Something of Importance

Philip Williamson

  • The Coming of the First World War edited by R.J.W. Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann
    Oxford, 189 pp, £22.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 19 822899 6
  • The Experience of World War One by J.M. Winter
    Macmillan, 256 pp, £17.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 333 44613 5
  • Russia and the Allies 1917-1920. Vol II: The Road to Intervention, March-November 1918 by Michael Kettle
    Routledge, 401 pp, £40.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 415 00371 7
  • Douglas Haig 1861-1928 by Gerald De Groot
    Unwin Hyman, 441 pp, £20.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 04 440192 2
  • Nothing of Importance: A Record of Eight Months at the Front with a Welsh Battalion by Bernard Adams
    The Strong Oak Press/Tom Donovan Publishing, 324 pp, £11.95, October 1988, ISBN 1 871048 01 X
  • 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War by Lyn Macdonald
    Joseph, 346 pp, £15.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7181 3188 6

Publications about the Great War continue to proliferate, hardly needing additional stimulation from the 70th anniversary of the Armistice. The present books are just a few on the subject to appear during 1988, and despite publication dates close to 11 November only one of these seems to be a largely opportunistic production. The reasons for such persistent attention are plain. The war was a huge rupture in many areas of human experience. It caused the fall of empires, dynasties and governments, the transformation of many institutions, and the emergence of new states, regimes, parties and political issues. It was the first truly international war, which affected even neutral countries through their economies, and which with the rise of American and Japanese power precipitated the end of European supremacy. It left an aftermath of disrupted international and national economies, bringing deep economic depression and mass unemployment. It precipitated social revolutions in some countries, and almost everywhere an advance in the power of labour and intensification of class tension. It was a blow to cultural optimism, to all assumptions of rational and humane progress. But it was not just a ‘world-historical’ event or clash of great entities. It was also the first war both of mass armies and mass mobilisation of civilian populations in war production. It was a war of an immense number of extraordinarily intense personal experiences – the terrors of combat and the particular horrors of trench warfare, proximity to suffering and death, bereavement, material deprivation, new work experiences and new social expectations. In one way or another the Great War affected the lives of more individuals more directly than any previous episode. It was stamped deeply upon ‘modern memory’ – not just in literary culture as described by Paul Fussell, but in family and communal memories and in the most solemn national commemorations.

Consequently the Great War is unusual in being a matter of both intensive academic study and considerable popular interest. More readily than on many other subjects, professional historians can hope to reach a substantial ‘general’ readership: the Evans and Pogge von Strandmann, Winter and De Groot books each have this audience in mind. The subject also attracts many non-academic writers, editors and compilers, contributing a large literature of ‘popular history’. The war has stimulated some of the most impressive work within these two genres of academic and popular history. What is depressing is the limited contact between the two.

A good deal of ‘popular history’ – even if well-researched in the sense of using original documents – is barely informed by the conclusions of the best academic history, however relevant and accessible. Or else it remains enveloped in the assumptions or generalisations of outdated or poor scholarship. One common assumption is that a war of such gross proportions must somehow have been ‘inevitable’ and had profound, general causes: thus, as is asserted in one of these books, ‘those who studied the politics of power had seen it coming for a decade and it was an open secret that a “great war” would one day be necessary to sort out the simmering quarrels and rivalries that were bubbling to the boil in Europe.’

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