The First World War dominated the public memory in twentieth-century Britain. For decades, this generally took the form of scathing denunciation along the lines of Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War! or A J P Taylor’s lectures, juxtaposing bone-headed generals, oblivious to the mass slaughter that cost 720,000 British lives, with a brave but disillusioned populace. This has been shown to be too simple minded. Patriotic passion was the prevailing wartime outlook. Haig remained an icon until his death, the recipient of an earldom and a publicly funded ancestral Scottish mansion in Bemersyde. For all the éclat of the anti-war poets such as Owen or Sassoon, the greatest literary impact came from the bestselling patriotic verse of Rupert Brooke. The British also cherished their Armistice Day, a unique national ‘ceremony for the fallen in battle’. Some historians have gone further, seeing generals like Haig, obsessed with their cavalry, as grand masters of strategy, their offensives at the Somme and Passchendaele wreaking hidden damage on the German military machine and leading to virtuous triumph in 1918 against almost insuperable odds.
Adam Hochschild, author of a fascinating book on Leopold II’s atrocities in the Belgian Congo, largely reverts to the earlier tradition. For him the war was ‘madness’, a gruesome saga of pointless cruelty. Its legacies lay in another war, inevitable from the outcome of the peace treaties, and