How Not to Remember the First World War

We historians are failing in our responsibility to illuminate past and present by focusing on the slaughter without explaining its purpose 

Features History
"Gassed", 1919, by John Singer Sargent: To commemorate victims of war adequately we must understand why they were fighting

The year is 2114 and we are commemorating the centenary of what has become known as the New Europe. “The brilliant and much applauded book by Professor Smith, holder of the Putin chair of modern history at Oxford, demonstrates that in the Second Crimean War a century ago, Russia was in fact adopting a defensive position by annexing Crimea. It was responding to Nato expansionism, to disproportionate American military expenditure and related cultural militarism, and to the threat that nationalism spreading from a fascistic Ukraine would disrupt peace and stability in Russia and in nearby areas where it understandably had strong interests. Smith’s work refutes a long tradition of narrow scholarship and vindicates Russia’s role within the New Europe.”

An unlikely scenario, we hope. However, a career in British academe has taught me not to be surprised at anything. Moreover, the specific character of the politics and practices of the discipline are compounded by a more widespread cultural tendency to relativism. This is linked to the intellectual tendency to focus on the supposed faults of “the system”, rather than of particular actors and groups within it. As a consequence, transferred responsibility is a key element in commentary on the past. As a prominent example, Anglo-French appeasement is somehow made responsible for Hitler’s expansionism and for Stalin’s decision, under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, to join in himself.

As far as the First World War is concerned, the weight of recent publication (dropped from my office window, the books will kill, several times over) has added relatively little. Indeed, much of the publishing world, and the associated claims to novelty or supposed definitive status it offers for its wares, emerge with scant credit from the current beanfeast. In particular, there is far less novelty than is frequently claimed in the sales pitch for books. In practice, some of the current literature essentially refights the battles of the 1920s when war guilt was a prime topic for discussion. As a separate issue, there is also a general tendency to underplay the insights from work by political scientists in recent decades on the causes of war, including the First World War. More recently, excellent studies, such as Strachan on the early stages of the war, Mombauer on German military planning, Sondhaus on the Austrian Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, and the Hamilton and Herwig collection on the causes of the war, have covered the ground very well.

In light of such work, it is unclear how much is to be gained from reading many of the books published over the past year. The key element in the weeks leading to war remains the fact that Austria and Germany chose to fight and Russia to respond. All three were continental empires in which (unlike Britain and France) constitutionalism was held in check by imperial direction, the latter providing characteristics that were autocratic and that ensured that small coteries of decision-makers had great influence.

These states were ready to see war with other major powers as a necessary tool of policy and, indeed, to frame and implement policy in terms of real or apparent strategic exigencies. The significance of the latter suggests that Simon Heffer’s recent claim in Standpoint about the necessary marginality of military historians in understanding the move to war in 1914 is seriously flawed. In practice, policy — notably, but not only, in Germany and Austria — was greatly affected by strategic assumptions and military culture.

Germany’s decision to attack in the West was the key element in spreading the conflict to include Britain. The decision was justified by Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor, on the basis that “necessity knows no law”, an argument that has repeatedly been a particular burden on Germany’s historical legacy. “Necessity” had ensured that the German army had equipped itself with heavy howitzers and mortars before the war specifically to deal with the Belgian forts.

That Britain chose to respond to aggression directed at a neutral, to honour its treaty commitments to Belgium, and to seek to preserve the international order, is worthy of commemoration, indeed celebration. National honour was an important factor in the political culture and international realities of British politics.

The current fashion for commemorating the dead by honouring their struggle does not in fact honour them unless we explain why they were fighting and facing the personal, moral and religious challenges of risking and inflicting death. Why did men volunteer in 1914? Why did they advance across the “killing ground”? To mark the struggle without recalling its point and value is both to lack a moral compass and, indeed, not really to seek one.

Of course, Britain’s determination to send troops into Belgium and France to seize lands to which there were historical claims as well as to acquire potential invasion ports, and also to end support for Irish nationalists, would doubtless make for an exciting book from a trade house; but I lack the status to serve that up. Wait, however, for the major publications by prominent academics who roll out the “stab in the back” account of German failure for the anniversary of 1918 in 2018, rather than focusing on the Allied ability to deliver victory in the field. In 1918, this success was achieved against the major concentration of German forces — unlike 1944-45, when the bulk of the Wehrmacht fought on the Eastern Front.

British intervention in 1914 played a key role in stopping the Germans, and in costly fighting that was different in character to the trench warfare that was subsequently to dominate the Western Front and the collective imagination about the war. British and French resistance in the fighting retreat in August 1914 gave the French a better opportunity to regroup, moving forces from their right wing to their left. This put the French and British in a position to move forward in September in the first Battle of the Marne. That advance caused a crucial failure of nerve on the part of the German High Command and exposed, as Mombauer has shown, its poor planning. As with the Second World War, there is a tendency among non-Germans to exaggerate German military proficiency.

Subsequently, in 1914, the First Battle of Ypres, the British played the major role in stopping the Germans breaking through to the Channel. Compared with what was to come later, this was a mobile and fluid battle, with riflemen proving as important as artillery, and with hand-to-hand combat taking place. Considering 1914 in terms of the nature of the trench fighting that was to follow is not terribly helpful. Meanwhile, the killing of more than 5,000 civilians by the Germans in Belgium, as well as their naval bombardment of English east coast ports, outraged public opinion in Britain in late 1914. At the end of the campaign, the Germans remained in occupation of part of France as well as most of Belgium. This success, and the German determination to hang on to gains, ensured that the allies would need to drive them back, establishing a political and strategic obligation to engage in offensive warfare. This point needs to be borne in mind whenever that warfare is criticised. It does not vitiate criticism of operational and tactical flaws, but it explains the strategic context.

Does history, as an account of the past, have a purpose if the worth of many historical works can be questioned? In practice, while pretending to be value-free, the academic world is anything but. Moreover, some of what appears from the trade press lacks scholarly standards, not least a rigorous review process. Books that are sold through agents may be very good, but difficult pre-publication review processes are not generally to the fore. There I am, being polite again.

On the other hand, there are some excellent new books. Thomas Otte is perceptive on July 1914, while in his World War One: The Global Revolution and The Great War at Sea, Larry Sondhaus brings to the war the valuable perspective of a naval historian as well as a specialist on Austria. It is also necessary to remember that the First World War was a war. The military dimension is important. To read works by Beckett, Doughty, Foley, Herwig, Neiberg, Saunders, Sheffield, Showalter, Travers and others is to appreciate recent understandings of the military dimension. The ability of the Western allies to improve their fighting effectiveness is a key point, notably the development of artillery-infantry coordination. This proved to be of far more consequence than tanks. Indeed, artillery was also to play a crucial role in World War Two. Among the effective recent works by military historians, Ian Beckett’s The Making of the First World War, a study of turning points, is impressively wide-ranging.

Debates over the First World War certainly reveal not only that the subject (for which there are no surviving veterans) is still raw, but also that the historical legitimacy and reputation of that terrible struggle remains of great weight in the identity and sense of purpose of modern societies. And more so, because it is harder for revisionists, nationalist or otherwise, to vindicate the Third Reich; although the anti-Communist crusade is a hardy perennial in such attempts at vindication.

The treatment of the world wars raises a key dimension of history, that of the trust between the generations — an active trust that locates us as well as our predecessors and, in turn, will locate us in the eyes of the next generation. This trust is a matter not of agreement, although that can be a part, but of an attempt to understand and explain.

It is this element that helps to explain the continuing public interest in the Second World War: “Why did they do it? What did it mean? What was it like? What were the consequences?” This is a highly focused instance of the more general interest in forbears that is seen in the current vogue for genealogical research. Such an understanding is, indeed, an aspect of moral purpose. This is not ancestor worship, but a reminder that we, as a nation or a group, are more than ourselves, our single generation, but instead part of an unfolding story in which each generation is affected by those who have come before. This is a matter not only of learning lessons and sharing experiences, but also of defining and redefining a people. An active patriotism is involved in this process. Academics, many of whom today appear to prefer “transnationalism” to the nation, are not conspicuous for their role in this patriotism.

In the case of the First World War, there is a particular purpose to this understanding of the past, as Britain intervened to support the international order as well as national interests by resisting German aggression in Western Europe. Understanding that intervention serves many purposes, not least that of taking responsibility for actions and of acting for responsibility. These are valuable lessons.

All historical episodes are specific, and to read in an automatic fashion from 1914 to the East or South China Seas or Ukraine today is not terribly helpful. Yet, at the same time, history is instructive: 1914 indicates that it is neither appropriate nor helpful to see all powers as equally culpable, and that it is necessary to be prepared to act against aggressive decision-makers who are ready to use force.

More generally, the past offers insights in the moral as well as practical relationships between causes and consequences, events and results. Just because so much academic and public historiography fights shy of a sense of wider purpose and judgment does not mean that we should avoid our responsibility to think about the past in a moral and wide-ranging fashion as well as a more contextual one. This responsibility is particularly necessary in the case of war, which involves the deliberate killing of others. To focus on the killing and not understand its purpose, still worse to trivialise the conflict, is to fail in our responsibilities.