The Great War was an obscene and futile conflict laying waste a generation and toppling emperors. Yet here are two books that situate the horrors of trench warfare within a much larger perspective. One argues that the war had a forgotten ‘human face’. The other that it might all have had a very different outcome.
Henry James described the 1914 plunge of civilisation into blood and darkness as ‘too tragic for any words’ — and about tragedy there is always some air of inevitability, of sailing Titanic-like towards a foredoomed catastrophe. This air of unstoppable fatality has solidified over the intervening century.
During the famous 1914 Christmas truce the Tommies were struck by how many of the German soldiers that they met in no-man’s-land spoke excellent English: some could even have passed for Britons. This was because Germans constituted the third largest immigrant community in the pre-war UK, after the Irish and Russian Jews. Germans worked as waiters in London hotels, barbers in Manchester and pork butchers in Hull; German brass-band players were surely also popular, though Richard van Emden in Meeting the Enemy doesn’t mention these.
In any case social, cultural and military ties were strong. There were 43 German students graduating from Oxford University in 1912 compared to just three from France. Conversely, British students went to Göttingen, Tübingen and Freiburg universities to study and British businessmen, including my grandfather, went to learn the language and business ethos of this important trading rival. George V and Kaiser Wilhelm were first cousins, each a grandson of Queen Victoria, and each an honorary admiral in the other’s navy. Wilhelm was also Colonel-in-Chief of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, in whose dress uniform he liked to be photographed.
Van Emden, who has written 14 previous books on the Great War, had a paternal grandmother who was German-born, and has an interesting chapter on what happened to those in mixed Anglo-German marriages: the wives tended to be given their husbands’ nationalities and then to be variously maltreated.
War certainly started on every side with an explosion of nationalistic fervour of mystical intensity. Atrocity stories burgeoned. And yet stereotyping still allowed for differences. Bavarians had a bad reputation. though not as bad as that of Prussians. while Saxons — who often initiated the 1914 Christmas truces, and who liked to remind the English of their shared ancient Anglo-Saxon kinship — were broadly liked for their easy-going and quiet dispositions. Such fracture lines could be exploited. Van Emden wants to remind us that not all was hellish: there was also humour, mutual baiting and occasional easy-going relations.
As well as direct contact during the Christmas truces, this book explores indirect contacts, using many unpublished letters and diaries. Letters written by soldiers to the families of the enemy, fallen or wounded, were surprisingly common. Exchanging the effects of the dead sometimes took place. At governmental level, communication between Britain and Germany continued throughout the war using Dutch, Swiss and American mediation. Placards were also held up by both sides to provoke the enemy trenches. But indirect contact — Van Emden’s main topic — is harder to track or build a case from. When he informs us that newspapers were exchanged between the English and German trenches, the author isn’t sure why.
Could this nightmare conflict have had another course and outcome? In the last chapter of his 1914:Fight the Good Fight, Allan Mallinson presents a different scenario, in which Germany is fought to an early surrender, half a million British lives — not to mention other nationalities — are saved, and both the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and the October 1917 revolution in Russia peter out without provoking civil wars. Perhaps Hitler might never have come to power: a second war could then have been avoided too.
What if Britain had been better prepared (the key question) and had not shared with the rest of Europe what Churchill — one hero of this book — called its ‘dull, cataleptic trance’? He deplored the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) — ‘incomparably the best trained, best organised and best equipped British army that ever went forth to war’ — being sent straight into the French line, calling instead for it to be kept as a decisive strategic reserve. But the BEF went to the Belgian border where it was forced to fight two costly and entirely avoidable battles.
‘No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening,’ wrote Churchill. The key lies in the first 20 days of fighting. He believed that the measured, silent drawing together of gigantic forces, the uncertainty of their movements and positions, the number of unknown and unknowable facts made the first collision ‘a drama never surpassed’.
For Churchill the war was decided in these first 20 days, and everything that followed consisted of battles which, however formidable and devastating, were but ‘desperate and vain appeals against the decision of fate’. Mallinson agrees. The whole course of the war — its cost, length, and conclusion — could have happened otherwise and a different century could have followed.
Such counter-factual history, if it is to convince, must be rooted in fact and detail; and a book that accurately analyses a mere 20 days is necessarily a narrative moving in slow motion. Hostilities commence around p. 234 after 11 chapters have sedately ambled through a century of European history starting with the Congress of Vienna (1815). Further detours and digressions follow, not all of equal interest, on the Boer War, on changing military uniforms and on army reforms and innovations. Only halfway through the book can the war’s opening blunders come under microscopic scrutiny.
Mallinson, a retired career soldier and author of The Making of the British Army and the Matthew Hervey series of historical novels, writes on defence matters for the Times. No aspect of British military history is so wayward or so minute that it does not compel his attention, and he longs to share every detail with us. A stricter route-march with fewer forays and excursions might have helped the lay reader.