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.’

There is of course contemporary material which after the event appears to support such opinions. But compare the pre-1914 situation with the evidence of ideological confrontation, diplomatic friction, rearmament and war plans in the 1950s. One could very easily make similar statements about the later period – but only if the Cold War had hotted up into a real war over, say, the Cuban crisis. As there was no war, we do not make such statements about the 1950s. They can be made about the pre-1914 decade only because war did occur. It does not therefore follow that evidence showing that most governments wanted to avoid a European war can be ignored.

The Coming of the First World War is an antidote to assumptions of ‘inevitability’. A collection of excellent essays by Oxford historians, incorporating the conclusions of the latest scholarship, it examines government and military thinking and the popular mood throughout Europe during the July-August 1914 crisis, and then the position in each of the major capitals in the order in which they decided upon war. For the editors it is a fallacy to assume that ‘a general European war must have general European causes’. There was ‘no automatic road’ to war; it was not some natural catastrophe, nor an accident. Explanations of how politicians, military leaders and civilians were able to accept war should not be taken to represent ‘causes’. The pre-war alliance and entente systems were not war preparations, but efforts to stabilise European relations. Post-1945 generations, so familiar with the concept of deterrence, should make no facile judgments about the arms race. It is hardly unusual for military staffs to prepare war plans, or for governments to hint at the use of military force. David Spring shows that Russian leaders knew they had good political, financial, military and social reasons to avoid war, and that their hesitant moves towards army mobilisation were intended only to underscore a firm diplomatic stand, and to deter. The French initiated nothing, but reacted to German moves. As for British attitudes towards Germany, it is emblematic of their ambiguity that for all the indications of ‘antagonism’, the Kaiser in 1907 (in contrast to Mrs Thatcher in 1985) was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. By July 1914 diplomatic relations were markedly better than they had been for years. When Asquith, the Prime Minister, wrote on the 24th that ‘we are within measurable ... distance of a real Armageddon,’ he meant a purely Continental war, for he added: ‘Happily there seems no reason why we should be more than spectators.’ Michael Brock shows with great skill that it was not so much the German invasion of Belgium but the precise nature of that invasion which produced a wide British consensus for war 11 days later.

In most cases, then, as Michael Howard suggests, the right question to ask is not why governments went to war, but what they thought would happen to them if they did not go to war. Where, though, did responsibility lie? Partly, Robert Evans explains, with Austro-Hungary – but only partly, because the war its leaders wanted under Serbian provocation was only a small localised conflict, a third Balkan war. The main responsibility lay with the German leaders, who alone wanted a major war and exploited the Balkan crisis accordingly. It was not a preventive or defensive war, because they understood that ‘neither London, nor Paris, nor St Petersburg wants war.’ In Pogge von Strandmann’s words, ‘without the German drive to extend her hegemony a major war would not have started in Europe in 1914.’ So, ironically, after seventy years’ search through the archives of all the belligerent countries, modern scholarship returns to the notorious ‘war guilt’ clause of the Treaty of Versailles.

In understanding the war’s course, dimensions and impact, The Experience of World War One is a useful guide. Aided by a team of specialist contributors and editors, J.M. Winter aims to reach even the absolute ‘beginner’ on the subject. But there is so much to be grasped about so many things to do with the war that those with extensive knowledge will find it of assistance, given patience with what might occasionally seem excessively elementary information. The book operates on two levels. There is a connected text, very ably and clearly synthesising recent scholarship on the war from four distinct positions, those of the politicians, the generals, the soldiers and the civilians. This is accompanied by maps, chronologies, glossaries, short biographies and ‘special features’, photographs and diagrams, which make it also a work of reference. This approach has many virtues. It strikes a good balance between broad analysis and particular conditions, and in examining all belligerent countries it highlights similarities and differences. It is no mere encyclopedic compilation: interest is sustained and understanding advanced because the information is everywhere placed within an argument – from, for example, the concept of a ‘war of illusions’, through Germany’s four strategic ‘gambles’, to the perception that ‘the Allies won the war primarily because they were able to field their armies without starving their civilian population.’

Winter’s book does not end in 1918, because the war did not cease with the Armistice. This was true in the sense of its impact on literature, the graphic arts and the cinema. It was also literally true, as the second volume of Michael Kettle’s important and comprehensive five-volume narrative history of the Allied intervention in Russia makes clear. During 1918 the war was actually being extended. The blockade of Germany and attempt to crush Bolshevism continued into 1919. The British Government very nearly resumed the war against Turkey in 1922, and the last peace treaty was not signed until the following year.

A short war – even victory by Christmas – was, notoriously, one of the illusions of August 1914. Another was the generals’ belief in a war of movement. In Douglas Haig Gerald De Groot examines the British general who suffered the greatest military frustration, as the Western Front stubbornly remained an immobile trench war. Before 1914 Haig was one of the foremost believers in the continued battle-winning capacity of the cavalry, and De Groot argues that this was an obsession which persistently distorted his strategy. He closes off one possible defence of Haig’s command: that though enormously costly the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele were victories because in the long-term they fatally eroded the German army’s capacity to continue fighting. The force of the German offensive of March 1918 should in any case have given this argument’s proponents cause to hesitate. De Groot also shows that, even allowing for the fact that battles never proceed exactly as planned, in terms of Haig’s own intentions those battles were monstrous failures.

The book’s contention is that Haig has not been properly understood because there has been inadequate attention to his early life. De Groot certainly presents a more rounded portrayal of the man, his strengths (concern for efficiency) and limitations (commitment to the traditional). But criticism proceeding from a rather narrow biographical approach has problems. Obviously Haig was ‘a creature of his society’, but he was also ‘undoubtedly the best commander available’. Assessment cannot proceed far unless he is placed firmly among the other British generals, to see what they thought of Haig and the conduct of the war, and whether their conceptions were so different. The British were not alone in launching tragically unsuccessful battles on the Western Front. How does Haig compare with Joffre, Nivelle and Falkenhayn, and do their plans not say something more general about contemporary military attitudes and the nature of the war than simply about the limitations of one man?

As Michael Howard writes, all military commanders in 1914 accepted that because of the growing destructiveness of weapons, modern war would involve very heavy casualties. Nevertheless, in common with many political leaders – and here is one important difference from the 1950s – they considered war an acceptable, even natural extension of diplomacy, and did not flinch from the slaughter. The willingness of populations to accept the ‘sacrifice’ of war was considered no less natural. Haig was very early on impressed by the resilience of British soldiers – even of the volunteer and later conscript armies – and believed their morale and endurance were superior to those of other armies. In this he was right: the Somme and Passchendaele notwithstanding, the British Army did not suffer mutinies on the Front as did the French and the Russian forces during 1917.

Acceptance of the war by the ordinary volunteer or conscript and tolerance of the horrors of the trenches remains astounding. Understanding is less easy: much remains uncertain, or encapsulated in plausible but unproven general impressions. Two contributors to the Oxford volume confess to ignorance about the mood of ordinary citizens in August 1914. Those who marched to war may also have had illusions, but these were soon brutally shattered. How did they cope, why did they continue, what did it all mean to them, what did it do to their patriotism, their religion, their views about authority, their politics and social or class conceptions? What of the huge numbers of bereaved, or those who cared for the disabled or disfigured: how did they react? How much was permanent? It appears certain that the war must have altered popular attitudes, but in exactly what ways?

We know about the middle-class intellectuals – or perhaps really just about the most literary ones. Apart from the well-known poetry and prose of Graves, Sassoon, Owen, Blunden and the rest, there were considerable amounts of other published memoir material. An example is that of Bernard Adams, one of a series of reprints – The Fourteen-Eighteen collection – edited by an antiquarian bookseller, Peter T. Scott. Adams was a product of Malvern and Cambridge, and a lieutenant in the same battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers as Sassoon and Graves. His title is ironic: ‘nothing of importance’ was the official description of an ordinary day of trench warfare (that is, outside periods of major battles), a day of routine duties – and dirt, damp, dread and death. Much of it reads almost as a manual of trench experiences, but towards the end is transformed by a description of a moment of the greatest horror, and by startling reflections on a just war and Christian suffering.

Such material helps: but more needs to be known about the common soldier – the product of state schools and the office or workshop. Here academic study has been slow to advance: while labour history has produced much valuable work on the ‘industrial heroes’ of the period, the war heroes and their families are less familiar. This is where the ‘popular’ historians have made their important contribution. They have demonstrated that the material exists. After all, it was not just a war of the literary but the first war of mass literacy, and there are still living survivors. Lyn Macdonald – like Peter Liddle and others – has collected a remarkable quantity of letters, diaries, photographs, and transcripts of interviews. From these she has compiled and written a series of ‘vernacular histories’ of particular aspects of the War. 1914-1918 consists of a good selection of extracts from documents arranged roughly chronologically for the whole war period.

The recovery of this material is admirable. However, it is difficult to know how to respond to such books. They arouse emotion – pity, horror, anger, surprise, admiration, occasionally amusement. They offer ‘human interest’. But simply compiling anthologies or linking ‘eyewitness’ accounts will not transcend the sources to enable understanding to advance significantly. Richard Cobb’s essay on France in 1914, in the Oxford volume, shows what a mind of great erudition and profound historical imagination might make of such material. As it is, Lyn Macdonald has helped point a way.