February 2014

Arts & Letters

Re-evaluating World War One

By Robyn Annear

Gavrilo Princip arrested in Sarajevo after assassinating Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 28 June 1914. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Margaret MacMillan’s ‘The War That Ended Peace’, Paul Ham’s ‘1914’ and David Reynolds’ ‘The Long Shadow’

The modern military has a word for a situation in which multiple things go wrong, resulting in the worst possible outcome. They call it a clusterfuck – a perfect word for the concatenation of forces and events that led to the outbreak of World War One.

There were the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, fought over the debris of the Ottoman Empire. There was the perennial dick-swinging of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. There were territorial flare-ups over colonies in Africa and the Middle East. There were longstanding war plans, the build-up of arms, double-track railways terminating at strategic borders (“Last stop Luxembourg!”), time zones synchronised for smooth mobilisation of troops. All this on a continent marked by mutable borders, hereditary rulers, and seething national and ethnic resentments. The ostensible trigger for war – the assassination by Bosnian Serb nationalists of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – in fact barely rated as a motive. Months earlier a US envoy had predicted “an awful cataclysm”; Europe was too ready for war to keep its own peace.

“The corrosion of familiarity”, a term coined in the 1950s for the insidious way that Americans had grown accustomed to nuclear weapons, can equally be applied to the habitual temper of belligerence that took hold across Europe in the prewar years. It was commonplace for countries to use threats of war as a starting point for diplomacy. (There was talk of war, for instance, when France seized three Foreign Legion deserters who were under the protection of the German consul in Casablanca.) Through repeated crises, brinkmanship had lost its potency as a deterrent by 1914. “One had slowly but surely lost the belief in war,” a member of Germany’s military elite wrote after war broke out. Indeed, once war became inevitable but before the shelling started, even the most belligerent of belligerents – say, Graf Conrad von Hötzendorf, head of the Austro-Hungarian military – seemed incredulous at the realisation of what they’d done. War? Really? The direct cause of war in 1914, it could be argued, was one bluff too many.

But the prevalent view 100 years on seems to be that the outbreak of the Great War was no stumble; rather, that somebody – or roomfuls of them – chose not to blink this time. By July 1914, Austria-Hungary was intent on war with Serbia, for the preservation of its empire and to reclaim its honour following earlier backdowns. With Germany’s support (the so-called “blank cheque”), Austro-Hungarian leaders were emboldened to taunt Serbia with peace on impossible terms, in full knowledge – though disclaiming it at the brink – that a “localised” war would activate a chain of allegiances to ensure a Europe-wide conflagration. Vienna even rushed its declaration of war, fearing that Britain was about to intervene with a diplomatic solution.

Franz Josef, the emperor of Austro-Hungary, broke the news to his subjects this way: “To protect the honour of our monarchy, to protect its reputation and its position of power, and to protect its vested interests, the activities of a hate-filled enemy force Me, after many long years of peace, to reach for My sword.”

And lo! when Russia mobilised in support of Serbia, Germany had to make good on its blank cheque. The German chancellor joined the metaphoric swordplay in the Reichstag: “Only in defence of a just cause shall our sword fly from its scabbard. The day has now come when we must draw it, against our wish, and in spite of our sincere endeavours … We are at war with Russia and France – a war that has been forced upon us …”

Germany had long felt itself to be encircled. Its allies among the continental powers were Austria-Hungary and Italy, while France, Russia and Britain were parties to the Entente Cordiale (a “friendly understanding”). It might seem surprising that Britain wasn’t in league with Germany, a major trading partner ruled by a grandson of Queen Victoria. But Germany’s avowed intention of building a navy to outmatch Britain’s had sent an ominous signal across the Channel, causing Britain to beef up its own naval strength and forge links with other European powers. Although the Entente committed France and Russia to support each other in the event of war, Britain’s portion gave no such guarantee. Nonetheless, the existence of the Entente stoked Germany’s swaggering sense of persecution.

For years before 1914, Germany’s military leaders had mooted a “preventive war” – one initiated and fought on their terms, before an enemy (they were thinking of Russia) could grow too strong. In view of the Entente, German war plans also had to deal with France. In fact, the plans – first drawn up in the 1890s – dealt with France first: at the outbreak of war, the bulk of German troops would sweep down through Belgium, capture Paris within five weeks, and only then turn their might on Russia.

Given the amount of war talk that went on, what seems remarkable is that Europe’s major powers knew so little of one another’s plans. Not that knowing more would have made much difference, since all the belligerents were in thrall to “the cult of the offensive”, convinced that victory (and, more important, honour) depended on attack, not defence. Yet the nature of the weapons they were stockpiling should have told them otherwise. The war, when it came, would not be like past wars: cavalry and bayonet charges, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” swift and decisive. In the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the victors wielded rifles with a range of about 600 metres; the standard-issue rifle of 1914 was deadly at twice that distance. Machine guns could fire hundreds of rounds a minute, and the average range of heavy artillery, in the century since Napoleon’s wars, had increased from 500 metres to almost 7 kilometres. This then was the “zone of fire”, the distance over which an attacking force would have to survive bombardment before it met the enemy.

In the face of such lethal elongation, defence would turn out to be the better option. (“Three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes,” a French general would declare after one of the war’s major battles.) But entrenched defence would bring lethal prolongation, a long war of attrition. Four years, 16.5 million dead.

Had they known, would Europe’s leaders have moved so heedlessly towards war? An excess of certainty seems (then as now) to have been both a qualification for high office and a dangerous propensity with war in the offing. But what was the alternative? Equivocation? Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary in 1914, still draws blame for temporising in the face of war. Should he have dealt more firmly with Germany and Russia’s threats to mobilise, dispelling any suggestion of British neutrality? Or were things too far gone for talk, even for counter-threats? (You may know Grey as the man who said, on the eve of war, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Earlier, a colleague had found him beating his fists on a desk, declaring, “I hate war … I hate war.”)

On 4 August 1914, Britain finally sent an ultimatum to Germany: Don’t invade Belgium, or else. Printed telegrams advising its embassies abroad that Britain was about to go to war had sat for years in the Foreign Office files. Clerks spent the day writing “Germany” in the space left blank for the name of the enemy.

In the French parliament on the day his country declared war, Georges Clemenceau evoked Victor Hugo’s hero, Valjean: “To die is nothing.” When Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, telephoned his military chief with news that the tsar had agreed to mobilisation, he rang off with the words, “Smash your phone.” There would be no going back.


Now, an admission. If you’d quizzed me a month ago about the causes of World War One, I could have dredged up just three words: ArchdukeassassinatedSarajevo. Two years of Modern European History at high school (or else my memory) had not served me well. All the foregoing, then, I have gleaned from reading two books, Paul Ham’s 1914: The year the world ended (William Heinemann Australia; $49.95) and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace (Profile Books; $45) – two books among several published to coincide with the centenary of the war’s beginning.

These books are just the latest in a long succession to examine the questions around Europe’s descent into war in 1914. Who was to blame? Could war have been averted? I have questions of my own: Do we need more books on the subject? Why so many? Their abundance in these strapped times for publishers suggests that there’s a live market for such books. (Stephen Fry has likened them to a “sitting-down version of golf”.) But these aren’t rote commemorative volumes, and their writers are hardly hacks. Both Ham and MacMillan have won awards for previous books along these lines, and both engage passionately, scrupulously and exhaustively with their subject. Still, why is it worth poring over again – and again – when so much has already been written?

Paul Ham acknowledges in the opening sentence of 1914 that this is a story already told “thousands of times”. “Perhaps,” he muses, “the subject is exhausted? Yet history is never complete, and, daringly … this book takes a fresh approach, in several modest ways. It aims, for example, to simplify the story, to make the labyrinth accessible to the general reader.”

Ham’s book appeals to this general reader as neither daring nor modest. Far from simplifying the story, he presents the reader with a mass of relatively undigested and undifferentiated facts. He has failed to do the hard work of selection and synthesis, of distilling narrative clarity from raw research, that would guide a general reader through the labyrinth.

Ultimately, Ham is a war buff writing for other war buffs. The maps at the front of his book are the giveaway: tangles of colour-coded arrows, dotted lines and flags – the martial equivalent of cricket commentary. The final section of 1914 gives a battle-by-battle account of the war’s early months. In succumbing to war-buffery, Ham undermines his promise to the general reader of “a straightforward narrative history that exhumes the causes of the war”.

With her book’s emphasis on individuals, Margaret MacMillan has been criticised for taking an old-fashioned, great-men approach to history. In fact, she and Ham both make a persuasive case that the shape of the events leading to war owed a great deal to the personalities of Europe’s civilian and military leaders. MacMillan writes that, in seeking the war’s causes,

“Perhaps the most we can hope for is to understand as best we can those individuals, who had to make the choices between war and peace, and their strengths and weaknesses, their loves, hatreds and biases. To do that we must also understand their world, with its assumptions.”

To that end, she creates a kind of reflective intermission in the relentless march to war. Her book’s central three chapters – ‘What Were They Thinking?’, ‘Dreaming of Peace’ and ‘Thinking About War’ – explore the cultural and emotional climate that predisposed Europeans to abandon peace for war. A reader with a limited appetite for war talk could do worse than jump straight to these chapters.

MacMillan’s consideration of key individuals is deft and insightful, and often amusing. She describes the author of an influential book on naval strategy as “exceptionally high-minded; he would not let his children use government pencils”. And the last Ottoman sultan “was a miserable despot so fearful of plots that he kept a eunuch near him whose sole duty was to take the first puff on each of his cigarettes”.

Both MacMillan and Ham conclude that Europe’s civilian leaders knew too little, and cared too little to find out, about the war plans cooked up by their militaries. “And if we want to point fingers from the 21st century,” writes MacMillan, “we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”


David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow: The Great War and the 20th century (Simon & Schuster; $39.99) stands out from the current crop of war books. Rather than scrutinise the lead-up, it considers how the war was remembered in Britain across the length of the century.

In the 1920s and ’30s, it was the Great War. No number required: it had been the war to end war. Opening London’s Imperial War Museum in 1920, King George V expressed the hope that future visitors “may be able to look back on war … as belonging to a dead past”. Even so, the war wasn’t viewed as a waste, but rather as an evil necessary to secure civilisation and peace. Never again.

Of course, there was an again, and from the ’40s till the ’60s the First War was largely eclipsed by the Second. Then, with the rise of youth culture and the anti-war movement, the 1914–18 war was repackaged as a giant cock-up – innocent boys fed into the furnace by cigar-sucking generals. Since the 1970s, interest in family history has fuelled a focus on the individual soldier: all those letters home and haunted portraits inscribed to sweethearts in “sad shires”. Increasingly, the First War’s history has been told through personal stories.

But “by reducing the conflict to personal tragedies, however moving”, writes Reynolds, “we have lost the big picture: the history has been distilled into poetry”. An elder poet wrote, in 1924, “I don’t think these shell-shocked war poems will move our grandchildren greatly.” He was wrong. Wilfred Owen is now “the most studied author in Britain after Shakespeare”, the doomed-youth narrative of his war poetry the lens through which schoolchildren discover World War One.

At the heart of Reynolds’ book is a plea for the recognition of big-picture history – like his, Ham’s and MacMillan’s – over poetry as the true-yet-mutable voice of the Great War. Poetry cannot “tell it backwards”, says Reynolds, but all three authors make a case for history’s propensity to rhyme. And that, they insist, is why these stories keep getting retold: to alert us – as John F Kennedy was alerted by reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August at the knell of the Cuban missile crisis – not to make the same stupid mistakes again. If only.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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