If you are in Britain and currently do as much as glance at any newsprint or backlit screen, I would guess you probably are currently inundated with the word “Centenary”. This is of course the Hundredth Anniversary of the commencement of what we have come to call the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, or just WW1. This is of course, for Europeans especially, a very poignant date, one for honours, books, trumpets, ceremonies, and wreath laying on marble monuments. It’s a imperative time for publishers and authors who are determined to crank out something timely for the reading public. For political theorists and international speculators, the promise of this anniversary, so weighty in historical significance, presents a favourable backdrop to frame current global instabilities in rich and fertile imaginations. I too am not excused from a dabbling in this ooze of memory, though I do not necessarily believe we are doomed to relive the trenches given that the far less remote possibility of nuclear Armageddon still exists to balance the considerations of a conventional world war being fought between industrial and post-industrial combatants.
The great power struggles and jockeying of the ascendant powers and their old fiddle competitors do merit extensive consideration, and the date’s relevance to the current competition of pan-global players is not without its merits. As revision and reaction dominate the dialogue over the causes of the crisis of 1914, which will constitute some of the best intellectual reading this summer as well as some of the poorest, it all just goes to prove that, despite the passing of that war’s generation, this is still fertile and emotive ground indeed. In Britain especially, as the fateful anniversary approaches, the war’s conduct will be the focus of much familiar commentary, from the poems of Owen and Sassoon to the bitter writings of Graves and Liddell-Hart about the Lions led by Donkeys in the pals battalions marching into machine gun fire kicking footballs. There will be the same rightly-deserved lumps delivered to mustachioed men in medal laden uniforms while Tommy Atkins will leer out of the dugout on the weekend editions much like every anniversary since the end of the war. Without doubt, at Christmas we’ll all get a very tired lesson about Christmas spirit from the Christmas Truce’s Centenary, which will touch all but those too embittered and sardonic.
This is the First World War as I learned it. It was mostly self taught from books written by British authors; American education tends to treat the Great War as an event dominated by America’s 1 substantive year of fighting, and mostly directed towards Wilsonian principles, the Zimmerman Telegraph, the Lusitania, and the League of Nations (which America ultimately bailed on). Usually rather quickly brushed over as a prelude to the Lost Generation, Bonus Army, and of course the rootin-tootin “good war”, World War Two, American schoolchildren often miss the names their European, Australian, and Canadian counterparts are more familiar with: the Marne, Tannenberg, Ypres, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme, the Isonzo, and Passchendaele. Similarly, the Europeans often miss out on the war’s larger impact across the world in China, East Africa, the Middle East, Iraq and Mexico, the events that make it a truly ‘world’ war. Time and the testing schedules are limited in school for four years of substantial carnage, modified as the dictates of national agenda sees fit.
I learned what I suppose a lot of British youngsters did: that the war was a frightful and hideous sacrifice which achieved no firm purpose and was something of a hollow victory (Brits held, Yanks arrived, Huns surrendered, lots of people died). When I was in the 7th Grade I chose to do my history project on the Somme Offensive, dominated by a narrative of Field Marshal Haig’s planned offensive and the resultant butchery of 1 July 1916. I told my classmates the typical formula of a plan dreamed up by unrealistic planners who were arrogant classists and singular fools, who sent common Britons to be slaughtered on the wire. I illustrated with plastic soldiers the British soldiers marching in long files against German machine guns, and then claimed that the Somme ended indecisively with a staggering casualty rate.
I held this opinion until very recently, when a fresh round of literature on the war entered my purview and did a lot to dispel these ideas. My first reappraisal came from Professor Gerald De Groot at St Andrews, who has written an excellent biography of Haig (who was rector of the University during the War Years), and who alerted me to the rapidly changing historiography of the war, in which later accounts shifted into a condemnatory tone which was not held at the time and which reflected two important dynamics: the first being the disillusionment of society with the war government and with the motivations of the war, and the second being one of the largest games of cover your ass ever conducted as the politicians and senior leaders (Churchill among them) wrote their memoirs and autobiographies which passed the blame for the horrendous casualties onto the high command or anyone who had died (and thus had no ready retort). To me, Haig had been a boogeyman, a cavalry officer who was unrepentant about the slaughter of his soldiers (General Melchett incarnate), and it was only when I realized that he had conveniently died shortly after and could be swiftly and overwhelmingly condemned by a growing anti-war party (and those who wanted to curry their favour) that I began to reassess.
I began to study certain particulars, especially the offensive doctrine and composition of the armies in greater detail, which alerted me to the multiplicity of problems facing the commander of 1914 to 1918. I am currently reading Professor William Philpott’s book Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the 20th Century, which has already changed my appreciation of the whole flow and context of the Somme offensive. It has offered me a picture for the first time of the Somme as a Allied victory in a war of attrition which was better understood contemporaneously then has been given credit. The mass casualties of the battle were the result of the very nature of mass industrial warfare, where armies of millions slogged it out in battles of depth with the power of force multiplying weapons deployed on unprecedented scales. While Philpott does not excuse the incompetence of several futile attacks or the officers who ordered them, he at least presents a fair assessment of the issues plaguing military planners in trench warfare and their adaptive capabilities, and offers the schema for which the allies can redoubtably claim a victory from the Somme Offensive. In doing so he challenges assumptions I had taken for granted, and dispelled many myths I held about the First Day of the Offensive, like the command for all British troops to walk up to the German lines (this happened in a few sections and in some cases the British attacks failed more out of bad luck than out of meticulously planned failure).
Still, as the Centenary draws near, I do wonder if this reappraisal of the allied victory at the Somme, or even in the war in general, really changes how I feel about the First World War. The barbarity of the war, in the trenches, in the mountains, in the deserts, in the scrub-land, on the seas, and in the air does not dissipate even if it is brought into proper historical context. Perhaps I am still something of a red at heart, but it is hard not to see the Great War as an unparalleled human tragedy. Even though on the scale of the Second World War it is not even comparable when talking about the absolute destruction of armies, cities, and populations as a whole (with a few notable exceptions), the First World War remains staggeringly bleak. The trenches, gas warfare, week-long artillery bombardments, shell shock, and ‘going over the top’ are all horrors that seem so staggeringly unreasonable, even if dictated by military neccessity. Even though the defeat of militaristic and absolutist autocracies was an understandable goal, I still can’t help but feel “the bayonet is a weapon with the working man at either end” is the truer message of the carnage. If the war was really about the death of a single Austro-Hungarian Archduke, at which point, from the distance of a century, the flabbergasted observer throws up their hands to say “is that it?” Even knowing that the war had causes beyond this single event, I often wonder why it needed to continue to the extent it did, even though many historians have perfectly good answers why.
It does no good in this world to be so kumbaiya about war, the principles and hypocrisies involved, and the mechanisms that drive it. If I despise the British media for being obeisant to the government and the General Staff’s version of events or despise Joffre and proponents of the Bayonet-led Offensive, I realize that the principle is somewhat moot, as the tactics reflected the untested effects of mass industrial warfare, the stakes were very high to the nations involved, and the attitude of the publics was overwhelmingly pro-war for much of that time (and continued to be so in Britain for many years after). Even if it smacks of madness today, it was understood then that the dictates of war demanded sacrifice and no one who thinks realistically expects war between several mass mobilized states to be a low-casualty affair (even though the British started the war assuming that their army of 150,000 or so would be sufficient for the fighting involved). It seems strange in retrospect that Desert Storm was originally estimated by US planners to winnable only at a minimum cost of 15,000 casualties (when it ended up, at least in the course of the operation, to be less than 300 Americans), which reflected the understanding that large conventional forces of trained soldiers (even if using second-rate material) could potentially devolve a determined assault into a long battle of attrition.
While all that is worth remembering for the historian, as well as the revisionist naysayer, I will still be moved by the First World War’s human costs, for the distinct miseries of the infantryman of every nation. Suffering under bombardment, then having to break through layered defenses, mopping up determined points of resistance, sometimes deep underground, and then moving over more exposed ground under fire from high explosive shells and machine guns was undeniably hellish, and it seems little comfort that it was intentionally understood to be a long affair where the goal became losing the least men possible in order to outlast the enemy, while forcing him to waste his men. Even though it brought Tommy Atkins victory, the cost in life looks no better to me. No soldier’s lot is particularly enviable without a certain temperament and outlook on the whole affair of soldiering that some societies and individuals entertain, but I will continue to read Wilfred Owen, sing along to “Oh, What a Lovely War!”, and hold in my heart a touch of disgust for Haig and French. I won’t deny that they won the war, but I will still associate with the ranks of the dadaists, the colonial critics, and those who see the war as the revelation of the degenerate heart of European civilization. Despite the heroism and the proud service, when I think of Armistice Day, I still see the ending of 1939’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a field of white crosses, while “The Green Fields of France” plays in my head.
A victory, but at what cost to a whole generation?