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.
"Futile" is the word that best describes the judgment presented to the British public regarding the First World War. From the war memoirs of the 1920s and 1930s to A. J. P. Taylor's illustrated history of the war (almost certainly the most popular chronicle of the conflict) to the recent novels of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks (and from the 1929 play Journey's End to the 1963 play Oh! What a Lovely War to the 1981 movie Gallipoli), the Great War has been portrayed as a meaningless and unnecessary slaughter, led by stupid generals and feckless politicians. Reviewing a war memoir in 1920, one critic plaintively sought some purpose behind the conflict: "Nowhere will you find a period or a sentence of which you could say, 'There! that is what we fought for!' The Cause finds no expression." But in fact since the late 1960s (when, not coincidentally, official records concerning the war were first made available to scholars) most British historians, echoing the explanations and justifications of British military and civilian leaders during the conflict, have discerned "the Cause": Britain fought to forestall a German bid for the mastery of Europe—an essential threat to Britain's national security and political independence. This view has largely failed to penetrate the popular mind, however, probably because the disillusionment of anti-war memoirs is so deeply embedded in the British psyche, and because the British public remains so overwhelmed by the price the war exacted. (Thus, for instance, as long ago as 1964 the BBC showed a lengthy documentary that basically argued that although terrible, the Great War was a "necessary war." Britons' response to the twenty-six episodes of battlescape, however, was to describe the war using the very terms—"needless slaughter," "dreadful waste"—the documentary had attempted to refute.) Oddly, then, Ferguson has self-consciously written an iconoclastic book that attempts to tear down the prevailing scholarly view, but in the public's understanding he batters down a door already open.
Wilson stated his position clearly at the outset of his book: "Britain's involvement in the Great War was not some deplorable accident. Nor was it a malevolent deed clandestinely accomplished by home-grown plutocrats and diplomats." "The conflict," he explained, "was about preserving Britain as a major, and even as an independent, power." In opposition, Ferguson opens The Pity of War by declaring,
The fundamental question this book seeks to answer ... is ... what were all these deaths . . . really worth? . . . To be precise: Was Britain truly confronted by such a threat to her security in 1914 that it was necessary to send millions of raw recruits across the Channel ... ? What exactly was it that the German government sought to achieve?
To Ferguson, the answer is obvious: Britain's intervention in 1914 was "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history," because Germany in fact did not pose an essential threat to British interests. So Ferguson indicts London, because "it was the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war, a conflict which lasted twice as long [as] and cost many more lives" than it would have if only Britain had not stepped in the way.
At one level this is a difficult argument to make. Consensus among historians is rare, especially regarding the origins of the First World War, the search for which has swelled into one of the largest investigations into any historical subject. Nevertheless, historians do now generally agree that, as Ferguson acknowledges, Germany "forced the continental war of 1914 upon an unwilling France (and a not so unwilling Russia)." The notion, advanced by the German historian Fritz Fischer and some of his protégés, that there wasn't much difference between the war aims of Wilhelmine and of Nazi Germany remains controversial. It's clear, however, that at least after the war began, German plans effectively called for (along with the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and Russia) the permanent subjugation of France, the transformation of Belgium into a "vassal state," and the German navy's taking of French and Belgian Channel ports to use as bases—actions that would certainly threaten Britain's naval security, as Ferguson readily concedes.
The questions historians now debate are Why did Germany essentially force a war in 1914? and Why did it pursue such ambitious war aims? Some, including Ferguson, point to Berlin's deep-seated anxiety about Russia's rapid industrialization and growing military power, and thus see German actions as an attempt to pre-empt Germany's strategic deterioration relative to Russia. They further point to the belief, shared by many Germans, that the balance among the great powers of Europe—the crux of the diplomacy of the past two centuries—was giving way to one among "world powers." In this emerging pattern only the British Empire, Russia, and the United States had the natural resources, population, and industrial capacity for an assured position in the front rank. For this reason, so the argument goes, Berlin pursued a comparable concentration of power through the destruction of its European rivals' independence and through arrangements that would guarantee to German industry a continental market and a raw-materials base. In short, the goal was, in the words of the historian Imanuel Geiss, whom Ferguson quotes approvingly, "German leadership over a united Europe in order to brave the coming giant economic and political power blocs."
From this tenable if disputable assessment of German ambitions Ferguson builds his case that British policy was terribly, tragically misguided. Ferguson's interpretation of that policy, however, is usually simplistic and often clumsy. Central to his argument is the assertion that the causes to which other historians have ascribed the Anglo-German antagonism in the years leading up to the war—imperial and economic rivalry and Germany's naval buildup—did not menace the British. But this refutes an argument that historians don't make. In fact the British were often untroubled by German imperial expansion, since, as Winston Churchill argued in 1912, "we should be rather glad to see what is now concentrated [in the middle of Europe] dissipated [overseas]." London's anxiety about German imperial policy arose not because that policy posed a direct and unambiguous threat to Britain's colonial interests but because of the shrill and aggressive tone in which it was expressed. In its foreign policy Germany seemed, if not a definite menace, something resembling an increasingly powerful, at times sullen, at times boastful teenager; even the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, described his country's international behavior as "strident, pushing, elbowing, overbearing." This restlessness was bound to make the British nervous, especially since it was exasperatingly unclear just what would assuage an increasingly petulant Berlin.
No such mystery surrounded Germany's naval expansion. Germany's naval rivalry with Britain demonstrated the fundamental incompatibility of the two countries' interests and aims. By 1910 Germany's was the largest navy in the world after Britain's, and it was built as an offensive force with solely Britain in mind as its opponent. A rising world power, Germany understandably didn't wish to have its expanding overseas trade dependent on the good will of Britain, which by an accident of geography commanded the maritime approaches to Germany. For Britain's part, its foreign policy had long included the axiom that national security depended on its command of the English Channel and the North Sea. In other words, what one power wanted, the other would never voluntarily concede. So although by 1912 the British felt sure that they had, at least in the near term, won the naval race, they had come to believe, as the diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe put it, that "the building of the German fleet is but one of the symptoms of the disease. It is the political ambitions of the German Government and nation which are the source of the mischief."
This conclusion was hardly unreasonable from London's point of view. Although at first Britain saw a German "threat" in the narrow terms of a naval rivalry, that rivalry provoked British statesmen and military planners to pay closer attention to the geopolitical consequences of Germany's booming population and industry and its military power. London feared that were Germany to dominate France, through either political intimidation or military conquest, the resulting increase in its economic strength would permit it to outbuild the British navy. And a greatly enlarged German navy, with access both to the North Sea and to French ports, could strangle Britain.