but that it might be inescapable. Charles Carrington, Kipling’s biographer, said it was untrue that all intelligent men lost their faith in the justice of the war even in the last two terrible years. Nor were all anti-German outbursts discreditable. Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Regius Professor of English at Cambridge, was indeed disgusting in his chauvinism. But Hobhouse’s critique of Hegel’s metaphysical theory of the state was justifiable. (Philosophy gets little attention from Hynes; yet one should not forget that the student who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had his head stuffed with Nietzsche; and Social Darwinism deserves more than a brief mention.) The mythologists liked to discredit atrocity stories and claim they were invented to lure America into the war. But Von Kluck’s army did commit unforgivable atrocities upon Belgian civilians before the war was a month old.

So a qualification has to be added to the myth. Many intelligent people, both those who had fought in the war and those who grew up in its shadow, realized that men had endured the unendurable but might have to endure it again. This was implicit in the work of a poet whose omission from Hynes’s account is exceedingly strange. Nowhere is A.E. Housman mentioned. Yet A Shropshire Lad was packed in many knapsacks and in 1922 Housman published Last Poems containing the “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries.” He embodied many strands of the myth. “We’ll to the woods no more, the laurels are all cut.” “Too full already is the grave/Of fellows that were good and brave, / And died because they were.” “They sought and found six feet of ground,/ And there they died for me.” But Housman also introduced the themes of fate and inevitability, the acceptance of sorrow under icy control. This austere classical scholar never pretended that to die for one’s country was sweet; but he implied that it was noble. In the postwar years Housman was read far more than the poets of the avant-garde. And in fact the dominant feeling in 1939 among the young was that although the bloody old men had got us into this mess we had to fight—only this time with no bloody heroics.


But how did Britain get involved in the war to end war in the first place? To read Hynes is like steering a course on a mountain torrent full of whirlpools and crosscurrents caused by the tributaries that pour into it. You paddle up them to peer into dense thickets on shore or rest in some inviting backwater for a chapter or two. To leave this turbulent stream for Robert Massie’s account of the relations between Britain and Germany that led to the war is to find yourself on a vast river with such majestic meanderings and on so imperceptible a current that you seem fated never to reach the estuary. Massie takes a more leisurely course. A thousand pages in his sight are but an evening gone. The reader, however, will find that after many evenings, having been led over the battlefields of the Boer War and having put down the Boxer Rebellion, he is only just about to embark at page 373 on the story of the Royal Navy’s shift from sail to steam and he does not reach the crux of the book until page 707, namely the naked rivalry between the building programs of the Royal Navy and the High Seas German Fleet.

Yet Massie is a master of the art of narrative. I have seldom read a book whose style is so equable, so free of jargon and academic hesitations, so readable. I would like to say that you cannot put it down, but for the fact that after an hour or two your wrists buckle under the weight. It is also true that those who know the history of the First World War will find not a single new interpretation, conjecture, or conclusion. Dreadnought is not nearly so dense and documented as Barbara Tuchman’s August 1914. It is not written for historians but for a public that knows nothing about Europe before the war and to whom the kings, their courts, and their statesmen in that remote age are not more than names—and that is a very large public in England no less than in America.

Historians answer questions and solve problems. Why did events turn out as they did? Has the evidence on this particular point or that been interpreted correctly? What effect did the impersonal forces of demography, geography, economic growth, trade cycles, and the like have upon nations and the statesmen who imagined they controlled their destinies? The authors of great narratives sometimes break off as Macauley did in his third chapter, to analyze the society whose story they are telling.

But these questions and problems do not trouble Massie. He is the historian of monarchs and their generals and admirals; not of parliaments, political parties, social movements, public opinion. Nor does his book have anything fresh to say about diplomatic history. There is no sign of original research among state papers in the archives. Why should there be? No subject has been more exhaustively documented and pondered over than the origins of the First World War, and the literature that Massie has consulted is enormous. As far as I can see there are very few errors of fact. He seems to be in some doubt whether Balfour was Lansdowne’s fag at Eton or vice versa. (On page 313 it is Balfour, on page 338 Lansdowne—in fact Balfour was the fag, the younger by three years.) The lord chancellor does not preside or call for order if there is an altercation in the House of Lords. The leader of the House, a cabinet minister, would intervene and suggest a remedy—the only way one noble lord can be stopped from filibustering is if another noble lord moves that he be no longer heard. Perhaps inevitably, there are repetitions. The naval bombardment of the forts at Alexandria is twice told. Admiral Tyron is described giving the fatal order on maneuvers that led to his flagship being rammed and sunk, he himself going down with his ship; nineteen pages later he again makes his bow.

What matters most to Massie is biography; and this is what gives his book its particular slant and flavor. As each character makes his entrance he is presented to the reader with an entertaining photo-flash of his character. For instance we are introduced to the powerful German diplomat Friedrich von Holstein at his desk “tirelessly reading files and incoming memoranda, remembering everything, committing his thoughts to paper in the form of analysis, suggestions, corrections and comprehensive, malicious gossip.” We see him through Bismarck’s eyes, then through those of two of Bismarck’s sons, next through those of his enemies Chancellor Bülow and Prince von Eulenburg. Such is the treatment that every actor in the drama, and even those with walk-on parts like Cecil Rhodes, receives. (Nearly all of the thousand pages are therefore needed.)

Most of the well-known stories appear. Queen Victoria says, “I will be good,” and “We are not amused,” and Grey says that the lamps are going out all over Europe and “will not be lit again in our lifetime.” You have the agreeable sensation of floating down the river and recognizing familiar landmarks, a church here, a country house there. Some of the stories are highly entertaining. In 1908, after the gaffe of his interview with the Daily Telegraph, in which he said the German public was anti-British, the Kaiser retreated to shoot stages in the Black Forest at the Fürstenbergs. After dinner, as the band played, an old friend of the Kaiser, General Count Hülsen-Haeseler, appeared in a pink tutu and a rose wreath and began to dance.

“It is an unusual experience to see a Chief of the Military Cabinet capering about in the costume of a lady of the ballet,” said a new member of the Kaiser’s suite. Exhausted by his pirouettes, the Count stopped, bowed—and then sagged to the floor. The Castle was in pandemonium: a doctor worked over the stricken dancer…. The Kaiser paced frantically up and down. After an hour and a half, the Count was pronounced dead of heart failure. Rigor mortis had set in and only with great difficulty was the General’s body stripped of its tutu and dressed in a proper military uniform.

Massie’s story begins with the matriarch of Europe, Victoria—no, first there is a prologue about Trafalgar and England’s determination to maintain a fleet so powerful that invasion was impossible—and the two men who dominate the book are her son the future King Edward VII and her grandson Kaiser William II. The King had only influence, the Kaiser power of a kind: he could choose and dismiss his chancellor and ministers at will provided that the Reichstag continued to vote funds. The Kaiser does not emerge well. He was arrogant, indiscreet, and foolish. He uttered whatever new idea entered his head. One of the most startling of these ideas, which Massie does not mention, was at King Edward’s funeral. There the Kaiser displayed his customary concern for the royal family in their bereavement. He then took the French foreign minister aside and proposed that if Germany was attacked by England France should side with Germany. The Kaiser was genuinely devoted to England and to his grandmother, Queen Victoria. He admired the way the English conducted grand ceremonies while, off parade, informal manners were the order of the day. Above all he admired the Royal Navy. But he was vain and touchy, and his chief naval strategist Admiral Tirpitz played on both these feelings. Should not the commander in chief of the most formidable army in Europe also command a high seas fleet that could rival the British? When the British protested that her naval supremacy on which her defense rested was being challenged, the Kaiser became hysterical about British hypocrisy, duplicity, and stupidity. Did the British imagine Germany could be blackmailed?

Unfortunately for the Kaiser the Royal Navy, which had been suffering from the perennial British disease of complacency, was awakened by Admiral Sir John Fisher. Until he got to the top the most efficient ship was held to be the one whose paintwork glistened and brasswork glowed. Fisher was an overbearing genius who demanded target practice and constant steaming at high speed. He transformed the navy’s gunnery, strategy, and its building program by backing a new type of battleship, the Dreadnought, which outgunned all its rivals. He persuaded the politicians not to match but to surpass Tirpitz’s building program, a policy that culminated in the popular demand of 1909 to build more Dreadnoughts, “We want eight, and we won’t wait.”

No reformer of his type could fail to make enemies. Fisher was challenged by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat whose gigantic ego, personal bravery, and ferocious temper rivaled Fisher’s own. Some of Massie’s most lively pages describe the clash between these rhinoceroses. On his side Fisher had King Edward. At one time the king had also been Beresford’s patron but the king had had a furious row with him over a woman. Beresford on his side had most Conservatives, London society, and later George V. The quarrel nearly tore the fleet apart, but Rhodri Williams, who is a careful academic historian, explains in detail in his recent monograph on the defense policy of the Conservative Party why it did not tear the country apart. The Conservative leader, Balfour, would not exploit the quarrel. He supported Fisher against many in his own party and was content to protect the naval and army programs from the Liberal advocates of Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform.*

The drama that Massie so skillfully constructs demands that an insupportable threat to Britain’s security drove the Asquith government to declare war in 1914. But this was not the case. A few days after Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo a British admiral was calling on the sailors of his squadron to give three cheers for the German navy while on a courtesy visit to Kiel.

Perhaps then, so the reader is led to expect, Fisher’s determination to make the Navy efficient, the Dreadnoughts and battle cruises he built, led to the defeat of the High Seas Fleet? It did not. The British claimed victory at Jutland in 1916 and it is true that the German fleet never went out to sea again until it surrendered in 1918. But Jellicoe lost fourteen ships to the Germans eleven—twice as much tonnage and twice as many casualties as the Germans. The British gunnery and signaling were inferior and Admiralty bungling deprived Jellicoe of vital intelligence. The Admiralty was notorious in underestimating the submarine threat and for long delayed the system of convoys.

Was it then the naval rivalry that led to war—the rivalry that had driven Britain into alliance with France and to seek friendly relations with her old enemy Russia—a development that in Bismarck’s day had seemed unthinkable?

Again this was not so. Naval rivalry had nothing to do with the Anglo-French entente. Britain, it is true, found itself after the Boer War without allies and universally hated in Europe. But France was far more dangerously isolated. For some years France had been trying to effect a rapprochement with Britain but was frustrated by Britain’s overbearing colonial policy in Egypt and the Sudan. Yet it was not in Africa that the clue to the Anglo-French entente was to be found. It was in the Far East. Britain’s bugbear was not Germany but Russia, which threatened India and trade with China. Only after the Boxer Rebellion, when Russia renounced aspirations in China, could the British welcome an alliance with France and accept the French commitment to Russia. But in the plans that the general staffs on the Continent made in case war broke out Britain was ignored. Generals in Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg scarcely gave any consideration to the British forces.

Throughout the twentieth century Russia has remained the imponderable in European affairs. At the beginning of the century the Marquis of Salisbury and in particular Joseph Chamberlain were making every effort to effect an alliance with Germany unperturbed by Tirpitz’s naval program. Both countries felt threatened by Russia. Germany rejected these overtures: Chancellor Bülow told the Kaiser they reflected British weakness. For once the Kaiser spoke good sense when in 1895 he pointed out that the British fleet was perfectly useless if Russia attacked Germany. How could it stop the three Russian armies and nine cavalry divisions facing East Prussia if they were to march? They were opposed by only one German army corps. What many Englishmen thought was the “natural alliance” between the blood-brothers of the North Sea against England’s traditional enemies, France and Russia, proved to be an illusion. Yet there was still no reason why Europe could not have remained at peace even when the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy confronted the Franco-Russian alliance and the Anglo-French entente. The bitterness of feeling that Samuel Hynes describes sprang in part from the realization that the European powers had blundered into war.

It is on this score that Robert Massie’s book is good history. The First World War was not caused by impersonal forces that held the puppets mercilessly in their grasp. Who today believes that it was caused by the contradictions of capitalism; or by the imperialist struggle for colonies; or by armaments manufacturers; or by rulers frightened that the working classes were being seduced by revolutionary socialism; or by the fear that ethnic minorities would break away from the state? The war was caused by rational men taking rational decisions. Massie is right to lay the blame on the Austro-Hungarian government for rejecting a virtual capitulation by Serbia to Vienna’s terms for peace. He is right to blame the German government for egging the Austrians on, the Kaiser as usual veering and posturing. On the other hand, Massie’s drama demands that the crowned heads, who have been acting stage front in scene after scene, should in some way be shown to be responsible. In 1919 the British tabloids ran a campaign to hang the Kaiser. But despite his faults he was no more responsible than a dozen others, and in that respect Massie’s account might well mislead.

There was one impersonal factor that Massie does not sufficiently stress. Each country had detailed plans for mobilization, and these plans depended on adherence to intricate railway timetables to enable the troops and their supplies to be concentrated at the desired spot. Germany’s mobilization plan—the Schlieffen plan—envisaged holding the Russians with the minimum of force while their unwieldy, inefficient army mobilized. Meanwhile, most of the German army would invade France, sweep through neutral Belgium, and envelop the French army’s left flank. France was to be defeated in a Blitzkrieg and then first one army corps and then another would be entrained for the eastern front. These troops would first stabilize the eastern front and then defeat the Russians.

As the armies of Europe mobilized, the rulers suddenly awoke to the danger ahead. After Germany had declared war on Russia, the Austrians tried to pull back. It was then the Kaiser realized the danger of world war. He clutched at a chance of getting France to remain neutral and halted the invasion of Luxembourg, telling the chief of the general staff, General von Moltke, that now he need attack only Russia. Moltke nearly had a nervous breakdown: the Schlieffen plan was based on attacking France first and once set in train could not be altered. The Kaiser backed down and the generals took over. They too were making rational decisions, but decisions taken years before on hypothetical assumptions. Those who believed that international problems could be solved by rational discussion and good will were defeated.

Thus it was that the world of King Edward VII and Kaiser William II disappeared with its thunderous military parades and its naval regattas giving salvos of royal salutes which Massie describes with such panache. The only three monarchs with power in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia disappeared. There were still plenty of kings in Europe but they were of little account politically. The fervor of military parades, however, reappeared, first in Italy and then in ever more sinister form in Germany. The disillusion that gave rise to fascism on the Continent did not, however, corrode Britain as much as might have been expected, and in the summer of 1940 the British found themselves fighting Germany alone under the leadership of one of the First World War politicians whose bold ideas had been discredited by the disaster of Gallipoli. Clio is the most ironical among the muses.

This Issue

March 26, 1992