The First World War: Battle of the books

The centenary of the outbreak of hostilities has mobilised both historians and publishers.

The Underworld: Taking cover in a Tube Station during a London air raid (1918) by Walter Bayes

Some Desperate Glory
Max Egremont

Egremont has done the seemingly impossible; not only has he found a new way of looking at Brooke, Owen, Sassoon et al but he has brought them to life. His book deals with 11 poets in the years they fought. Brooke was dead by 1915, while Edward Thomas didn’t start (and end) his war until 1917. These writers were not the homogeneous group they seem in retrospect but experienced and wrote about the war in all its different phases. This is Egremont’s simple but telling aperçu and he illustrates it with an evocative selection of their verse.
Picador, 304pp, £20

Englanders and Huns
James Hawes

The enmity between Britain and Germany that burst out so bloodily in 1914 had a 50-year backstory, argues James Hawes. His book chronicles the shifting attitudes of each country towards the other as Germany rose from a minor, almost comical central European power to become a threat to Britain that needed to be countered in the colonies and through an arms race. As Hawes shows to lively effect, the bickering was enthusiastically played out and intensified in the popular press of both nations.
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20

No Man’s Land: Writings from a World at War
Edited by Pete Ayrton

This handsome anthology of prose fiction emphasises the global nature of the war, with new translations of Croatian, Catalan, Italian, French and Hungarian texts, together with excerpts from classics such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. We hear from ambulance drivers, Indian soldiers, children playing “Armenians and Turks” and Czech soldiers lambasting the Austrian emperor (“A chap at the pub told us . . . he is breastfed three times a day”). The first passage, taken from Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, exemplifies the hard-won irony that runs through the collection. Patients at a sanatorium receive the news that war has been declared. “Perhaps it is the war to end all wars,” says one. “An end to war! Can that be?” replies another. “The world’s affliction is incurable.”
Serpent’s Tail, 572pp, £25

1914: the Year the World Ended
Paul Ham

This broad-sweeping narrative history is intended to refute Christopher Clark’s watershed study of the year 1914, The Sleepwalkers. There was, the Australian historian Paul Ham writes, nothing sleepy about the outbreak of catastrophic hostilities: “A few powerful, old aristocratic men brought war on the world behind closed doors.” He sets out to prove that Europe’s leaders knew what they were doing and to explain why they went ahead anyway. Ham treats with scorn these men’s later claims that they were powerless to stop events that had taken on a tragic momentum of their own.
Doubleday, 736pp, £25

The Fateful Year: England 1914
Mark Bostridge

In his New Year message, the archbishop of York warned that 1914 might well prove a “very fateful year”. The government was bracing itself for civil war in Ireland, yet more strike action in England and an increasingly militant campaign for women’s suffrage. Meanwhile, trendy youths were learning the tango, a dance the Vatican feared as an “assassination of family and social life”. Mark Bostridge’s lively, sometimes surprising, social history of 1914 is told through a series of short stories, from the grisly murder of a schoolboy in north London and Prime Minister Asquith’s romantic woes to the first staging of Pygmalion and the contagion of spy fever that spread through the country.
Viking, 432pp, £25

The Great War and Modern Memory
Paul Fussell

A canonical piece of war criticism, the cultural historian Paul Fussell’s book – originally published in 1975 – seeks to identify the swerve in literary sensibilities that emerged from the shock of the First World War. Fussell argues for the emergence of “modern memory” in 1914 – a commonly felt assault on the European psyche, detectable in the poetry and memoirs of Blunden, Graves, Owen and Sassoon. Though struck through with generalisations and even inaccuracies his analysis of the themes and motifs of the era as they appeared between 1914 and 1918 (and shortly afterwards) remains highly influential.
Folio Society, 464pp, £44.95

World War I Love Stories
Gill Paul

This collection of sketches of 14 real-life romances demonstrates how the war enabled some love affairs yet destroyed others. In a nod to the inspiration for A Farewell to Arms, the book charts how Ernest Hemingway fell for the nurse tending his war wounds at a Milan hospital in 1918. The most affecting tale is that of an English captain on the run in occupied France who falls for a local beauty. The couple’s doomed affair ends, however, when the French belle’s neighbours betray him to the Germans. Ephemera including photos, letters, journal entries and maps vivify the stories.
Ivy Press, 192pp, £14.99

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First Word War
Edited by Hew Strachan

Professor Strachan’s primer includes chapters from 25 of the most distinguished historians of the conflict. Tackling subjects such as the origins of the war and manoeuvre warfare, it also discusses economic mobilisation, the role of propaganda and the rise of socialism. This new edition contains significant new material on the Central Powers’ strategy, the role of women in the war, mutinies and military morale. It is an essential introduction for all students of the First World War; the many photos included will also make it appeal to a general audience.
Oxford University Press, 400pp, £25

Outside Verdun
Arnold Zweig

This new translation by Fiona Rintoul of a German novel first published in 1935 presents the events at Verdun (in which Germany attempted to “bleed France white” by attacking its strongest point, resulting in more than 600,000 casualties) with grim clarity. Based on Zweig’s experiences as a Jewish private, it invests the German forces with the ills at large in society: class prejudice, anti-Semitism, incompetence. It is a thoughtful, sturdy novel and a response to the nationalistic fiction that sprang up after the war: it was subsequently burned by the Nazis. Zweig later fled to Palestine, returning in 1948 to become an MP.
Freight Books, 432pp, £12.99

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
Jerry White

The war, writes Jerry White, a historian of London, changed the capital profoundly. It became a mechanised hub: a hospital for wounded soldiers and an entrepôt for fresh ones, a munitions factory and a target for German Zeppelin raids. The effects were by no means all negative. The war also brought London full employment and improved public health and transformed the prospects for women. This is a rich social history and White is as adept with individual characters as he is with the statistics of munitions production or the rise in prostitutes walking the city’s streets.
Bodley Head, 368pp, £25

Secret Warriors
Taylor Downing

The war was not fought in the trenches alone. Scientists, Taylor Downing contends, played a crucial, if underacknowledged, role in Britain’s victory and their efforts enhanced our understanding of medicine, psychology, intelligence-gathering and aviation. Downing’s fascinating study of these pioneering men – and a few women – is as much about class as about science. Today, in an era of mass surveillance, it is amusing to think that army officers and government officials were reluctant to use aerial photography or cryptography to spy on the enemy as it seemed “ungentlemanly”.
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt