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.

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