Was the Great War Necessary?

A young historian argues iconoclastically that Britain's entry into the First World War, in 1914, was "the greatest error of modern history," born of neurotic fears projected onto Germany.


AMERICANS scarcely marked the eightieth Armistice Day, this past November 11. But standing with stricken faces before the Cenotaph at Whitehall and the Ossuaire at Verdun, and tolling bells in the gloomy villages of Lancashire and the Pas-de-Calais, the British and the French, our erstwhile co-belligerents, mourned as if freshly wounded. For them the Great War is not yet merely history.

In this way, among others, the Oxford historian Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War is a very British book. Although Ferguson is young, clever, and ironic, there is nothing cool or dispassionate about his view of the war. The underlying and animating emotion in his book is profound regret. "The First World War," he states up front, "remains the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure." Although his rich and provocative book argues many -- too many -- disparate points, its fundamental argument is that (a) the war was a uniquely terrible event for Britain, and therefore (b) Britain should never have fought it, since (c) the stakes involved were for the British not high. The first assertion is close to indisputable. The second is highly defensible. But the third evades the difficult and tragic aspects of Britain's experience in the Great War.
In 1929 Virginia Woolf described an Oxbridge luncheon party at which, despite notable food and scintillating conversation, she was overcome by a sense of something missing.

But what was lacking, what was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk. And to answer that question I had to think myself out of the room, back into the past, before the war indeed, and to set before my eyes the model of another luncheon party held in rooms not very far distant from these; but different. Everything was different.

"The Great War," used interchangeably with "the First World War" (so named in 1918 by a sardonic English journalist, who knew it would not be the last such conflict), engendered in Britain a sense of loss that endures to this day; it remains the great divide in Britons' sense of their history. Along with the battles of Mons, Loos, the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele, and the writings of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden, the statistics are probably known to every sixth-former in the United Kingdom: the 60 percent casualty rate that tore apart the British Expeditionary Force (probably the best army Britain ever fielded) in the first three months of the war, the 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 723,000 British dead by the end of the war (twice as many as in the Second World War).

Although evocative and heartbreaking, this litany doesn't tell the full story. The war poets' perspective, for example, was hardly representative. (As the historian Correlli Barnett has argued, much of their revulsion was provoked by the squalor of daily life in the trenches, conditions that the common British soldier from the slums of Leeds, Liverpool, or London would not have found particularly noteworthy.) Nor were the death and mutilation spread evenly through British society. Although the majority of the British dead came from the working class, officers, drawn mostly from the upper classes, paid a disproportionately high price: for mobilized men overall the death rate was about 12 percent, but for graduates of Oxford and members of the peerage it was 19 percent, and for graduates of the fifty-three boarding schools where statistics are available it was 20 percent. Not since the Wars of the Roses had the aristocracy suffered such losses. The tiny, intimate world of the British elite -- members of which composed Woolf's social and intellectual circle, and largely determined how future readers would think about the war -- truly lost a generation, and, not surprisingly, it assumed that the country as a whole was similarly devastated.

Britain's horrendous losses were not extraordinary. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Turkey each lost far more lives. Moreover, as dreadful as was Britain's experience, "the disturbing paradox" of the Great War was, according to the historian J. M. Winter, that it was at once "an event of unparalleled carnage and suffering and the occasion of a significant improvement in the life expectancy of the civilian population, and especially of the worst-off sections of British society." Thanks to unprecedented government interference in the wartime economy, wages among the poorest groups in Britain rose significantly, and wealth was effectively redistributed. And because of the economic, social, and political forces the war produced, the kind of poverty endemic in pre-1914 Britain -- which gave British males almost the same life expectancy as that which Ecuadorians had in the early 1960s -- never recurred.

Yet if Britain's experience in the Great War was more complex than the popular mythology would have it, that experience was nevertheless just as crippling as Ferguson maintains -- albeit as much for subjective and psychological reasons as for objective ones. The war is Britain's national trauma, and British and Commonwealth historians compulsively revisit it in the way that American historians revisit the Civil War. The results have been glorious. Few other areas of British historical scholarship have inspired works of such range and quality. Ferguson, like most of his fellows, writes with verve and flair, with a sharp eye for detail and a blind eye to narrow specialization.

A number of military historians have searingly elucidated the awful conditions and calculus of combat. Other scholars have inventively fused economic, military, and diplomatic history. And still others -- Winter, Barnett, Modris Eksteins, and Trevor Wilson, for instance -- have synthesized such seemingly unrelated fields as education, industry, and literature, or demography and military tactics, or economics and art, or sociology and politics, to produce breathtakingly broad histories. Perhaps the most successful of these, Wilson's aptly titled The Myriad Faces of War (1986), embraces in its densely packed pages nearly the totality of the experience of the British state and people during the Great War, and is perhaps the closest thing to a complete historical synthesis ever written of any war. Ferguson, too, takes a broad approach, and his book -- which has aroused enormous controversy in Britain since its publication there last year -- seems to me an implicit response to Wilson's, for their basic arguments are diametrically opposed. To appreciate the nature of their differences, though, an American has to know something about the essential divide between contemporary British historians and British readers in how they think about the war.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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