Rewriting our history with the benefit of hindsight never truly portrays the reality of those who lived at the time, writes Allan Massie
The ordinary joys of an infantry subaltern’s life, such as ‘going over the top’, were not enough for Drummond’s appetite.” This is far from the picture of the First World War as unrelieved Hell, which has been popularised by “the left-wing academics”, castigated by Michael Gove, the Scottish Secretary of State Education in England. Yet this sentence from the first Bulldog Drummond novel by “Sapper”, the pen-name of Lt-Col H C McNeile (of the Royal Engineers), arguably reflects the way the war still seemed to many in the 1920s, when Drummond was the James Bond of his generation.
Likewise, a writer of a letter to this newspaper the other day, who condemned Field-Marshal Haig as a callous butcher, would have received short shrift from the tens of thousands of veterans of the Great War who filed reverently past his coffin as his body lay in state.
We should guard against viewing the past from the changed perspective of today, and should instead try to imagine it as it was. In 1914 young and middle-aged men all over Europe went willingly to war; we should remember that till 1916 the British Army was a volunteer one. Few then thought the war wrong, pointless, or wicked. Most thought it justified, many necessary. Even in the 1920s, by which time its full horrors were evident, those who continued to believe this were more representative of the mass of opinion than the war poets whose view of the terrible conflict has so deeply and understandably influenced later generations.
Why did the war break out, and who was responsible? The convincing answers to the first question, tracing the course of events that led from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to Europe-wide war only six weeks later are well-known. To understand how this came about one should remember that for governments of the time, war was always thinkable as an instrument of policy.
Responsibility for the outbreak of war, and therefore the heaviest war-guilt, has been laid on Germany. Certainly Germany did much to provoke the war, and could have restrained its ally Austria-Hungary from seeking revenge for the assassination from Serbia. But Germany was not alone in being ready, even eager, for war. In a foolish article in the Daily Telegraph this week, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, cited as evidence for German aggression the fact that the Schlieffen Plan for the invasion of France dated from 1905. But all governments and general staffs have war plans – and would be irresponsible if they didn’t. The truth is that all the Continental powers had what seemed good reasons for going to war. Germany feared the rapid industrial development and apparently growing military strength of Russia. Russia wanted to defend its “Slav Brother”, Serbia, and the Tsarist government believed that a successful war would strengthen the regime. That was the hope in Austria-Hungary too; a successful war would strengthen the unity of the Empire. France had a Treaty of alliance with Russia, and sought revenge for defeat in 1870 and the return of the “lost Provinces” of Alsace-Lorraine.
Britain had the least interest in war. Indeed little more than a week before it began, the prime minister, Henry Asquith, reflected that, “happily”, it need not concern us. The entente cordiale with France did not firmly commit us, and neither did the 1839 treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium. Yet somehow we got sucked in. Perhaps if we had made it clear to Germany that we would fight alongside France, the march to war might have been halted. Probably not, however. When the Kaiser spoke of our “contemptible little army”, he was not referring to its quality but to its size.
Everyone expected a short war. This was reasonable. None of the European wars since the defeat of Napoleon had lasted more than a few weeks. The expectation that it would be over by Christmas was common. Only a few, Kitchener among them, who had studied the history of the American Civil War, appreciated what the industrialisation of war could mean.
The death toll and casualty figures appall us now, partly because the war went on for so long and because so few of the great battles had a clear outcome. But, though we are horrified by them, even the terrible first day of the Battle of the Somme resulted in fewer deaths than in some of the close combat battles of the Napoleonic Wars or the 18th century, when, according to the military historian Hew Strachan. “30 per cent casualties in a single day were not uncommon”.
Now, for many, the hardest question to answer is not why the war started, but why it was prolonged after stalemate had been reached. The first answer is that the stalemate on the Western Front was not repeated in the east where Germany did indeed defeat Russia, provoking revolution there. In the west the commitment and suffering were so great that they could, it seemed, be justified only by victory. Anyone who advocated a negotiated peace was deeply unpopular.
We should remember the war as tragedy, which did grave harm to Europe – though that harm was compounded by the Treaty of Versailles which piled all responsibility for the war on Germany. The war destroyed millions of lives, but if we now choose to regard it only as a brutal and foolish bloodbath, we dishonour those who fought, believing they were fighting in a good and necessary cause.
Admiration, sympathy and respect should be the watchwords of this year. Condemnation is unhistorical and out of place. The message of the monument at Flodden – “To the Brave of Both Nations” – is more to the point. I am happy to think that the war memorial of my Cambridge College, Trinity, includes the names not only of those members of the college who died fighting in the British and Allied Armies, but also those killed serving their own country, Germany.