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.
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.
Less well-known than Paul von Hindenburg or Erich Ludendorff, Falkenhayn comes across as a capable leader, first directing military operations as the chief of the German General Staff and, later, as a field commander in the snowy passes of the Transylvanian Alps. Falkenhayn wanted Germany to negotiate a separate peace with Russia, the better to press the war with Britain and France. To Falkenhayn, Russia’s vast territory and endless manpower made a German assault on Moscow an act of madness. (Had such advice been heeded in 1941, and Operation Barbarossa not been launched, the course of World War II would have been very different.)
Hart also defends Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, portraying him not as a “château general,” but as one who possessed “a stern and unwavering work ethic”: His bedroom door opened “punctually at 8:25 each morning,” and his working day lasted long into the evening. In Hart’s view, Haig battled a series of formidable obstacles: He did not have the luxury of fighting a defensive war, and the high spirits of the war’s early days gave way to fatigue to the point that, by 1917, some French units were refusing to obey orders. In Russia, war-weariness was hastening the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of Lenin. Haig’s own political chief, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, increasingly lost faith in him. Lloyd George, moreover, held the naïve view that the war’s fortunes could be turned with fewer losses in a side theater and, accordingly, starved Haig of troops needed to blunt German attacks on the Western Front.
The shape of war changed constantly before Haig’s eyes. An innovative tactic in one battle could prove obsolete by the next. The trenches that, in 1914, were sometimes little more than shallow ditches became progressively fortified. Assaulting forces fortunate enough to work their way through massive strands of barbed wire to overrun the enemy’s forward positions soon found themselves the subject of counterattacks from second, and even third, lines of defense. Haig was supposed to solve the riddles of shifting tactics and ever-more-sophisticated weaponry, all while smoothing out strains within the alliance and pacifying impatience on the home front.
Hart’s ultimate verdict on Haig: He won.
The United States sees any military indebtedness to France in terms of the Marquis de Lafayette and the French fleet’s role in bottling up Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown; the weak response to German panzer divisions in 1940 marked not only a blow to French pride but a diminution of American respect. France’s role in the Great War, however, should add to our sense of indebtedness. Britain’s participation at the beginning of the Great War was limited to naval missions and a token land force; their commitment gradually increased until it came full bore in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. For those first critical months and years, then, France was left to bear the brunt of German military might. French marshal Joseph Joffre may not have been a great general, but he had one shining moment: the Allied victory in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne. After early German successes in the Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Frontiers, it was essential to stabilize the Western Front, and quickly. Joffre (and France) were critical in doing so, and, Hart notes, “the war was set on a grim path of attritional fighting.” As depressing as that might have been, it was far preferable to German hegemony across Europe.
Hart does well to be modest in his attempt to rehabilitate the commanders of the Great War; a full swing of the reputational pendulum in their favor is unlikely. Too much was lost, too often, and for too little. Typical was the engagement at the St. Mihiel Salient (1915), where 65,000 Frenchmen gave their lives for “only minor gains” that were quickly reversed by German counterattacks. Battle after battle registered the same massive hemorrhaging of manpower for meager advances.
From the distance of a century and an ocean, Americans are likely to see the Great War as nothing but a conflict that nearly bled a great continent to death, and reading almost 500 pages about the slaughter and destruction that occurred abroad may lead some Americans to wish the problems of others away. Turning inward, however, cedes our little planet’s destiny to humanity’s most covetous and savage impulses. The Great War may show that war is not always worth the sacrifice, but that is an altogether different matter from how we best keep peace.
The grim years of 1914-18 may seem distant to us now, in time and place, but they should lead Americans to count each day of peace as a blessing. Peace through strength may be no guarantee, but it remains America’s best bet. And this means strength in all its interlocking aspects: military, economic, technological, political, and moral. Strength that affords America a menu of measured options of unmistakable effect; strength that, alone, lends aspirational speech its credibility; strength that allows the United States to lead, unabashedly, in promoting world stability and freedom in the company of friends and allies.
It’s a tall order for democracy, where the temptation to choose short-term indulgences over necessary sacrifice is ever-present, and the pursuit of diversion and the relaxation of vigilance is not often shared by determined enemies. The Great War’s lesson is not one of isolationism, but of perseverance. And dismay at the follies of statesmen and generals should not lessen our respect for Peter Hart’s ordinary combatants, who fought almost beyond the point of human endurance.
J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who sits on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is the author, most recently, of Cosmic
Constitutional Theory: Why Americans Are Losing Their Inalienable Right to Self-Governance.