Dying like an Empire
World War One: A Short History Allen Lane, 2007 208 pages £16.99 ISBN 978-0141031569
Sebastian Faulks’s unforgettable novel Birdsong traced a love affair between Stephen and Isabelle before it is bled dry in the mud and squalor of Flanders. Moving through those well known battles between khaki and feldgrau and amid some of the most erotic prose in any novel of the last decade (“she heard him cry out and felt a surge inside her, he seemed suddenly to swell in her so that their flesh almost fused”), Faulks told the familiar story of a war that consumed all before it. As we read of Stephen’s miraculous escape at the end of the war with the help of a German soldier, when victim and saviour “fell upon each other’s shoulders weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives”, we feel we have gone a long way towards grasping what took decades to become clear; the Great War destroyed the Victorian universe in its essentials. Norman Stone wants to make much the same argument in this brazen, if fascinating compressed history of 1914-18. But as befits a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, his approach is altogether more architectonic and quantative, altogether less “wet” than the traditional poppy strewn cries of notres terres, nos morts. And yet, such is Stone’s empathy for the minute travails of the men who stoically bore the brunt of Europe’s first industrial scale catastrophe that one feels confident in mentioning him in the same breath as Faulks’s epic. The veteran Labour harlequin Dennis Skinner once said that the Thatcherites were best understood as a coven of Puritans orbiting an ex-SPAM horder from Grantham. Not the least of Stone’s achievements in this book is to show that actually there is plenty of humanity in this lot, even if it tends to get occasionally obscured by their boyish and self-conscious delight in giving-it-to-us-straight.
The fact that Stone has nothing cosmically original to impart hardly detracts from the generally pleasing effect of his brisk prose. He writes playfully and with evident disdain for conventional academic props like footnotes and measured sentiments. His many enemies among Oxbridge’s history dons will certainly tut-tut their way through this. Stone sees the war in largely familiar terms, as a phenomenon rooted in the imperial smash-and-grab of the fin de siècle, one propelled by gross errors of judgment and sustained by a new kind of technology that no one side managed to control. And the Germans must take the lion’s share of the blame for ratcheting up tensions prior to 1914 by embarking on a suicidal attempt to outgun the Royal Navy on the high seas. He is careful to remind us though that even little Belgium had her own pronounced selfish designs on land and plunder, neutrality or no neutrality. And President Wilson’s descent on a weary Europe bearing the balm of self-determination he dismisses as only so much humbug. One is reminded here of Gore Vidal’s acidulated memoir Palimpsest where he recounts his grandfather’s quip that Wilson was a man who got jittery when people raised their eyes above the third button on his waistcoat.
Specialists will like Stone’s emphasis on Turkey and his jargon-free analysis of war finance. Older hands will grimace however at being told once again that the whole thing was largely about railway timetables. Stone’s indebtedness to A.J.P. Taylor is very evident both in the tone and the structure of the book and like the master, he teeters at times on the brink of nihilism. One is reminded at times of Stefan Collini’s critique of Taylor’s demagogic strain in his Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain as well as his characterisation of neo-Namierite history as a kind of “unresolved adolescence” in his more recent book, Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics.
As such, for all of Stone’s interest in the human tragedies of the war, we get little sense of the intellectual currents which preceded its outbreak. He spends little time on the profound intellectual and cultural shifts that characterised large sections of European thought between Nietzsche and Sorel. Contrasted to the rogue’s gallery of madmen and Chaucerian frauds assembled by J.W. Burrow in his magisterial survey, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914, Stone’s eye for the baroque looks tired at times. (Stone would no doubt like Burrow’s suggestion that “it is hard not to feel that someone with the nervous system of Kaiser Wilhelm II should ideally never be allowed near a phrase like ‘a struggle for existence.’”) That said, he obviously glories in the crooked timber of humanity and even the humblest of details are deemed worthy of our attention. Like the cocky Oxford tutor he once was, Stone can reel off zinger after zinger.
He tells us that the Turks put their uniforms on anthills to counter the scourge of lice in the trenches, ants being especially partial to these perennials. Cotton wool soaked in urine counteracted the effects of a gas attack for precisely thirty minutes. In the Aisne, the noise of the German advance was concealed by the croaking of frogs, of all things. The appalling British performance at Loos was mainly due to their having the wrong sized spanners, something that will have done little to temper Kipling’s grief for his beloved John who perished in the mayhem there. The chaos in the Russian command Stone ascribes to one General Smirnov who was appointed “because some painted old granny had intrigued at court.” One feels a little like a wide-eyed undergrad by the end, having been assured by the irreverent Mind in the chair that the Great War was more bugs, piss and geriatrics than blood, sweat and tears.
Like all good Thatcherites, Stone swoons at the mention of Churchill, gushing about “his extraordinary quickness and imagination and wit”. His indulgence here is rather perplexing in a book that places such emphasis on poor planning and logistical cock-ups. Churchill’s admiralty did indeed assemble over 18 miles of grey battleships before the battle of Jutland. But the fact remains that almost all of his contemporaries saw him as a bluffer, a fantasist, and more gravely still in an aspiring war minister, an operatic inebriate. In certain respects Churchill’s maverick populism worked to his advantage, as evidenced by the occasion when he was asked for his reaction to the arrest of a junior colleague who had been caught exposing his private parts in sub-zero temperatures near Hyde Park. “Almost makes yer proud to be an Englishman” was his retort. Those unmentionably high cliffs around Gallipolli could not be so easily charmed.
Stone’s little book still packs a punch however, and it leaves one asking just why the Great War still shocks the conscience after all these years. Is it just the numbers by themselves that do it? The war left 3 million widows and 6 million fatherless children. The battle of the Somme claimed 20,000 British on the first day alone, while Paschendaele ended with the maiming of almost 400,000 men. Numbers have their own magic without question, but they can numb the senses after a spell. In his famous harangue against the French Revolution, Carlyle wrote that the great impediment to our attempted re-entry into the past was fear (or Fear as he liked to put it.) This was his way of saying that the past is not just a prelude, but also quite literally a different world that can only be dimly comprehended. And in this sense, the Great War remains always and everywhere just out of our reach. This is because to a very real extent, one could argue that this generation, or large parts of it, seemed to almost will their own annihilation. To a fastidious generation dulled by the drone of smart bombs, B52s and special-ops, this idea leaves a distinctly nasty taste on the palate.
Stone follows other major scholars of 1914-18 in stressing the way the disastrous casualty lists actually ratcheted up the popular hysterica passio. David Lloyd George captured the premiership by promising to fight the war to victory, no matter what the cost in human terms. Similarly, Stone shows that the 40,000 plus mutineers in the French Army in 1917 were actually mollified by their women folk who urged them to fight on and on. David Stevenson’s imposing synthesis on the war, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War, stressed the extraordinary fact that in England the division between conscripts and volunteers was roughly half and half, even after the major battles of 1916-17. Tentative peace moves during the first half of 1918 involving a proposal whereby Germany would give up Belgium if guaranteed a free hand in the East floundered against a sort of wearied blood-lust.
“Every measure of public opinion,” Stone insists chillingly “shows huge support for war to the bitter end, and Lloyd George, after some hesitation, responded to it.” Ken Harris’s loving biography of Clement Attlee recounted the story of how he drew his pistol and pointed it at the temple of a cowering subordinate soldier at El Hanna in 1917 after he seemed to hesitate when Attlee ordered him to attack. Attlee admitted quite candidly that he probably would have shot him had he not complied. When the brandy fumes and cigar smoke of Their Finest Hour finally clears, Attlee will probably be regarded as the most impressive British Prime Minister of the last century. That he came within seconds of shooting a terrified boy in the head as part of his official duties during the war surely amplifies Carlyle’s startling insight. Alien mentalities largely enabled this war and it requires all our energies to see them in their proper light. Incomprehension sustains the fascination.
This war may still echo in our ears for another, even more tantalising reason. For all his brisk, even brash empiricism, Stone’s war still remains at its heart a mystery. Due to its enormous complexity and the vagaries of its very human architects, the Great War still lies beyond our dim, causal minds. There is a sense in which it could be said to call the whole causal approach to the past into disrepute, even if this was emphatically not what Stone was aiming for. How can any one mind comprehend the enormity of 1914-18, and yet appreciate its curious void? How should it even be conceived? Was this a continuation of a European civil war dating back to the indiscrimate sectarian mayhem of the 16th century? Did the Germans pull the temple down on their heads through sheer greed as Margaret Thatcher asked Stone personally during the famous Chequers seminar she convened in 1990 to obstruct German re-unification? Was it all just one big accident as Niall Ferguson tried to show in his Pity of War, a book that knew the price of everything, but the value of nothing? Or did it follow logically from the roar and dazzle of mass industrialisation in the late 19th century? While Stone is clear that at its core the war was an imperial squabble whose enmities were catastrophically amplified by technological advances, his analysis leaves an array of paradoxes.
Who but a fool would have bet on a Russian capitulation by 1917, given the scale of that country’s natural resources? Similarly, nobody could have predicted the dismal failure of the British plan to end the war by a calculated act of mass starvation. No less a seasoned panjandrum than Maurice Hankey catalogued the poor returns from Whitehall’s embargo schemes in a state of stupefied despair. Even the heavens played their miserable part in sustaining the fighting. Stone reminds us of the crucial importance of freakishly heavy rainfall during Third Ypres, “one of the most extraordinary episodes of this war or any other.” (A senior English commander visited the site of this bloodbath just before the armistice in 1918 and burst into tears, asking a veteran “Did we send the men into that?”) The impenetrability of 1914-18, even after almost a century of scholarship, is central to its awful allure. In this respect, we are not much better than the war’s immediate legatees who groped for meaning throughout the twenties. Intellectuals like T.S. Eliot threw themselves into the tranquillising social gospel of High Church Anglicanism. Lutyens’ gaunt Cenotaph in Whitehall tried to set the stiff-upper-lip mentality abidingly in stone. Georges Rouault’s etchings Miserere sought solace in the idea of God’s eternal sorrow and recompense. And as Michael Burleigh showed in Sacred Causes, others like the Weimar inflation prophet Ludwig Christian Haeusser proclaimed himself “Louis the Christ, King of Germany and Emperor of the World” and promised his myriad conquests that they would soon find themselves giving birth to the next messiah if only they would lie back and think of Wagner.
Faulks’s Birdsong ends with a vivid birth scene in 1978. We find his narrator squatting over old newspapers amid a pool of blood and rent flesh. Having taken his sweet time, her son finally obliges and bursts forth upon the world. She names the child after the son of her grandfather Stephen’s comrade in the trenches. As this man lay dying in his arms in 1918, Stephen swore that he would have all the children the war denied his friend. (“John”, our heroine sobs at the end, “his name is John. It’s a promise my grandfather made in the war.”) And here, despite everything that went before, Faulks chooses reconciliation as his envoi, softly suggesting on the last page that time can restore that which the locusts consume. Since the Thatcherites took a serious view of reconciliation in most instances, Norman Stone will have none of this. After all, the Lady herself once sidled up to a flabbergasted Philip Larkin at a party and informed him that she completely identified with one of the characters in a poem of his, the girl whose mind was full of knives. Stone ends with Hitler in 1918. Even though he is rendered bug-eyed from chlorine gas, his monologues show that the perspective from the long grass could be clear enough all the same. We end with the familiar sideswipes against Versailles, the invertebrate democratic structures of the stillborn Weimar republic and the Dolchstosslegende. And as such, this oddly moving book closes with the recognition that “now the twentieth century happened”, a sentiment that must greet us here not as any kind of celebration of our modern condition, but as a rebuke, the lonely murmur of abandonment even, death-like in its pallor and its mystery.