This month marks the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, perhaps the great civilizational catastrophe of the past half-millennium. (Principal contender: The collapse of Chinese Imperial civilization following the mid-19th-century encounter with the West.) For anyone raised in Britain, WWI has a powerful emotional pull. I’ve written about this myself on this site. As I said in that column: “I think every country reserves a special place in the collective memory for her bloodiest war. For the U.S., that was the Civil War, which killed more Americans than all other wars since, combined. For us English, the Great War was WWI.” Even a recent TV comedy series spoofing the war felt obliged to end on an elegiac note that left many English viewers in tears.
There is a fine essay by Adam Gopnik in the August 23 issue of The New Yorker on the larger social and historical context of the war. For me, the whole business was somewhat personal, because my father was in it.
Born in July 1899, Dad was just 15 when the war began, but he was a big strong country boy who looked older. After a couple of failed attempts, he joined up, did his training, served briefly in Ireland during the emergency that followed the Easter Rising of 1916, and was shipped to France sometime later that year, or early the next, with the 2nd Battalion, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. He served as an infantryman on the Western Front for two years. I still have his Victory Medal–it’s the one mentioned in the footnote to the column I linked to above.
Dad was a working man of little education. He did not belong to what Hazlitt called “the reflective portion of humanity,” and was not the person to go to for deep insights into the conduct and significance of that war. His recollections were random, personal, and typical. “They’d send us over on a night patrol to get a prisoner from the German lines. We’d lose two men capturing the poor bugger, and when we got him back to Battalion HQ, it generally turned out he didn’t know anything, so the whole thing had been a waste of lives.”
Dad took part in the great battles of 1918 that broke the Hindenburg Line and delivered multitudes of German prisoners into Allied hands. The prisoners were supposed to be disarmed and passed back through the lines, but according to Dad they were quite often killed for the sake of convenience and speed of advance. (Though he insisted he himself did not do this, and in fact had a story about his unit’s refusing an officer’s orders to shoot some Germans coming up from a dugout with their hands raised.) Like all British troops in both world wars, he ungratefully regarded American soldiers as incompetent and ill-disciplined braggarts, more of a threat to their allies than to the enemy. The watchword in his own battalion when the Americans arrived in numbers in 1917 was, he claimed, “Never mind Fritz [i.e., the Germans], just keep one eye on those [expletive] Yanks.”
The main personal result of Dad’s two years on the European continent, fighting to defend the French against the Germans, was to leave him with an abiding hatred of the French and admiration for the Germans. (That, and a knot of white shrapnel scars on his leg.) The French, seen through Dad’s adolescent eyes, were the rapacious peasants selling bad wine, bad food, and their daughters in the rest areas behind the lines; the Germans were the brave men under fire in the opposing trench, undergoing much the same privations as oneself. This was grossly unfair: The French were actually fighting very bravely, with appalling losses (twice the number of British dead, from a smaller population), but that was far down the line, beyond Dad’s ken. I doubt, in any case, that these experiences did more than emphasize an inborn tendency. Dad was, as Boswell said of Johnson, “A stern true-born Englishman, and fully prejudiced against all other nations,” and I doubt his war experiences did much more than accentuate that native disposition (public expressions of which are now illegal). Dad later traveled the world, returning to England with a much-enlarged inventory of foreigners he despised.
The presence of the war for me as a child was on a high shelf in a closet in my parents’ bedroom. There Dad kept his war memorabilia. There were his campaign medals: two originally–I think my sister has the other. There was a framed picture of the Cenotaph, with one member from each of the four services (army, navy, merchant marine, air force) standing with head bowed and rifle reversed at each corner. And then there were the books: a set of several heavy-bound volumes, produced right after the war, giving the history of the conflict, with many pictures–most of them drawings, not photographs. As a child I would sometimes sneak up there and leaf through those books. I have been reading WWI books ever since. (And occasionally reviewing them.) The aforementioned New Yorker Gopnik piece has a good survey of recent WWI books.
* * *
Does WWI have anything to teach us today? In the way of lessons about geopolitics, I can’t say I think so. It broke out in a world of powers that were, economically and militarily, roughly equal. There is today no such equivalence of powers. The U.S. not only has the world’s biggest air force: It has the world’s second and third biggest, too! This is, for a while longer at least, a unipolar world, and all the power calculations are correspondingly different.
Other things, too. Demographics, for instance. At the time WWI broke out, my maternal grandmother had had eleven children; she was to have two more. That wasn’t unusual. Populations were booming. What country now would tolerate 750,000 dead from a population of 45 million, as Britain did in WWI? An equivalent figure for present-day America would be around five million dead. The figures for France, Germany, Austria, and Russia were much worse, with present-day U.S. equivalents well into eight digits.
There is also a matter of imagination. Adam Gopnik observes that at the outbreak of WWI everyone concerned thought it would resemble some previous conflict: the Franco-Prussian War, the American Civil War, even the wars of Napoleon perhaps. Nobody thinks like that now. Nobody thinks that an all-out military conflict between major powers would be like anything that has happened before. The reason, of course, is nuclear weaponry, which is so radically different in nature to everything previous that we struggle to guess at the consequences of its widespread use. Nobody really knows what an all-out major war would be like, but at least we know that we do not know; and there is a strong suspicion that total war in the present age would be unacceptably devastating even for the most coldly calculating militarist.
Not that any of this prevents speculative minds from drawing WWI analogies. There was a fad among China-watchers a few years ago for comparing modern China to the Germany of Wilhelm II. This was based mainly on a reading (some say a misreading) of Barrington Moore’s poli-sci classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which argued that a dictatorship can, under certain circumstances, maintain its political grip by co-opting a rising middle class. It’s a neat idea, and the ChiComs have to a degree co-opted their rising middle class; but nothing else matches. Demographics again, for example. Someone once asked me about the chance of a war between China and Japan. I replied that the way those nations’ demographics are trending, any such war will soon have to be fought out on a shuffleboard court.
No, I believe WWI was an event like no other, from which nothing can be deduced. It stands there still, stark, and terrible, just beyond the memory horizon. The British novelist Anthony Powell, who was born in 1905, noted in his memoirs that “[t]he ‘age-gap’ of the Twenties was a chasm to make all subsequent ones of its sort seem inconsiderable. Men and women grown up before 1914 were not only older, they were altogether set apart; and thus they remained throughout life. You never caught up with them.”
This was a historical thunderclap of the first magnitude, a jagged fault line right across modern human consciousness.** The petty scuffles of our own time–I mean no disrespect to anyone–seem inconsequential by comparison.
. . . Never such innocence,
Never before or since.
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
–”MCMXIV,” by Philip Larkin
We should not forget the Great War for Civilization. If, as I believe, it has no particular lessons in diplomacy or strategy to teach us, it nonetheless stands as a ghastly reminder of just how badly things can go wrong when History means business.
** Though a long line of historians has worked for decades to deflate the it-changed-everything view of WWI. Dangerfield’s Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) was an early entry in these stakes, demonstrating that the drowsy, peaceful pre-war years of British popular imagination were in fact full of rising social strife, intensifying discontent, and a proliferation of intractable political and constitutional problems. The modern movement in the arts was well underway before the war began, so that any nihilism, cynicism, or solipsism you think you detect in that movement may not necessarily be the war’s fault; and as Niall Ferguson remarks in The Pity of War (one of the best recent WWI books), many of modernism’s most characteristic postwar manifestations were the work of writers and artists who had been untouched by the war. Not even the casualty figures have been exempted from this deflating trend: A. J. P. Taylor noted, in his English History, 1914-45, that emigration–mostly of able-bodied young men–from the United Kingdom had been running at 300,000 per annum in the years immediately prior to the war, so that the “butcher’s bill” of 750,000 dead over four years of fighting was less than might have been expected from continuing emigration on that scale.