Eric Hobsbawm

  • War and Society in Revolutionary Europe 1770-1870 by Geoffrey Best
    Leicester University Press/Fontana, 336 pp, £12.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 00 634747 9
  • European Empires from Conquest to Collapse 1815-1960 by V.G. Kiernan
    Leicester University Press/Fontana, 285 pp, £12.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 00 634826 2

Is it a good thing that a country, after almost forty years of accelerating decline, has nothing more satisfactory to look back upon than a victorious world war with relatively modest casualties? One is inclined to think not, as British politicians and the media fall in once again behind the fifes and drums of military glory. On the other hand, the unique place of 20th-century war in British life – we are a democracy which has both fought and survived two world wars – and the role of wartime memory in buttressing the national identity since 1945, have been good for the history of war, a subject which appears to flourish exceptionally well in this country.

The strength of the British school of war history is that it is not one of conventional military history, which has much the same sort of relation to history as military music and intelligence have to plain music and intelligence. It seeks to situate war in society, and it is aware of what other historians are doing. Even so specifically a military historian as John Keegan writes recognisable and impressive social history. The major asset of British historians of war is not so much that they have had experience of the armed forces in combat – many have, but much of the best work comes from writers with civilian backgrounds. It is rather that the British experience of a modern ‘people’s war’ is exceptionally full. War and society have been inseparable, not only between 1939 and 1945, but also, since 1969, among the housing estates, supermarkets and pubs of Northern Ireland. We are in a position to know, better than most, that the history of war involves more than generals.

Nor are the best contributions to the history of war motivated by patriotism or a taste for military glory. Of the two authors whose contributions to the Fontana History of War and European Society are the first to appear, Kiernan is a Marxist of long standing, while Best’s initial approach to war is indicated by the title of his recent book, Humanity in Warfare. Neither of these books will be of much help to the reader who wants to know about the strategy and battles of any European war, or even to the reader who wants to know who won them. However, Kiernan provides a more conventional, and a much-needed, survey of European colonial campaigns, and, unlike Best, includes battles in his index. Their approach is, of course, realistic even from a strictly military point of view. As every reader of Hasek’s Good Soldier Schwejk, that summa of the soldierly life, knows very well, for most people and for most of the time, even during wars, strategy and battle do not loom as large as in media headlines.

Both books naturally tell us much about the armed forces that is unfamiliar, except to strictly military historians: for instance (Kiernan), that in the 1830s 42 per cent of the British Army consisted of Irishmen, though it was notably Anglicised later in the century. Both tell us much, too, that is fairly obvious, but is apt to be forgotten because it conflicts with the patriotic image. Winston Churchill was exceptional in recognising publicly that the de facto traditions of the British Navy consisted not only of Nelson but also of ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’, and Best rightly reminds us that the only other armed forces in the 18th century as barbarous in their recruitment and as brutal in their management as the British Navy were to be found in Russia and Prussia. This does not imply that the authors’ excellent accounts of the organisation, recruitment, composition and management of European armies are designed as muck-raking exercises. This is by no means the case.

Both books also raise historical questions about the techniques of fighting wars which go far beyond the purely military. Why were the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (occurring ‘between two waves of technological progress’) so remarkably old-fashioned, in some ways less technically adventurous than looked likely between 1770 and 1795? They were far from being wars rooted in industrial society. Perhaps even more surprising, the astonishing overseas conquests of European armies do not, until the latter part of the 19th century, seem to have been won by technological superiority in weaponry. Asians and Africans were perfectly capable of adopting, and (as Afghan village smiths still prove) of manufacturing, contemporary European fire-arms, and, conversely, European soldiers relied largely on that primitive bloodthirsty weapon, the bayonet. What, then, were they due to? Why, with rare exceptions, did only European states seem capable of producing drilled collective, impersonal killing-machines?

Yet the crux of a history of war and society lies, not in what it says about armies and navies, but in what it says about civilians, whether or not they put on uniform from time to time. There have been two major changes since the 18th century in the relation of civilians to war: the rise of total or people’s wars, which imply the extensive mobilisation of the economy, and (partly in consequence) a change in the public attitude to soldiers and war.

The weakest part of Best’s otherwise perceptive analysis is the treatment of the first of these: perhaps because in his period the only real equivalent of a modern total war effort was, as he notes, the short-lived national mobilisation of the French Jacobin Republic. He is particularly inadequate on the economic impact of wars. He notes, rightly, that the sheer expense of 18th-century wars could bankrupt less wealthy and business-minded countries than Britain, with dramatic political consequences (e.g. France in the 1780s), and also that this could be avoided by making wars of conquest self-supporting, or even profitable. On the other hand, the fiscal problem of how to pay for wars is barely considered, nor the advantages and consequences of various means of doing so, such as the inflationary printing of currency which (as Galbraith has argued) was favoured in revolutionary wars. Nor do we learn much about the possible or actual effects of the skewing of national economies by wars, though the problems of returning to peacetime economies after the Napoleonic Wars are briefly considered.

Kiernan’s book raises no such problems, since most colonial wars were both subsidised by their victims and cheap – an average of less than £6 million, mostly much less, between the Crimea and the Boer War, by British War Office calculations. The conquest of the Sudan cost less than £2.5 million, of which Britain only paid a third.

Best is much more original and instructive in tracing the transformations of the attitude of the civilian world to war and militarism, which he ascribes largely to the effect of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The 19th century is, paradoxically, an era when ordinary life was massively civilianised, in the sense that armed violence retreated to the fringes of civilised and regularly administered and policed society, except for the armed forces in wartime, while military heroism and glory became an increasingly pervasive element in popular ideology and politics. The net effect, he argues, was to promote war rather than peace, though he also notes the emergence of a political peace movement, already significant by the 1840s. In a sense, Frederick Engels was a typical man of his time: a lifetime civilian, with a minimum of military and fighting experience for a Prussian citizen, who yet spent a great deal of his time thinking about military affairs. He was untypical chiefly in doing so with great common sense, dismissing the romantic dreams of insurrectionaries and rejecting the horrors of modern mass wars, which he foresaw.

This spiritual militarisation of the citizen, amply exploited by national myth and demagogy, was a historic innovation. Before the era of the French Revolution, heroism and glory appear to have been mainly of interest to the professionals of arms, to aristocracies whose status implied the carrying and use of weapons and social activities derived from being, in the literal sense of the word, armigerous, and those martial communities in which a distinction between (male) fighters and civilians was meaningless. Civilians on land did not take part in wars, but suffered them. (Best’s book is probably unique in showing us clearly what it meant to them.) Even old Prussia, a state essentially attached to and formed round an army, expected its civilians to keep quiet, and these civilians were, in fact, with the Dutch, perhaps the least riotous population of Europe. Except in countries of precocious patriotism, such as Britain, the heroes most likely to be admired by common people were probably bandits rather than generals. Glory as a political asset for governments in trouble belongs to the age of citizens as distinct from subjects, of nations and democracy – or, in terms of intellectuals, to the age of romantic ones, including romantic revolutionaries. Napoleon, argues Best, discovered how to manipulate the glory of soldiering and war. ‘It is possible,’ he says, citing Herzen, ‘to lead astray an entire generation, to strike it blind, to drive it insane, to direct it towards a false goal. Napoleon proved this.’ It is evidently still possible.

With one major exception, the colonial wars of empires have had less far-reaching politico-ideological consequences for metropolitan countries, though obviously profound ones for the colonised. They remained largely external to imperial powers – except insofar as military crisis in colonial war catalysed political crisis in the metropolis, as it has frequently done. This is because they were usually small, and were still largely conducted by self-contained professional armies often composed of foreigners (the Foreign Legion) and colonial subjects in uniform. For the colonial powers, they provided training schools, particularly useful during long periods of European peace, experimental laboratories for technical innovation, proving-grounds and enclaves for the formation of military ideology. Kiernan, always brilliant in the choice of examples from an extraordinarily wide reading, picks out Evelyn Waugh’s mess evenings, lit by candlesticks which ‘commemorated the military history of the past century in silver palm trees and bowed silver savages’.

Colonial warfare also invented, or saw the first use of, the new military barbarism which the traditions of gentlemanly civility, 18th-century reason and humanity, and the mutual respect of professionals, had long resisted in the wars of European states, at least until the industrialisation of weaponry. Best recalls that the Napoleonic French, faced with the blockade of Brest, were shocked by Fulton’s proposal to use his pioneer submarine to blow up the British ships, holding – unlike us – that it was ‘a disgraceful way of making war ... those engaged in it deserved to be hanged.’ On the other hand, dum-dum bullets, machine-guns, and indeed aerial bombardment and the systematic use of torture, were designed for or pioneered in colonial warfare.

The major general impact of colonial wars on Western society was to reinforce the sense of racial superiority and to give the mass of the unprivileged citizens of conquering states the factitious and consoling sense of belonging to a people of rulers. This made the experience of defeat overseas by lesser breeds all the more traumatic: as witness Morocco for Spain, Vietnam and Algeria for France, and Vietnam for the USA. As these examples show, in our century it has often proved to be politically explosive, and may yet do so again. For, as Best observes in his general preface to the Fontana History, war has ‘a prime place in determining the standards of national societies and their political viability’.

It should be clear that the History of War and European Society promises to be a most valuable project, and that it has been inaugurated by two outstandingly good volumes: learned, intelligent, wide-ranging and very well-written. By an unhappy accident, they are also published at a moment when the topic of war and society has become acutely relevant in Britain, and when surveys of old-fashioned 19th-century types of war, and of campaigns fuelled by imperial pride, are by no means academic. War, as we know, is too important to be left to generals – and, we may safely add in the light of the Falklands conflict, to politicians.