With next year’s centenary of the outbreak of the First World War drawing ever closer, Matthew Price examines a clutch of new historical works that aim to dissect the 20th century’s first major conflict.
A war of words: Four key new works explore the First World War
One hundred years ago today, Europe was at peace. It was a tense peace, certainly, but the continent had weathered several crises – a fuss over Morocco, a dispute about Bosnia, two regional conflicts in the Balkans – without general war breaking out. Still, many wondered when an incident would propel the major powers – France, Russia, Great Britain, ranged on one side, against the so-called Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy – into all-out warfare. Such a moment indeed came on June 28, 1914, when a Bosnian Serb assassin gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife as they made their way through the streets of Sarajevo on an official visit.
Otto von Bismarck, the architect of the modern German nation, said “one day a great European war will come out of some damned fool thing in the Balkans”. And so it did: this Balkan crisis, unlike others before it, would not be resolved by diplomacy or regionally contained.
The resulting war was an almost unprecedented calamity for Europe. A generation of men were killed, maimed and mentally shattered by four years of gruesome trench warfare. The death toll was staggering – Russia’s losses exceeded two million, as did Germany’s. France, where much of the fighting on the Western Front occurred, lost 1.4m men. Britain’s losses were less, but still significant: almost 700,000 from the British Isles and Ireland, plus another 250,000 colonial troops from India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The United States, a late entrant to the war, tallied some 57,000 battlefield deaths.
A century later, questions still persist. How? Why? How could Europe, with its glittering capitals, powerful economies and sophisticated cultures, unleash the forces of its own destruction? Though we’re a year off from the commemorations that will mark the conflict’s outbreak, scholars and writers are already weighing in, revisiting the haunting legacies of the war and its aftermath. The autumn’s first flush of books on the First World War has seen titles by renowned military historian Max Hastings on the war’s opening months, some of the bloodiest of the entire conflict, and Margaret MacMillan on the origins of the war. But this is only the beginning: hundreds more offerings are on the way.
The scholarship on the causes of the First World War almost dwarfs that on the war itself, which is vast; yet it’s vital that we closely examine the roots of what remains arguably the most transformative event of the 20th century. Empires were swept away, new states were born, the modern Middle East as we know it took shape. We are still living with the consequences.
Historians have gone round and round about how the war came about – the Sarajevo crisis was the proximate cause, but a host of isms – nationalism, militarism, imperialism, capitalism – have been invoked to explain the war’s ultimate cause(s). (Some even blame the whole thing on an alleged crisis of masculinity – after all, it was men who ruled and men who made the decisions to mobilise troops.) Germany has reaped blame for being the prime mover in the rush to war in a bid to dominate Europe and crush its enemies, France and Russia. There is evidence to support such a claim; but France and Russia also pushed for war. (“The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s,” the historian Sean McMeekin, author of July 1914: Countdown to War, claims.) One needs four hands to keep track of every suggested cause; and still, nothing is entirely settled.
The acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan, in her beautifully modulated study The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War, emphasises the roles of individuals – monarchs, foreign ministers, politicians, generals – in London, Berlin, Paris, St Petersburg and Vienna. Though MacMillan addresses the arms race, social and political tendencies, and the ideas in the air, circa 1914, she lays the blame on decision makers, who failed to keep the peace. Their failure was profound. “It was Europe’s and the world’s tragedy in retrospect that none of the key players in 1914 were great and imaginative leaders who had the courage to stand out against the pressures building up for war,” MacMillan writes. With an eye on the present, she warns against seeing the war as preordained: “It is easy to throw one’s hands up and say the Great War was inevitable but that is dangerous thinking, especially in a time like our own which in some ways, not all, resembles that vanished world of the years before 1914.”
What MacMillan shows – she does this brilliantly – is how fluid the strategic situation was between 1900 and 1914. We see the Concert of Europe working together as much as it was slowly devolving into two opposed, highly armed camps. The generals made their war plans – in 1912, Joseph Joffre, chief of the French general staff, was asked if he thought about a coming war. “Yes, I think about it,” he replied. “I think about it all the time. We shall have it, I will make it, I will win it.” – but diplomats scrambled to solve problems by mediation. Across Europe, there was both belligerent talk and pacific overtures. The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, blew hot and cold, one day raging against England, the next warming to it. The Anglo-German naval rivalry intensified, but Germany and England worked together on Balkan issues.
And yet, and yet. The system worked – until it didn’t. It’s the bleakest of ironies that the man who was assassinated in Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand, was a proponent of peace who did stand up to Austria-Hungary’s war party, led by the violently Slavophobic Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Austria-Hungary vowed to crush Serbia, and Germany backed their ally to the hilt. (Italy stayed out initially, then joined the Allies in 1915.) By the summer of 1914, options for peace had narrowed to a sliver. Pessimism dominated Europe’s capitals; populations resigned themselves to war.
The search for a culprit has never stopped. Who bears responsibility for the First World War? MacMillan endorses what might be called the “Germany did it-plus” theory. Several variables contributed to war breaking out, but Germany was the dominant variable among many. Germany did not deliberately start a war, but “by taking its coming for granted, as something desirable even, by issuing the blank cheque to Austria-Hungary, and by sticking to a war plan which made it inevitable that Germany would fight on two fronts, Germany’s leaders allowed it to happen.”
Max Hastings is more unequivocal about blaming Germany. Where MacMillan coolly qualifies, Hastings robustly asserts. One of the finest historians of the Second World War, he now turns his attention to the First in Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. A brisk narrative of the war’s origins and the first few months of fighting, it bears all the hallmarks of Hastings: brilliant use of diaries and letters – the voices of soldiers from all sides resound loud and clear – stylish writing, frank opinions. Hastings himself is battling against contemporary perceptions, especially in Great Britain, that the First World War was so horrible that nothing, no cause or reason, could ever justify all the blood that was spilt. Hastings believes strongly that it was the right fight for Britain, which, he argues, could not let German hegemony over the continent go unchecked. Though the German regime of 1914 hardly resembles the Nazis, he writes “its policies could scarcely be characterised as enlightened. Dominance was its purpose, achieved by peaceful means, but by war if necessary”.
Hastings account of the war’s first battles, both in the west, as German forces swept into France and Belgium, and the east, where Russian armies tangled with Austria-Hungary and Germany in huge engagements, are superb, written with dash and energy. What emerged on the battlefields were tactics stuck somewhere between the 19th century and the 20th. Machine guns were grimly efficient killers. The hoary chestnut is true: officers on horseback led troops into battle, only to be swiftly cut down. (Hastings is particularly good on the suffering of horses, which were deployed in the thousands to carry men and haul materiel.)
In the west, Joffre got his war – and nearly lost it. He sent two French armies headlong into Alsace-Lorraine (formerly French provinces taken by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War), only to neglect his defences in the north. He also grossly underestimated the strength of the German forces arrayed against him. This proved calamitous – on August 22, the French Army counted 27,000 soldiers dead, plus thousands more missing and wounded. (These figures exceed British losses on July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme, which looms large in popular imagination as the war’s grim icon.) For Joffre, it was a personal disaster: he lost his only son and son-in-law. The casualties as a whole “dealt the French army a blow from which it never fully recovered – it is remarkable that it recovered at all”.
In northern France and Belgium, the then tiny British Expeditionary Force and the French Fifth Army were left to contend with a German force nearly twice their combined strength. British actions at Mons and Le Cateau have gone down in legend, but Hastings has few kind words about British generalship, which was fractious and divided, or the commander of the BEF, the timid John French. “The only band of brothers to which Britain’s generals might be likened was that of Cain and Abel,” Hastings observes waspishly.
Hastings’s account is full of haunting imagery: a stunned French soldier repeating over and over again “Mown down … Ah, Mown Down!” In Ypres, a flashpoint for the duration of the war, “the Allies and Germans explored a terrible new universe of continual engagement”. Battles lasted for weeks, not days.
By the end of 1914, the vast opposing armies stood roughly matched, each side unable to destroy the other. Here were the beginnings of the stalemate that would define the Western Front. Though the war spread to Africa and the Middle East, it would be won or lost in Western Europe. The conflict became a defenders war par excellence. Masses of troops could make little headway against ranks of machine guns and devastating artillery fire. (Sixty per cent of British military deaths were caused by artillery fire, which killed an even higher proportion of German soldiers.)
After the colossal bloodletting at Verdun, where the German army threw itself against a furious French defence, a French general said: “Three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes.” It’s telling that, with the exception of Verdun, between 1914 and the spring of 1918, Germany mounted no major offensives on the Western Front. The German army dug into high ground and held it. It was the British and the French armies who took offensive initiatives – at Loos, Cambrai, Chemins des Dames, and, most infamously, the Somme – nearly bleeding themselves to death in the process. It’s still shocking to think that the Western Front, which extended 685 kilometres from Switzerland to the Belgian coast, moved little more than seven kilometres in either direction between 1914 and 1918.
Yet, as hard as it may seem, the war came to a conclusion, with Allies dictating terms to the Germans. How this happened on the battlefield is the subject of the historian Nick Lloyd’s Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I. Lloyd looks at the period between August 8 and armistice on November 11, 1918, as the Allies, now joined by contingents of US troops, battered the Germans into submission. This is a moment that has been obscured by other phases of the war, Lloyd argues: “For 90 years, it has been overshadowed by the major trench warfare battles of the middle years of the war, those on the Somme, Ypres or Verdun in 1916 and 1917, which seem to sum up the experience and (apparent) futility of the war: the mud; the blood; the pointless slaughter.” Lloyd shows the story from each side – we see both the battered German armies, still fighting, but vastly diminished in strength, falling back to reserve positions, with the French, British and American forces in pursuit.
Whether or not the German army was actually defeated remains a matter of some debate. The Allies did not occupy Germany; its army was left to go home. Lloyd is blunt about what should have happened: this was only “partial victory”. “The Allies should not have signed an armistice, but carried on, fought the war into 1919 and occupied large parts of Germany,” Lloyd states provocatively. How the war ended, its seeming ambiguity and the punitive terms then forced on Germany by the Allies during the 1919 peace talks have in turn cast doubt on the entire war itself. It’s such legacies that the historian and documentary maker David Reynolds considers in The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century. Organised around a series of themed chapters – on the emergence of new European states, on the challenges facing liberal democracy, the fate of Britain’s empire, the attempts to sustain international peace in the 1920s and 30s – Reynolds offers a comparative perspective on the ways the First World War shaped the 20th century. Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge University and a noted Churchill scholar, is trying to prise loose the war from British cultural memory. He worries that the “British have lost touch with the Great War”, that “the British view of the conflict has remained stuck in the mud and stalled in the Somme”. This is a fair point. Reynolds has many good things to say about how the war has been, through the work of the iconic war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and popular novels by Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks, distilled into a literary phenomenon about soldiers sacrificed to ignoble ends. From Downton Abbey to War Horse, British culture is in love with the doomed officer and the battle-scarred Tommy in the trenches. Emotionalism, Reynolds argues, has trumped historical dispassion. Where the greatest hits of Britain’s Second World War – The Blitz, El Alamein, even Dunkirk – can be packaged as examples of British pluck and grit, inconclusive battles of attrition like the Somme are a much tougher sell.
Though Reynolds is a little too dismissive of popular sentiment, his book forces us to pull back from the Western Front and examine the war with fresh eyes. It’s not an easy assignment. In many ways, the war is both known and totally unstudied. Indeed, the Western Front, as Patrick French wrote in a recent article for Granta, is a misnomer: it was a global front – “Everyone was there”. The British Empire went to war against Germany, not merely “Great Britain”. The white Dominions – New Zealand, Canada, Australia – made a blood sacrifice to the British Empire. The First World War has a powerful presence in Australian lore – Gallipoli endures as a powerful symbol of Australian nationhood – as it does in Canada. Lesser known is the role that Indians played in the war – it’s rarely noted that one third of the British sector of the Western Front in the winter of 1914/15 was held by Indian troops. Indian soldiers suffered and died by the thousands in the Mesopotamian theatre. By war’s end, 74,000 Indian soldiers had perished. Academics have explored such neglected angles, but a non-fiction epic in the popular style about the war and the empire remains to be written.
The First World War remains up for grabs. As we prepare for four years of looking back, it’s only right that its legacies are contested anew.
Putting the Great War into pictures – the Sacco way
July 1, 1916 stands as one of the grimmest days in modern British history, a date that radiates with death and suffering. On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, which would rage for several months into the autumn, the British army launched one of the greatest offensives of the First World War, hoping to decisively break the stalemate on the Western Front. A massive, weeks-long artillery bombardment – 1.5 million shells were fired – had allegedly destroyed German lines. At 7.30am, whistles blew and groups of soldiers, at walking pace, trudged across no-man’s land and into slaughter. German troops, largely unscathed, unleashed machine guns and barrages of shellfire. At the end of the day, 21,000 soldiers from across the Empire lay dead; some 36,000 wounded littered the battlefield. It’s still the greatest disaster the British military has ever seen.
Countless books have been written on the Somme, which remains an open wound in British consciousness, but none like the new work from Joe Sacco. The renowned graphic artist and self-described “comics journalist” has now turned comics historian in The Great War. A beautifully printed and painstakingly wrought (it took eight months to complete) ... what to call it? It’s not quite a book, but a black-and-white panorama, that unfolds, like an accordion, some seven metres wide. Taking his cue from the Bayeux Tapestry, Sacco shows different moments in time, before, during, and after – General Douglas Haig, on his morning walks; the preparation for the battle; men marching to the front; troops watering horses; an Indian cavalry unit moving to the line; the hellfire of shells raining down on blasted men cowering in shell holes; wounded soldiers being tended to by stretcher bearers.
“The First World War still clouds my vision of humanity,” Sacco writes in his author’s note. Unlike his previous works – Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, among his notable titles – which are animated by conversation, The Great War is wordless – a silent monument to a horrific day. It was a deliberate choice: “All I could do was show what happened between the generals and the grave, and hope that, even after a hundred years, the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.”
Talking from his home in Portland, Oregon, Sacco expresses passionate disgust and outrage with the day’s infamous carnage. “I wanted to take a step back and look at what we do to each other,” Sacco says. “Though, of course, the drawing has an anti-war sensibility, I hope readers will notice the enthusiasm of the soldiers going up to the front. War is a matter of politicians and generals, but it is also a matter of populations getting behind the effort.” David Stevenson, a leading historian of the war, has likened preparing a Western Front offensive to a major civil engineering project. Indeed, what Sacco’s drawings show is a collective endeavour, men building a vast infrastructure of death and destruction. “Humanity at its best, in a weird way,” Sacco says, “doing its worst.”
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.