WW1: still relevant as the right war, well-fought

I always resisted the Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Blackadder account of WW1. I took it to be a product of the 1960s generation who thought everything inherited from their parents and grandparents (except their money) should be rejected.

At least one of my great-grandparents fought (and at least one of my grandparents avoided) fighting in WW1. My father served in WW2, and his two half-brothers were killed on active service during it.

The essay which follows below is largely an account of various books, most of which I have read recently, which have, I am relieved to say, reinforced my long-standing belief that this country (and, most of the time, most of its allies) fought honourably and rather intelligently during the 20th Century.

I was rather grateful that the 2018 anniversary of the end of WW1 had a decent dose of revisionism, even if of a passive sort. There was a little less of the “what a waste” narrative and a little more of the “what nobility” narrative. I remained irritated that very little mass media commentary took a proper look at the broad public acceptance of British (and Allied) policy and leadership throughout the war. Indeed, the commonest thought in 2018 seemed still to be “lions led by donkeys” which Alan Clark had put about in 1961.

There was and is an assumption that “the last man standing” view of the German and British strategists was obviously absurd and wicked. The “last man standing” view holds, firstly, that WW1 was about two mighty military machines being prepared to assume huge “knock for knock” fatalities; secondly, that neither party wanted to negotiate with the other; and thirdly that the definition of victory on both sides was only territorial in the largest sense. This last point matters. On a day-to-day basis what mattered most was whether one had imposed more losses in blood and munitions than one suffered. The equation was not about lives per foot of advance or retreat, but how much damage one had inflicted and sustained. Both the Germans and the British really did believe, and were right to believe, that this war was a fight until one side or the other conceded utter exhaustion. It was a slugging match.  

Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces on the Western Front for most of the war, has remained an important bone of contention. Because Haig did indeed epitomise the “last man standing” view, he is worth looking at, which I’ll essay a little later, if you have the patience. For now, I want to stress that, in spite of much 1960s trendy opionising to the contrary, and it has been popular ever since, the important fact to bear in mind is that Britain fought WW1 as a fully-functioning parliamentary democracy, including lively dissident and dissenting movements.

What follows is not exactly a chronicle account of my recent – especially my post 2018 – reading and thinking, but it’s close.

I found the Richard Holmes account, Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918 (2004) far more convincing than the routine modern discussion. And then in around 2018, I read C S Forester’s mid 1930s novel, The General, with its sensible introduction by Max Hastings. It made very a compelling corrective to conventional 1960s thinking. Even so, it is worth stressing something which many readers of the novel, even admiring ones, seem to miss. Put bluntly, WW1 was an inevitable war conducted in the only way available to the perfectly decent, quite smart leaders and men and women of the day. We would probably do very little differently now. We are probably making the same sort of mistakes.

Forester does present a bone-headed, hide-bound, socially-inept, general, whose rise at the Western Front is partly due to luck, and to adventitious connections in London. General Curzon is also fiercely loyal, energetic and brave. As he spectacularly advances in rank, he is, like the entire military establishment, confronted by a problem which has no solution. They have no answer to the machine gun, which can scythe down advancing infantry. They have been brought up to believe that a fortified enemy must be weakened by bombardment and then assaulted by infantry and cavalry. Their logic is that sooner or later, machine gun or no, bombardments can be made so massive that the enemy’s will collapses.

It turned out trenches and barbed wire, and indeed armies, could withstand shells much better than expected, or even the hardest heart could have imagined. But these awkward truths did not fatally undermine the old logic, and so industrialisation, decency and patriotism combined in the British case to produce a phenomenal loss of life before success came.

Only steely generals could conduct such a war. But then a certain brutality is central to military life. That may mean that one should be a pacifist, but that’s another story. So far from being pacifist, it is quite possible that WW1 generals could contemplate the loss of vast numbers of men and officers in successive battles because their code included a belief in courage and honour. These were their watchwords, their faith. It followed that suffering and sacrifice were to be borne as the price of a noble calling.

In 2019 I came across John Terraine’s biography Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier (1963) and it was a revelation. This was full-fat revisionism. Haig is presented as socially inept and useless at day-to-day communication with the officers around him or the men they all led. But he also comes across as a man whose courage and actions, and even his curtness and reticence, recommended him to his army. What’s more, Asquith and Lloyd George – the Prime Ministers he served – could think of no-one more likely actually to get the war won. That means that when push came to shove, they could not think of another strategy or leader that would have worked better.

Terraine makes clear that Haig believed that the war was a knock-down, drag-out fight. In this he rightly presumed that his political masters believed that it was a “them or us” situation. Britons accepted that a German victory would be catastrophic for humanity and Britain, and the latter’s empire. He was mandated to win the war and that meant fighting Germany to a standstill on the Western Front. For as long as Britain and its government sent young men to fight, Haig would deploy them in a brutal war of attrition against Germany.

Terraine is very good at portraying Haig as a man whose nobility consisted in his doing his duty with as little waste of life as was consistent with his masters’ war aims and his reading of the situation before him. What he suffered in the process was, finally, nobody’s business but his own. It is worth noting that Terraine does give us evidence that Haig was a man of deep feelings.

I want to skip now to the WW1 trilogy of novels, Loss of Eden (1979-81), by John Masters, which I have just been reading (April 2020). Masters was a story-teller to match Forester, John Buchan or Nevil Shute, as his “Savage” novels show. Particularly as an Indian Army officer in the Punjab before WW2, and as a senior officer in the Burma campaign during it, Masters knew a vast amount about the world as it was before his own military service and what it became during and after it. I don’t want to paraphrase the trilogy, still less do an exegesis of it. Suffice to say that it scans from top to bottom British and American society, and the military and industrial worlds, of the day. It shows social, political, economic and military mores being deeply affected by the war. It does all this with extraordinary vividness and readability. It is a deep comfort to me that Masters’ view of what the war was about coincides rather closely to mine. Above all, it is the width of the contemporary (the 1914-18) consensus in favour the war’s conduct which is striking, and this in a trio of books which strongly feature those who argued against the government and military.   

However, there was indeed a rather complicated intellectual equivalence and variance between the senior men of WW1 and those of WW2. Many of the latter had had a close-up view of the former, having in 1914-18 been youngish rising stars as majors and colonels. One can learn a lot from the writings of and about WW2 generals such as Spears, Hobart, Ironside and Ismay. Several of them were deeply affected by the carnage of WW1, and some flirted with the idea that it was unnecessary. I can’t now recall whether any of them openly questioned whether the war’s suffering had been justified. I am fairly sure some at least of them believed some of the sacrifices had been wasteful.

The older warriors of WW2 had been young warriors in WW1. If they grew to be men who hated to see lives squandered (most warriors do), it remains important to see that their careers support the view that military men (and women) of any generation are broadly similar in being ordinarily sensitive human beings who accept extraordinary brutality if it seems morally justified.

Much as the WW1 generals were soon to be contrasted with, for instance, Nelson, that sailor would have understood them well enough. Much as the youngish colonels of WW1 wanted above all not to repeat the horrors of that war, when they themselves commanded armies in WW2, they showed they were broadly of the same stamp as the men who had perpetrated them.

I, a hopelessly unmilitary character, very much admire the Haig of WW1 (one of few generals of his generation I know about) and several of the WW2 generation of generals. In almost every case the biggest surprise to me was that they were clearly emotional and sensitive men. I find it a sort of pleasure that this should be a well-kept secret, though – actually – it has been obvious for years from much of what they wrote about themselves and each other. This facet of their being did fit into their military lives, but only by being well-disguised in the heat of battle, and perhaps as they earned their promotions.

So here’s an interim conclusion: Wellington (and Nelson, for the Navy) would have recognised Douglas Haig (and Admiral Fisher) or Alan Brooke (and Admiral Cunningham) well enough.

WW2 produced the advances in technology which obviated trench warfare. But technologies did not much alter the ancient creeds of honour and sacrifice. They are nearly as important to the military now as they were 100 or 200 years ago.

What has perhaps changed – we can’t tell until it’s tested – is the possibility of public support for large scale warfare. The Allies of WW1 and WW2 were robust and noisy democracies, in which straight information was available to empowered citizenries. Somehow, it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which the Snowflake Generation would be prepared to go forth and die on the scale their great-great-grandfathers or great-grandfathers did in their two cataclysmic wars. But then, the fathers and grandfathers of the young citizen warriors of WW1 did not in 1910 imagine let alone foretell their own weary and agonised acceptance of the four years of carnage of those Low Country battles. And the WW2 citizen warriors had mostly been convinced, a very few years before they fought, that they were more or less pacifists.

If we glance at the changes in technology and society between WW1 and WW2 and what happened next we see how there’s no escaping the problem of each generation’s wanting not to make a previous generation’s mistakes, whilst perpetuating the oldest, biggest one of all. Few leaders see why – and in what ways – their own recent wars are unrepeatable history.

Some clever military people during and especially after WW1 saw that motorised armour was the answer to the machine gun. One of them was my hero, Sir Percy Hobart. Tanks had been tried in WW1, and their merits perceived. But, like cavalry, their use fatally conflicted with bombardment, which did not so much soften up the enemy as so churn up the terrain that tanks (and horses) couldn’t work. When WW2 rolled and roared in, men like Hobart did prevail, if only in the nick of time, and after their leaders had been chastened by Hitler’s Panzers (who had learned more readily the tanky lessons being promulgated, actually, by British military thinkers).

The upshot of the WW1 generals’ resolve, and that of a citizen soldiery, was that Germany was prevented from taking over northern Europe, and perhaps far more than northern Europe. The British didn’t thoroughly absorb the military lesson of our success. We did not sufficiently set ourselves up for the next great struggle, which was indeed a matter of mobility, aerodynamics and electronics.

The men who ran our military in WW1 and WW2 did not foresee the asymmetrical warfare which confronted the UK in Malaya, the US in Vietnam, or the nuclear stand-off between the West and the USSR. It’s true that the Victorian British knew what havoc tribesmen could wreak on Empires, and that gave us an institutional memory about dealing with insurgencies, and even terrorism. But no-one could have predicted the violent intelligence of the IRA, whose leaders are now ensconced in a Northern Ireland which remains British for now. The Victorians and everyone since understood how Africa could produce mad Mullahs, but no-one foresaw Western-educated Africans heading home to fight for patrimonial socialism, or, later, Western-educated Islamicists heading east to fight for a new caliphate, or staying home to do it from the UK. 

Whatever the next big thing will be, we probably now have it staring us in the face without noticing that something or other about it will make fools of us. Sci-fi writers are probably getting closer to it than most: but how to pick from amongst their many scenarios? With luck we will be at least as good at picking the necessary fights, and conducting them, as our warrior ancestors were.

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Publication date

21 July 2020