February 20, 2011

Review: The First World War

I can smell scholarly defensiveness from a mile off. The classic tactic of a scholar on the defensive is to write a very very long book about a very small area of history. If that's so, Norman Stone is on the attack. His short volume about the First World War covers one of the most important events of the last five hundred years: the events of the summer of 1914 ushered in a historical catastrophe that almost everyone in Europe is still reeling from. We live in a civilisation that has punched itself right on the nose and the bloodied nostrils and the cracked bone are there for all to see. Stone writes with a sense of that damage- the three pages on Passchendaele are incredibly moving as they document the decline in British singing, a deluge of blood mirrored in the narrow futility of 'we're ere because we're ere because we're ere'. A swift pace allows you to absorb the tragic figures: 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day of the Somme for no gain at all, 400,000 British troops died in the mud to take Passchendaele, a small Belgian village of only 'local tactical significance, the Italians lost 1.5 million men making minor border adjustments against Austria. Those and the deaths at Verdun and on the Eastern Front are the large figures: but just consider this, at the Ypres salient there were 7,000 deaths a week through natural wastage!

Stone is a historian and not merely an antiquarian. He writes with a historian's verve and eye for detail. This is one of the most entertaining books about mass catastrophe I've ever read. The Battle of the Somme was held up by an 18 hour traffic jam as British troops struggled to get to Amiens. Lenin's arrival in Russia in 1917 was negotiated by Helfand, who operated the leading tobacco monopoly in the Ottoman Empire. Everyone knew in 1914 that the Germans were going to attack Belgium: all you had to do was look at the length of the railway platforms in sleepy Rhineland towns. Italian action in 1912 and in 1922 precipitated both world wars: Rome not Berlin or Paris or London was the key capital. Some of these facts are grim: the Italian monument to the unknown soldier excludes the Second Army where no search was conducted for bodies, the reason was that so many of the men of the Second Army were shot by their own officers. In 1931 one such officer who had stood behind his men, shooting those who wouldn't come out of the trenches, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. We could go on- with the invention of the four wheel drive by Porsche in order that the Germans could assault the Alps in 1917, or the fact that at the treaty of Brest Litovsk clueless Austrian aristocrats interviewed Russian peasants about how to grow onions. You get the sense through these anecdotes of the richness of Stone's understanding but also the anecdotes give the reader a sense of the war. Onions may be ridiculous but they point out the sheer abstraction of the Austrian general from the conditions of his peasant farmers.

Stone uses this vividness for his own devices. Running through the entire book is an argument, around it circle asides which dispatch for Stone some of the more persistent problems of European history. The argument though is the centre of this book and echoes forwards to our own day. Stone's argument provides an explanation for the first war and the beginnings of one for the second. The explanation briefly runs like this. Post 1871 the Germans took two decisions. They decided firstly that they wanted to dominate the centre of Europe, to create in Heisenberg's words in Copenhagen 'a new Enlightenment centered rightly upon Germany'. To do that they would have to dislodge Russian influence in the Balkans and in Poland. Their second decision was that they would challenge the British Empire globally by building up a fleet. In Stone's view this second decision was the greatest misjudgement of the 20th Century. By 1914 the first German ambition had a time limit upon it: the Generals believed that war with Russia could not be won if it was not fought swiftly. German war plans called for eliminating France within weeks and then driving on Russia before she had had a chance to mobilise: Russian railway building meant that such a plan would be impossibly by 1917. The German decision to build a fleet forced Britain's hand: faced with her old age dilemma British statesmen opted to fight Germany rather than leave her to turn on them once she had conquered Europe.

Stone's war is one that turns away from the carnage of the Western front and looks East. The consequences of the war were most impressive in the East: if the war had an immediate cause it was the vacuum created by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. If the war had an immediate consequence lasting down to the present day it was the creation of modern Turkey. More than that though Stone sees the war through the prism of a battle over the European and in particular the Eastern European continent. He sees that innovations in fighting- most particularly the method of rolling attack which won the war spread from East to West. Just as importantly it was in the East that the real prize was at stake. The First World War was not a battle for Atlantic supremacy- the fleets stayed at home and the submarines were only effective in bringing in the Americans but for European supremacy. A supremacy that could only be won in Poland and the Ukraine rather than in Belgium. Chillingly Stone comments that Russia without the Ukraine is Canada, with it it is America: looked at from Berlin he implies the same is true of Germany without Poland. Whatever we think of that observation, both Hitler and Stalin had it memorised and if the First World War played out the first time as tragedy, then the Second World war would play the same script with added blood and horror.

Stone's book is short and controversial. I am sure that a thousand academic pens have already been sharpened to puncture this elegant balloon. Equally though this is history from the stable of Alan Taylor, its fast, controversial and fun. Its important that Stone includes a special fiction section in his short bibliography, he writes as though a sense of the past is needed not just a dryasdust recounting. Some of the judgements may be awry: though Stone largely avoids in this book his most controversial views on the Armenian genocide. The book though never fails to be interesting: boldness means there must be mistakes within it, but there are no prizes for scholarly defensiveness. Ultimately Stone understands that history is made of two things- argument and empathy- one must analyse and understand the past. He attempts to do both in this short essay- its success is for specialists to analyse, I just sat back and enjoyed.