The Great War Revisited

Michael Howard

  • The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War 1914-1918 by Trevor Wilson
    Polity, 864 pp, £35.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 7456 0093 X
  • British Strategy and War Aims 1914-1916 by David French
    Allen and Unwin, 274 pp, £25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 04 942197 2
  • The Old Lie: The Great War and the Public School Ethos by Peter Parker
    Constable, 319 pp, £15.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 09 466980 5

The Great War of 1914-1918 is at last a respectable field of study for British professional historians. There has been no lack of monographs on specialised aspects of that gigantic tragedy: what have been lacking are serious synoptic studies. The highly emotional arguments over the tactics and strategy of the Western Front, initiated during the war itself by the conflicts of ‘Easterners’ versus ‘Westerners’, and continued thereafter in the battles of the memoirs, were renewed after the Second World War by the defenders and detractors of Douglas Haig: arguments which for fifty years produced a great deal more heat than light. Only a few works by quiet specialists like Shelford Bidwell and T.H. Travers indicated the true problems and achievements of the commanders on the Western Front. Over naval affairs the exchanges of heavy fire between Arthur Marder and Stephen Roskill reduced all others to awe-struck silence. On domestic politics Lord Beaverbrook and his acolyte A.J.P. Taylor gave us plenty to be going on with, even before younger specialists like Cameron Hazlehurst began to dissect the minutiae of Cabinet crises. Arthur Marwick boldly opened up the whole question of war and social change. Recently a number of younger historians – Kathleen Birk, Keith Neilson, and David French in his first book British Economic and Strategic Planning 1905-1915 – have begun to consider some of the key questions of finance and economics. But until now nobody has tried to put all this specialist work together. The last oeuvre de synthèse was Sir Llewellyn Woodward’s competent but pedestrian Great Britain and the War of 1914-18 (1967). A study taking all the new work into account was just about due.

It never rains but it pours. Now we have two, each in its different way outstanding. Trevor Wilson goes over the ground covered by Woodward, but at greater length and in far greater depth. This ‘total history’ of Britain at war not only covers operational, political, social, economic and literary aspects of the war, but focuses our attention on what it meant for those involved by plentiful quotations from diaries and letters. Wilson does not let us forget that war is about killing people, and being killed – the Great War more horribly so than any. He writes with both compassion and wit – the latter sometimes appropriately ribald – and does not flinch from making judgments. In spite of its 800 pages and 77 chapters, this is a book for the general reader as well as the scholar. Perhaps it is not quite great history; in his attention to detail the author tends to lose the shape of the whole. But it remains by far the best study of Britain in the Great War that has yet been written.

David French’s book, of which there is a second volume to come, is less ambitious in scope, but puts forward a more original and challenging thesis. The real division over British strategy, he argues, came, not between ‘Westerners’ and ‘Easterners’ – between those who believed with Haig and Robertson that the war could only be won on the Western Front and those, like Lloyd George and Churchill, who believed in ‘knocking away the props’ – but between those who believed in a traditional British strategy of minimal military and maximal economic contribution, of harbouring economic strength in support of Continental allies who would do most of the fighting, and those who thought that the war could be won only by total commitment of all resources, and in particular by conscription of all available manpower. The first group comprised most of the old Liberals, their spokesmen in the Cabinet being Walter Runciman and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Stephen McKenna. The second bracketed together the young Turks Lloyd George and Churchill with the bulk of the Conservatives and the military leaders Haig and Robertson.

McKenna summarised the views of his colleagues when he stated on 20 December 1915: ‘Our ultimate victory is assured if, in addition to our naval and military activities, we retain unimpaired our power to assist in financing, supplying and carrying for the Allies, but the retention of that power is probably the most indispensable element of success.’ Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, stated the contrary view a month later: ‘The attitude of some ministers is rather to find out what is the smallest amount of money and the smallest number of men with which we may hope, some day, to win the war, or rather not to lose it, whereas the proper attitude is to see what is the greatest number of men we can put into the field in the shortest possible period of time, after thoroughly organising labour, eliminating all occupations not essential to the vigorous prosecution of war, and making full and appropriate use of every man and woman in the country.’

Somewhat apart from either group stood the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, who had, according to Dr French, a long-range strategy of his own. Kitchener was an Imperial soldier-statesman who saw no point in defeating Germany only to restore the power of Britain’s traditional rivals – France, and, especially Russia, who might, victorious in Europe, turn her attention back to India and the East. Britain should therefore raise the largest possible army but take her time about doing so. Then, in about the third year of the war, when all the Continental belligerents were exhausted, Britain would move in, deliver the coup de grâce, and dictate the peace. It was a Machiavellian policy in the best sense of the term. The trouble is that Kitchener nowhere spelled it out either verbally or in writing, and Dr French can only deduce it from scattered fragments of evidence. He promises further substantiation, and we look forward to it: for the time being, it can be accepted only as a most interesting hypothesis.

Whether this was Kitchener’s intention or not, circumstances made it impossible for him to carry it out, as they equally confounded the exponents of a traditional maritime strategy. Both policies, like Chamberlain’s strategy of ‘limited liability’ in the Thirties, depended on Britain’s allies being prepared to go on fighting for as long as it suited her. But it did not work out like that. The strength of the pro-German party in the Russian court and government, headed by the Tsarina and the formidable Count Witte, caused French and British statesmen constant anxiety, especially when after April 1915 the German High Command decided to stand on the defensive in the West and systematically destroy the Russian armies in Poland. By September the Russians had lost three and a half million men, and an offensive on the Western Front seemed essential to keep her from making peace. The French were in little better case. Alarming if understandable signs of war-weariness were appearing by summer 1915; by the following April British diplomats were warning ‘that the peace party in France is growing and ... there are many influential people in France who are beginning to ask themselves whether twelve months hence France is likely to get better terms from Germany than she would today.’ Whether he liked it or not, the New Armies on which Kitchener had been relying to win the peace would have to be thrown into the balance prematurely to prevent the war being lost, and take part in the great Allied offensive planned for the summer of 1916. But to produce the military strength needed to sustain that offensive it would be necessary to introduce conscription: and conscription, argued McKenna and his colleagues, would destroy Britain’s economic productivity and so her capacity to sustain a long-term war.

Britain thus faced in 1916 the same dilemma that was to confront her again in 1939. If she pursued the sensible economic policies which would have enabled her to wage a long-term war, she was likely to be defeated in a short-term one. In 1916, as in 1939, she decided to cash in all her credits and gamble on a quick victory. She did not get it. The Somme offensive badly hurt the Germans but did not destroy them. In March 1917 Britain’s last resources for securing credit in the United States ran out – as they were to again in 1940. In 1917, as in 1940, the decision as to whether Britain would survive as a major power rested with the United States.

Neither the British nor any other of the belligerents had been under any illusions about the costs of a great war. The search for a quick victory through an offensive strategy in 1914 had been largely motivated by dread of what a prolonged war would do to the precarious structure of urban societies whose social cohesion depended on the orderly conduct of a self-regulating international economy. All the belligerent states sought therefore to pre-empt domestic collapse through a Napoleonic Vernichtungs strategie, aimed at the rapid overthrow of the enemy armies in the field. The task was beyond their powers, and in 1915 all had to consider again, from first principles, how the war could be won. There were those – Haig in England, Ludendorff in Germany – who continued to believe that, given sufficient forces, they might still win the war with a single annihilating blow. There may still be some who believe that it was only through stupidity and incompetence (whether their own or their political leaders’) that they did not. Trevor Wilson has no time for this view. ‘The wealth that industrialism had made available for war-making,’ he states, ‘together with the stage reached by military technology, laid down that no master-stroke of strategy or weaponry would swiftly terminate this struggle. Only the grinding down of armies and peoples would eventually accomplish a conclusion.’

The idea of ‘attrition’ – an Ermattungs strategie rather than a Vernichtungs strategie – was winning adherents on both sides in 1915. Kitchener saw such attrition as defensive – a device for wearing down enemy strength while harbouring his own for a major offensive later on. For Falkenhayn, the director of Germany’s strategy in 1915-16, its object was essentially offensive: compelling the enemy (in his case, the French) to attack so as to bleed not only their army but their people to death. The trouble was that neither the British nor the Germans discovered, until the last years of the war, how to put this doctrine into effect without suffering unacceptable casualties themselves. So whereas, as David French points out, the concept of attrition was initially used by Kitchener and the Old Liberals to justify a strategy of minimal commitment, it was increasingly taken over to support the arguments of the conscriptionists. As Curzon brutally expressed it in June 1915:

The war seems to me to be resolving itself largely into a question of killing Germans. For this purpose, viewing the present methods and instruments of war, one man seems to me about the equivalent of another, and one life taken to involve another life. If then two million ... more of Germans have to be killed at least a corresponding number of Allied soldiers will have to be sacrificed to effect that object. I say ‘at least’ because if we contemplate, as we must do before long, an advance into Germany, the proportion will be gravely deflected against the Allies.

That view, by 1916, was shared by Robertson and the General Staff. Given that the Entente Powers had a total advantage in available manpower over Germany, they argued, ‘provided Germany can be made to suffer approximately equal losses, it is in the interests of the Entente Powers to force the fighting on the main fronts to the fullest possible extent.’ That was the reasoning which lay behind the initiation of the Battle of the Somme, its prolongation into the late autumn, and the long-drawn-out agony in Flanders the following year. Haig, in fact, could never bring himself to believe that the object of these offensives was not to force a breach in the German line through which he could pour his underemployed cavalry, but neither Robertson, who devised the strategy, nor the Army Commanders who had to implement it had any such illusions. Trevor Wilson shows how the latter gradually developed a tactical doctrine appropriate to the strategy of attrition: attacks with a limited aim, meticulously prepared, conducted by highly trained infantry but with artillery increasingly the dominant arm. It was a technique of which the Second Army under Plumer and the Australians under Monash became the acknowledged masters, and which, far more than the development of the first primitive tanks, was ultimately to bring about victory. As Trevor Wilson succinctly puts it, ‘it was not that the British had developed a war-winning weapon. What they had produced was a “weapons-system”: the melding of the various elements in the military arm into a mutually supporting whole.’

This weapons-system demanded not only the large number of men which conscription alone could provide, but huge quantities of guns and ammunition, which involved industrial conscription as well. British industry could adapt only slowly to its new role. This resulted, as Trevor Wilson demonstrates, not only in the shell shortages of 1915 but in the high proportion of dud shells and the low proportion of high explosive (whose manufacture was no business for amateurs) to shrapnel which did so much to explain the failure of the offensive on the Somme a year later. But by 1917 both guns and ammunition were becoming available in adequate quantity and steadily improving quality, and by 1918 the Army had at last learned how most effectively to use them. One of the outstanding merits of Trevor Wilson’s book is the way in which he explains events on the Western Front in terms not just of generalship but of the evolving technology at the disposal of the generals – a factor which all but the most specialised of military historians have hitherto tended to ignore.

With the social effects of all this Trevor Wilson deals fully and carefully. The dreaded social unrest did not occur, he points out, because within a few months of the outbreak of war unemployment almost disappeared, the Government took power to regulate food prices, and the general standard of living of the population, paradoxically, began to improve. Rationing of food and fuel meant that the poor had more of both than they had ever known before. Such discontent as there was was the result not so much of hardship as of maldistribution. Care was taken to cultivate good relations with organised labour, and the unrest in the disturbed areas of the Clyde and in South Wales was quite untypical of the country as a whole. Trevor Wilson is bold enough to attribute the absence of strikes, in comparison with the pre-war years, to the patriotism of the working classes as well as to the conciliatory mood of the employers, and there is no reason to doubt it. Even during the blackest months of the war, from the Russian Revolution in October 1917 to the German March offensive in 1918, labour as a whole showed no interest in any peace short of total victory. Indeed, throughout the war, working-class opinion appears to have been solidly in favour of guerre à outrance. It was the upper and middle classes, watching the destruction of the world they knew, who began in 1917 to talk about peace.

What, ultimately, was the war all about? David French, understandably, does not attempt any explanation beyond élite perceptions of the need to maintain the balance of power. Trevor Wilson in a thoughtful introductory chapter digs deeper, dismissing explanations based on ‘the logic of capitalism’, the pre-war ‘malaise of the human spirit’, Social-Darwinism, or the prevalence of militarism among the European upper classes.

Peter Parker’s The Old Lie, a lively analysis of the manner in which English public schools conditioned the minds of the upper classes for military service, would be unlikely to affect his judgment. The emphasis upon leadership and sacrifice, the inculcation of loyalties to house, school and country, belief in the self-abnegation of the individual for the greater glory of the whole, certainly made the products of the public schools welcome the war when it came and sustained their morale (and arguably that of the entire army) throughout it. Mr Parker has great fun chronicling the absurdities of a system which turned many of its pupils into arrested, homo-erotic adolescents for the rest of their lives. But that does not mean that that system in any sense caused the war. The perception that not only British power but British independence would be at risk if she allowed a hostile and genuinely militaristic Germany to dominate the European continent – a perception horribly renewed in 1940 – was not confined to the products of the public schools. And if a struggle to contain German power had to be fought, it was just as well that there was a substantial and unanimous body of young men ready to do it. Mr Parker clearly believes, as his title suggests, that the Great War was unnecessary, a terrible mistake, and that those who died in it were hapless dupes. That is not Trevor Wilson’s conclusion. What, he asks, if Germany had won the war? The Treaty of Brest Litovsk, and the September Programme of 1914, gives a very fair impression of what the world had to expect. The image of ‘Prussianism’, as Fritz Fischer has shown us, was not just created by wartime propaganda. Mr Parker’s condemnation of the ethic of the British public schools should be tempered by some consideration of the ethic of the German ruling classes, whose victory their pupils did so much to prevent. If the public schools are to be condemned, it is rather because they taught their pupils to die nobly for their country rather than fight for it with sufficient ruthlessness, professionalism and skill.