A huge ammunition dump supplied French and British troops during the Battle of the Somme, in northern France. More than 1 million men were wounded or killed during the 1916 clash—one of the bloodiest engagements in history.Zimmer/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

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 53 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 … truly lost a generation …

The war is Britain’s national trauma, and British and Commonwealth historians com- pulsively revisit it in the way that American historians revisit the Civil 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 …

There was in fact a great deal at stake for Britain in the Great War. Even assuming a benevolent German order on the Continent, the result of Germany’s victory would have been that British independence as a great power would have been greatly diminished. This may seem like an abstraction. But those British generals, diplomats, and politicians who soberly committed their country to war in 1914 were hardly brimming with optimism—as Sir Edward Grey’s oft-quoted lament, delivered on the eve of war, attests: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” They knew, however, that few responsible statesmen would voluntarily place their country at the will of another in a world in which Thucydides’ hard law, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” has always obtained.

But to say that Britain fought the war so as not to be dependent on the sufferance of Germany doesn’t settle matters, because the price Britain was compelled to pay to preserve its national independence was truly awful. Whether that price was too high is a question … [that] has haunted the British mind for the past 80 years. But the question of whether submission might be preferable to waging war simply did not occur to the men who ruled Britain (or France or Germany or Russia) in 1914. As the cliché goes, the Great War ushered in the modern world. And in the world that began with four years of slaughter on the western front … that question will never again go unasked.

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