Siegfried Sassoon called it ‘the world’s worst wound’. The Economist, more prosaically, opined that it was ‘probably the greatest disaster in human history’. Even after a whole century’s subsequent horrors – not least a second and even more catastrophic world war – the First World War still holds a unique place in our consciousness. This is not only because the number of British casualties was greater than in the second round, as a glance at any war memorial shows, but also because the nature of the fighting was peculiarly horrible – a struggle for a few yards of blood-soaked slime – and most of it took place within earshot of southeast England.
The Great War was also, as cultural critic Paul Fussell famously observed, a very literary war. The poems and memoirs of Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Blunden and others of this calibre have served to sear the images of the conflict into the national memory, despite the protestations of modern military historians that their poetic – and implicitly pacifist – view of the war as a futile struggle that should never have been waged was a minority view, not shared by most participants.
That brisk, no nonsense, military viewpoint is certainly well represented in the battalion of books published a year ahead of the centenary of the war’s outbreak. At the head of the pack is the doyen of modern military writers, Max Hastings, with Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (William Collins 628pp £30). In a magisterial, sweeping narrative encompassing the Western, Eastern and Balkan Fronts in the war’s opening weeks, Hastings tackles the two prickliest problems in the conflict’s historiography: who started it and was it worth fighting?
Hastings has no truck with revisionists such as Christopher Clark, who in The Sleepwalkers, published in 2012, suggested that Russia, via its protégé Serbia, used the assassination at Sarajevo to provoke war with Austria, and that Germany got dragged in more or less accidentally to support its ally. Hastings robustly reasserts the dominant thesis in Great War studies, based on the findings of the German historian Fritz
Fischer, that primary guilt for the catastrophe lies with Berlin and the militarist clique around the foolish and bombastic Kaiser.
Hastings also refutes what he calls the ‘poets’ view’ of the war’s futility. It was necessary, he argues convincingly, to resist German and Austrian aggression, which – as their barbaric actions in Belgium and the Balkans proved – was similar in spirit, if not in scale, to the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated 25 years later.
No one, however, can accuse Hastings of nationalism. Indeed, if anything he denigrates Britain’s role in 1914, demoting the opening battles of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons and Le Cateau to minor sideshows and reminding us that the war’s single bloodiest day was not 1 July 1916 on the Somme but 22 August 1914, when France lost a staggering 27,000 men. As with his books on the Second World War, Hastings is blisteringly caustic about the failures of Britain’s ossified high command, especially the bewildered commander-in-chief, Sir John French, whom he covers in withering, if justified, scorn. Reading Hastings, you often get the feeling that he should have been there at the crucial staff conferences. Catastrophe is yet another achievement to add to his previous triumphs.
A far less critical view of Britain’s part in the war’s opening weeks is offered by Allan Mallinson in 1914: Fight the Good Fight – Britain, the Army and the Coming of the First World War (Bantam Press 503pp £25). If Hastings minimises Britain’s importance in the events of 1914, Mallinson, a former soldier turned military historian and novelist, tends to exaggerate it. He writes, however, with acute knowledge of how the few far-sighted professionals inside the army – above all General Sir Henry Wilson – foresaw the war and prepared the BEF to deploy in France with remarkable speed. The Francophile Wilson emerges as the man whose determination to support France bounced Britain into war while its politicians and diplomats were still fumbling in vain for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The prewar crisis itself is minutely examined by American academic Sean McMeekin in July 1914: Countdown to War (Icon Books 461pp £25). Based at Koç University in Istanbul, McMeekin is inclined to be indulgent towards Turkey’s ally Germany, seeking to shift the lion’s share of blame for the war onto Russia. But though there is little new in his day-by-day chronicle of how Europe’s diplomats danced their continent into the catastrophe, he has sufficient literary and historical skill to make his book a page-turning read.
Not content to pre-empt the war’s centenary by bringing their books out just a year ahead of time, a couple of publishers have gone the whole hog and leapfrogged straight to the end of the conflict. Saul David’s 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War was Fought & Won (Hodder & Stoughton 536pp £20) and Nick Lloyd’s Hundred Days: The End of the Great War (Viking 350pp £25) are two examples.
David, a seasoned yet still youngish academic historian, is most at home in the colonial wars of the 19th century, but he occupies this unfamiliar territory with practised ease. His strategy here is to tell the whole story of the war through a hundred key dates, from 4 August 1914, the day Britain declared war, to the Armistice on 11 November 1918, when a sadder but not necessarily wiser Britain celebrated its hard-won victory. David peoples his narrative with a colourful cast of characters, from the much-maligned generals at the top to the Tommies in the trenches and the women working back in Blighty, and he guides his readers home with a sure and easy hand.
Like David, and nearly all other modern military historians, Lloyd is at pains to emphasise that Britain and its Allies actually won the war. His approach is to concentrate on the famous ‘hundred days’ beginning in the summer of 1918, when the Allies went on the offensive and, in a series of stunning victories, at last smashed through the German lines and imposed peace on an exhausted nation, broken by blockade, ravaged by revolution and laid low by an influenza epidemic. Though his publisher’s claim that this is a little-known story is absurd – I have at least five books covering the same ground on my shelves – it certainly bears repeating and Lloyd tells it well.
Peter Hart, an oral historian based at the Imperial War Museum and the author of many studies of the war based on the incomparable sound archives in his care, has given us in The Great War (Profile Books 522pp £25) a more widely focused chronology than in his previous books. While still using witness testimony, he covers the grand strategy of the admirals and generals who directed the war and the impact of new technologies and weapons – such as the tank, the plane and poison gas – that made their debut in the years 1914–18. He argues that the war was the first to mobilise entire populations and resources in the pursuit of such destructive ends.
The human suffering inflicted by such industrialised warfare is examined in Emily Mayhew’s Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914–1918 (The Bodley Head 275pp £20). Mayhew’s method is to follow the typical progress of a casualty on the Western Front, examining by turns the roles of stretcher bearers, the surgeons who operated in frontline ‘casualty clearing stations’, the nurses at hospitals further back from the front, the chaplains who offered what consolation they could and the long, often agonising transport home via jolting ambulances and slow, sweltering trains. Both moving and informative, this is an important contribution to medical history and an original addition to Great War studies.
Anthony Fletcher’s Life, Death and Growing Up on the Western Front (Yale University Press 328pp £20) records the experiences of the everyman. Inspired by letters written home from the trenches by his grandfather, Fletcher, a retired academic, tracked down the correspondence of 12 officers and 5 Tommies to describe the whole arc of a soldier’s life – from enlistment, through training, embarkation, frontline service, leave, discipline and their changing relations with comrades and families at home. Both moving and coolly analytical, it is an excellent book.
‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, wrote Wilfred Owen in ‘Strange Meeting’, imagining a posthumous encounter in Hell. Richard van Emden, a historian who has made a one-man industry from his brilliantly researched Great War books, has produced a real cracker in Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War (Bloomsbury 400pp £20). He traces real meetings across the battle lines, from the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 to the experience of internees caught in the enemy’s country, including the story of Joseph Campbell, a Scottish prisoner of war allowed home to see his dying mother after a personal plea to the Kaiser – on condition that he returned to captivity afterwards. Astonishingly, Campbell kept his word.
If the ‘futile mud and bloodbath’ school of thought regarding the war surfaces anywhere in the batch under review, it is in Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War (Viking 356pp £25). The BBC’s fierce Grand Inquisitor here displays his more tender side. He approaches the war with the puzzled bemusement of a sophisticated modern man looking back at his grandfather’s generation as if they were the denizens of some lost planet. How, Paxman puzzles repeatedly, could they have endured such unimaginable horror, and what was it all for?
Like most of these authors, Paxman paints a very wide canvas, portraying life and death on the Home and the Western Fronts – but, to his credit, the mountain of material never overwhelms him and the stories he tells and people he presents are introduced with the same wry, head-shaking style so familiar from his television performances.
Those less keen on sweeping surveys and more interested in detailed studies of individuals should read From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke by Richard Evans (Spellmount 240pp £17.99) and Private Lord Crawford’s Great War Diaries, edited by Christopher Arnander (Pen and Sword 206pp £19.99). Clarke deserves to be better known – and not only for his role as a journalist in the Great War, during which he repeatedly flouted the military authorities to get close to the front line to report the war in a way that, though familiar to us now, was unthinkable before he did it. (After the war, he set up Britain’s first PR agency, so he has much to answer for.)
In what must be a unique pairing, Christopher Arnander and his wife, Primrose, are grandchildren of two members of Asquith’s coalition government, the Liberal Reginald McKenna and the Tory Earl of Crawford. Although officially too old to join up, Crawford enlisted as a private soldier, yet ended up running a war hospital near the French town of Hazebrouck. His previously unpublished war diaries, meticulously edited by his grandson, offer a fascinating glimpse into life at the front and in the upper reaches of politics at home – and contain some frank comments on his former Cabinet colleagues.
Cartographer Peter Chasseaud is the leading authority on that essential tool of frontline life, the trench map. In Mapping the First World War: The Great War Through Maps from 1914 to 1918 (Collins 304pp £30), he brings a lifetime’s work to fruition by telling the war’s story through the maps that charted it, not only on the featureless wastes of the Western Front but wherever it was fought around the world. What’s notable is the way that soldiers tried to humanise the war by giving these labyrinths of Hell homely names – Leicester Square, Sackville Street, Yorkshire trench, and so on.
Finally, no history is complete these days without a conspiracy theory, and Hidden History: The Secret Origins of the First World War by Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor (Mainstream 464pp £20) is a humdinger. Possibly bearing large and Anglophobic chips on their shoulders, these two ‘amateur historians’ have stumbled on a gigantic plot that has been mysteriously missed by more conventional writers: the war was the fault not of the Germans, as most historians hold, nor even of the Austrians, Russians, Serbs or French. It was the dastardly English who were responsible.
The authors lay the blame on a ‘secret cabal of very rich and powerful men’: an imperialist elite including Lord Milner and Cecil Rhodes, who ‘plotted the destruction of Germany as their first stage of taking control of the world’. (Well, that succeeded brilliantly, didn’t it?) This is Protocols of the Elders of Zion stuff from the Left, and it is shameful that a reputable Scottish publishing house has put it out.