One of the oddities of the early 21st century is that we feel it has no shape. Random events occur, threats emerge, governments seem ineffectual or drifty. But this is just normal life, as experienced by human beings for long stretches of time. It feels inadequate to us as a result of the legacy of a single very peculiar sequence, a sort of grand opera in five acts: the First World War, the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, the Cold War.
Of course there are sub-themes within these huge epics but throughout there is a sense of physical threat, of a struggle for moral clarity and of great, often terrible events that lead on from one another to create a unifying whole. Essentially, from the moment when Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur accidentally turned right in Sarajevo to Boris Yeltsin jumping up on to a tank in front of the Moscow parliament building, history seems to make sense.
So compelling is this narrative that it makes it hard for us even to focus on older periods: much of the 19th century appears vague, pompous and banally ironic in its lack of awareness of the upcoming disaster in 1914; much of the 18th century seems absurdly effete, with its wigs and harpsichords. And yet this is clearly our fault alone – each century’s emergencies have had exactly the same sense of terror, loss of control and remorselessness as our own – and some have in practice been even worse.
Every war sets out to be short but once begun spins out of control. Prussia’s war record was formidable: the Second Schleswig War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 (known also as the Seven Weeks’ War), and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which lasted six months but was over as a serious contest in less than six extraordinary weeks.
For the Germans at the beginning of what proved to be the First World War, planning was made on a similar basis. Germany had enormous reserves of manpower and weaponry, so a second swift defeat of France seemed no less likely than last time, particularly in alliance with Austria-Hungary – which provided the giant siege guns that destroyed Belgium’s forts – and Italy, which could threaten the French south-east as well as the Mediterranean.
Italy’s decision to betray the other Central Powers and remain neutral in 1914 was strategically damaging, but the combination of scale, speed and elegance in Germany’s endlessly elaborated Schlieffen Plan to invade France through Belgium meant that in the days before the Battle of the Marne, the Great General Staff – portraits of whose military predecessors frowned down from every side – remained confident that France would be defeated within five to six weeks. With France’s surrender and most of Belgium occupied, it was assumed that the British, with the remnants of their tiny army now facing a German colossus alone, would do some sort of deal. Meanwhile most German troops could be transferred east to crush the Russians.
Given the defeat suffered by the Germans on the Marne (days that form the pivotal moment in 20th-century history), it has just for a moment to be considered how for much of Europe this would ultimately prove to be a far worse disaster than a German victory. Could there have been a very short war, with a Europe indeed dominated by Germany, but with millions more of its inhabitants left alive and the political well left unpoisoned by years of total war? But with the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, the drastic retreat back to the north that followed, the attempts by both sides to outflank each other, the failure of these moves as they both reached the Channel, and the establishment of the trench lines, the whole German adventure came to an end.
Defined by the Western Front, as it endlessly proliferated and elaborated, Germany had already lost the war by September 1914. The catastrophe that enveloped Europe came from it taking until November 1918 to make the Germans understand this.
No German land initiative in the West seriously threatened the Entente. Staggering numbers of troops died, but they could always be replaced as each fresh year group came into play. No technological innovation, however disgusting, or new tactic worked. Even the final great throw, using troops released by the defeat of Russia for General Ludendorff’s spring 1918 attack on the British, ended in failure. Indeed, the discussions held by Ludendorff, Germany’s military commander, and the other key generals at Mons (oddly, on 11 November 1917, exactly a year before what proved to be the war’s end) subconsciously agreed to failure. Plans to attack the key British position at Arras were abandoned because the region was so strongly defended. Instead the blow fell further south, mostly across pointless, ravaged land abandoned in the Germans’ strategic retreat the previous year, and on into the equally tangled, valueless wilderness of the old Somme battlefields.
A great problem with looking at the war retrospectively – or as the opening part of the set of crises that were only resolved in the early 1990s – is that it leeches away its specific features. It is seen as a prelude, or as “futile” or as “wasteful” in a way that would have not been faintly plausible to almost all those fighting it.
One serious mental exercise is to try to forget how the war ends. In effect it was a long conflict by recent Prussian standards but turned out to be fairly short against many other historical precedents. After the initial dash of August 1914 and the settling in of trench warfare, the neat structure that we see, with its sequence of set-piece disasters followed by the arrival of the Americans and the final victory in November 1918, seems to be logical. But for those fighting it, the sheer scale and grandeur of the issues and the resources deployed harked back to the most dispiriting of precedents: the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which had lasted some 23 years. The levels of killing raised the spectre of the Thirty Years’ War, and the intractable sprawl of concerns echoed the Hundred Years’ War. The latter particularly spooked the British, who found themselves marching across innumerable sites featuring historical, medieval premonitions of themselves, an atmosphere caught by Arthur Machen’s strange, hugely popular short story “The Bowmen” (1914) where the defenders of Mons are helped by the ghosts of the archers of Agincourt.
What we now view as the terrible “waste” in the war (the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele) were a series of attempts to make sure that it did not become the Thirty Years’ or Hundred Years’ War. Each horrifying set-piece battle aimed to break a stalemate that had potentially no end point. A managerial attitude towards the fighting, with mere gradual daily attrition and the trenches becoming a way of life, raised the appalling question: what if this could indeed go on to 2014? Could the trenches become permanent, the curse of an accidental balance of forces, making service in Flanders something to be endured over generations?
Each of the Allied offensives was necessary as a near ritualistic demonstration that the German war plans had failed. Eventually, in summer 1918, Germany recognised this – Ludendorff had no further plans and the army could not carry on. By this time the Central Powers had become so brittle that governing structures and assumptions that had lasted centuries crumbled into pieces, with consequences we are all familiar with.
Turkish troops during the Dardanelles Campaign that took place between 1915-16
One of the reasons the war carried on as long as it did was the result of catastrophic fumbling in its opening days by the British navy in the Mediterranean. Based in what is now Croatia, two German ships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the much smaller Breslau, managed through luck and judgement to get across most of the Mediterranean, successfully refuel, enter the Dardanelles, notionally become Ottoman ships and arrive in Constantinople; with the very formidable Goeben causing a sensation. The dithering and uselessness of the British commanders who should have stopped the ships led to their being sacked, but this one failure caused extraordinary damage. It is traditional to point out how futile the German navy proved in the war, but in this instance it created an astonishing, far-reaching change, the consequences of which are still with us. The previously neutral Ottoman empire now decided to support the Central Powers, with Russia and then her allies declaring war after an Ottoman raid in the Black Sea at the beginning of November.
Aside from dooming the Ottoman empire to destruction, this action was what made it plausible to call the conflict a “world war”. By earlier standards, 1914-18 was not in fact particularly global. German assets outside Europe were disposed of in a few weeks, with everything either under siege or sunk. Most oceans and coasts were entirely free of Central Power interference with – beyond parts of the Atlantic – Allied trade unimpeded. This is in strong contrast to the Napoleonic Wars, where the British, for example, became genuinely global, sending expeditions to North America, South America, Africa and Asia. Indeed, the First World War was only really a “world” conflict in as much as the Allies drew on the whole world to defeat their narrowly located adversaries. By 1918 there were Japanese destroyers in the Mediterranean, Brazilian troops in eastern France, thousands of Chinese dock-workers in Calais, plus the obvious, very significant role of imperial troops, whether from Canada, Senegal or Vietnam. And, unimaginably back in 1914, there were some two million American troops in France.
The Ottoman decision to back the Central Powers undoubtedly diverted Allied resources in ways that show the near profligate advantages they had over the Germans and Austro-Hungarians: by 1918 there were half a million Allied troops in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and another half million scattered around Iraq. Constantinople’s decision spread the Allied effort in a way that prolonged the war, but it also ruined the Ottoman reform movement, which may otherwise have left intact a single largely Islamic state stretching from the Black Sea to the Indian Ocean. The partitioning of that state is today the most striking direct legacy of the First World War.
Perhaps the principal disaster of Ottoman belligerency was that it meant Russia would be fighting a quite separate war to the Western allies. By 1917 Britain and France were drawing staggering amounts of food, weaponry and industrial output from the whole world but Russia could access almost none of it. It was sheer chance, of alliances, geography and front lines, that sealed Russia off from the outside world: the Allies were even obliged to send correspondence via a small customs post on the Swedish-Russian border. If the Russians had been part of the global flow that fed the other allies, supplied by ship after ship bringing everything the Tsarist regime needed through the Black Sea, and if the million or so British and Indian troops in the Middle East had instead been committed to the Eastern Front, there would have been an even shorter war and no Russian Revolution.
The war’s end came as a surprise. The American army had only just become fully engaged in the fighting and the Allies had no real means by which they could tell what was happening beyond their siege lines. There was confidence about final victory, following the failure of the German attacks in the spring of 1918 and the crushing subsequent Allied victories along all fronts. But the assumption was that the fighting would continue perhaps into 1920.
The great change was that nobody in the Central Powers believed any more in victory, from Ludendorff (who was sacked in October and would, smelling criminal trials in the air, head off to Sweden and sit in a hotel reading detective novels) to ordinary Habsburg soldiers on the Italian front who at last simply refused to obey orders. But the war had gone on too long and the half-starved surviving populations inside the vast fortress formed by Central Europe had had enough of the regimes that had been so incompetent and so profligate with their lives.
A good place to end is the south Belgian town of Mons, where the Germans had taken their final, ruinous decision to launch their 1918 offensives. In war after war Mons, the only fortified hilltop in a flat area, naturally became a focus for aggressive acquisitiveness. At the 1691 siege by Louis XIV, Racine was present with the French army outside Mons as cannon and mortars poured fire into the trapped city. He watched through a telescope “which I struggled to keep hold of, as my heart was beating seeing all those good people in peril”. In 1914, as both sides were still just beginning to feel their way to what sort of war this would turn out to be, Mons became the focus of the very first encounter between the British and German armies. Scouting cavalry were accidentally rendered useless by local farmers having eagerly embraced innovative metal-wire fencing. Nobody knew what they were doing. At one point in the fighting a group of local girls left someone’s house and accidentally wandered between the two sides.
In 1918, self-consciously, the British determined once an armistice had been agreed that their own military experience had to end in Mons, where it had begun. Mainly Canadian troops rushed forward to ensure this, the very last Allied casualty being George Lawrence Price, from Saskatchewan, killed by a German sniper outside Mons with two minutes to go. Again, with eerie attempts at symmetry, the British buried him in the Mons cemetery next to John Parr, from Finchley, who was judged to be the very first British casualty.
All historians struggle to think about events entirely in the rhythm of the time they are studying. It could even be argued that history is only about the consequences of actions. But the First World War has perhaps been too often treated merely as a prelude to later disasters. There is de Gaulle nearly being killed at Dinant, and Churchill at Antwerp, Hitler at Ypres, Truman and Patton at the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It is unquestionably the ur-catastrophe, but it is lazy and wrong to see it merely through the irony or anguish of what followed. On its own terms it was far from “futile”, as it is so often described: it changed the entire shape of the world – Britain and the British empire as much as anywhere.
The superb museum in Mons records two contemporary responses to the war’s end, one from a German soldier and one from a British. Adrian Freiherr van der Hoop wrote in his diary that his commanding officer told him not to destroy anything in the town as they would only have to pay for it later. Van der Hoop then wrote: “It’s enough to make you cry, when you think about it, that we are at the end.” George Jameson of the Royal Field Artillery wrote after firing off a last round: “Then naturally we thought, ‘Oh, where do we go from here?’ Just that sort of feeling that we’d been sacked, we’d been kicked out of a job. A terribly empty feeling.”
Simon Winder is a publisher and author. His books include “Germania” (Picador)
This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow