The Magazine

September 1914

Before the trenches

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The Great War did not begin in the trenches, in rain, mud, and dark futility. At first, the fighting was out in the open under blue skies and late summer sunshine. There were bugles and drums, and sometimes the troops even sang when they charged. French officers leading these attacks wore white gloves.

On the whole, Europe welcomed the war. One of England’s finest young poets, Rupert Brooke, wrote in gratitude

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

At the other end of the spectrum, Austrian malcontent Adolf Hitler listened to a mobilization announcement in the public square of Munich. He was, he later wrote, “not ashamed to acknowledge that I was carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment and .  .  . sank down upon my knees and thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favor of having been permitted to live in such a time.”

Brooke died on a hospital ship, of sepsis from a mosquito bite. Hitler survived the trenches and wept through eyes blinded by gas when he learned of the armistice.

There had been no major land war in Europe for a generation and, in truth, nearly 100 years of peace had been interrupted only by the Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870. That war had left France craving vengeance and Germany filled with a sense that it was destined for much greater things. Both nations could be said to have anticipated the war not with dread, but eagerly.

When the armies were mobilized and loaded on trains and carried to the front, the nearly universal belief was that it would be over, as the phrase had it, “before the leaves fall.” The thing would be short, glorious, and conclusive.

There were a few who sensed, with dread, that it might be none of these things. “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time,” British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey said, looking out of his office window on August 3, the eve of Britain’s declaration of war, as street lamps were being lit below.

And there had been at least one lone, scholarly voice predicting the coming catastrophe. I. S. Bloch, a Polish economist, wrote, several years before the war, his sense of things to come:

At first there will be increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions. .  .  . The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate. .  .  . The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle.

But Bloch was no soldier, and the generals saw the coming war in terms of the last. British general Douglas Haig still believed in the horse and was certain that cavalry charges and flashing sabers would carry the day. He called the machine gun “a much overrated weapon.” In 1915, he assumed overall command of the British troops in France, and, in John Keegan’s chilling words, “On the Somme he .  .  . sent the flower of British youth to death and mutilation; at Paschendale he .  .  . tipped the survivors into the slough of despond.”

The French, who considered themselves Europe’s premier soldiers, drawing their inspiration and ideas from Napoleon, believed in the bayonet and disdained the defense. As their field manual put it, “From the moment of action every soldier must ardently desire the assault by bayonet as the supreme means of imposing his will upon the enemy and gaining victory.”

The nation’s foremost intellectual general, Ferdinand Foch, had no more use for, or understanding of, the effect of new weapons and technology on the battlefield than did Haig. Of the new technology with the most potential, Foch said, “Aviation is fine as a sport. But as an instrument of war, it is worthless.”

Ignoring the generals, the war soon made the case for the machine gun and the airplane. It lived by its own rules and according to its own grim logic.

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