The Magazine

In Dubious Battle

The Great War, of modern memory, at 100

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By J. HARVIE WILKINSON III
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Back then, it was not known as World War I, for the obvious reason that the Second World War still lay in the future. It was simply the Great War, for the world had never seen anything like it.

Sir Douglas Haig (1918)

Sir Douglas Haig (1918)

We’re close to the centennial of the Guns of August, which has brought forth all sorts of discussions of the causes and consequences of the war. The focus of this book by Peter Hart, historian at the Imperial War Museum, is quite different: He sees the war through the eyes of those who fought it. The result is a riveting account from those on both sides of the conflict, those for whom the larger disquisitions on the meaning of the war yielded utterly to the daily struggle for survival.

The Great War featured an unusual number of highly literate soldiers for both the Allies (chiefly the Triple Entente of France, Britain, and Russia, and, much later, the United States) and the Central Powers (chiefly Germany and Austria-Hungary), who had no inkling of the inferno that awaited them. We know of the remarkable trio of war poets—Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon—and we expect that generals would convey their accounts and impressions. But it is the insight and sensitivity of innumerable junior officers and enlisted men that bring home the terrors of bombardment, from which there seemed no exit, and the eternal presence of mud.

Sadly, the description of Lieutenant Richard Dixon of the 14th Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, at the Third Battle of Ypres (1917) is not the worst: 

 All around us lay the dead, both friend and foe, half in, half out of the water-logged shell holes. Their hands and boots stuck out at us from the mud. Their rotting faces stared blindly at us from coverlets of mud; their decaying buttocks heaved themselves obscenely from the filth with which the shell bursts had smothered them. Skulls grinned at us; all around us stank unbelievably. These corpses were never buried, for it was impossible for us to retrieve them. They had lain, many of them, for weeks and months; they would lie and rot and disintegrate foully into the muck until they were an inescapable part of it to manure the harvests of a future peace-time Belgium.

The Great War marked the progression of precision killing. The weapons may seem quaint or primitive to us now, but what they presaged was ominous for mankind. The first German U-boats were often lethal, but above all they were cramped, with the bunks of some officers so small they lay only on their sides. The machine guns made a killing field of No Man’s Land; poison gases took aim at eyes, throats, and lungs: “We choked, spit, and coughed, my lungs felt as though they were being burnt out, and were going to burst. Red-hot needles were being thrust into my eyes.” The air war featured celebrated aces, such as Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and Canada’s William Barker, but the main initial use of planes was for reconnaissance—namely, to locate opposing artillery batteries. Indeed, it was those ever-more-massive artillery barrages that may have posed the greatest threat, as described by a German lieutenant: 

The earth roared, trembled, rocked—this was followed by an utterly amazing crash and there, before us in a huge arc, kilometres long, was raised a curtain of fire about one hundred metres high. The scene was quite extraordinary; almost beyond description. It was like a thunderstorm magnified one thousand times!

The carnage of the Great War dwarfed any previous conflict, and the casualty figures are chillingly rounded-off here. Hart estimates that “just under 9,722,000 soldiers died through military action in the war.” Another 21 million were injured, many “scarred or maimed for life.” Germany alone lost two million soldiers; France almost a million-and-a-half. By contrast, the United States lost “only” 116,000. The Great War was hardly the first to take a heavy toll on civilians, but approximately 950,000 “died from direct military action” and almost six million more from “war-related famine and disease.” As the conflict wore on, the numbers mounted, to no apparent purpose or effect. An inch gained one day was often given back the next.

The seemingly senseless carnage understandably sparked a search for scapegoats, the most available of whom were inept commanders: The epithet of “lions led by donkeys” was meant to contrast the valor of the ordinary fighting men with the obtuseness of those who ordered them over the top. Hart attempts a modest rehabilitation of the reputations of several commanders, one of whom was the German general Erich von Falkenhayn.