Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: The First World War

The great conflict of the last century has been World War Two; yet that worldwide bloodletting would not have occurred without the First World War. John Keegan's remarkable history, The First World War, provides the reader with a dark, comprehensive view of this conflict, which is often overlooked or remembered more for Ernest Hemingway's dramatized version of it. Earlier this year, I had read histories about the beginning of the war and the Treaty of Versailles, but still remained relatively ignorant about the war itself. The primary images or collective "memories" our civilization has of The Great War are of mud-filled trenches or hundreds of plain-uniformed soldiers in tin-pan helmets running through fields filled with barbed wire and artillery explosions.

There is a great deal to learn from Keegan's narrative. For instance, he posits a convincing "what if?" alternate-historical choice that explains how the War need not have happened. There is a general consensus that the diplomats of the era were unable to cope with or stop the war preparations made by each nation's military establishments. The nations that became known as the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, Belgium, Russia, Serbia, and, later, the United States) had overlapping treaties and agreements of support should any of them be attacked by another party.

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated by Serbian militants, Keegan points out that most of the nations of Europe might have simply stood aside and let the Empire punish the Serbians through a punitive, one-on-one attack. However, he points to a failure of nerve at the highest levels of the Empire, which more or less made the widening of the war inevitable. Worried that Russia might support Serbia if they were attacked, Austria-Hungary invoked its alliance with Germany as a way to check the Russians. Once the Russians started mobilizing its forces, the French, as Russia's allies, were required to do likewise to ensure that Germany would face a two-front war if confronted. From there, Great Britain wasn't far behind in the mobilization game, and from there, once declarations of war were made, all the dominoes fell, and the most civilized, advanced continent in the world at that time plunged into a brutal, mechanized, four-year bloodbath that would eventually take 10 million lives.

Keegan introduces and finishes his history by pointing out the ultimate tragedy of the conflict--the civilization and the men who were lost--and the lingering hatreds and "unfinished business" of the war that would bring Europe to fight a larger, even nastier war 20 years later.

While the war is known mostly for its immobile frontiers and trench warfare, it did not start out that way, and some battle lines were very fluid. Germany set the strategic pace for the early stages of the conflict. They planned a massive flanking maneuver through neutral Belgium, which would march quickly southwest and the south and east to surround the French armies concentrated on the French-German border. This defeat, it was assumed, could be accomplished in six weeks, giving Germany plenty of time to then transfer forces to the east to face a much larger Russian army. The Schlieffen Plan would be stopped through the bravery of French and British soldiers, who rolled back the German advance somewhat, and then were themselves stopped from outflanking the German right in a "race to the sea." The Western Front then more or less stabilized for the next two years.

The battle losses of the Great War (as it was then called) were incomprehensible, even after the hundreds of thousands who had died in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War of the previous century. In the intervening years, the machine gun had come into its own, as had massed artillery, mines, railroads, and chemical warfare. However, some technologies, which might have stopped bad plans from going forward or thousands of young men from being slaughtered needlessly, were not yet available or decisive on the battlefield, such as the telephone, the portable radio, tanks, jeeps, military aviation, or precision artillery.

The Battle of the Somme stands as one of the worst examples of leadership in the War, where over the course of four months, over one million men were killed or wounded in an allied attempt to break through the German lines. When Hemingway or Gertrude Stein spoke of the "Lost Generation," this is part of what people mean. Keegan is careful, however, to explain that while the Allied generals had their faults and misjudgments, much of the carnage and chaos was simply a lack of understanding into the nature of the war being fought. Heroic charges by cavalry were no match for millions of pounds of artillery shells or machine-gun bullets. The Somme changed the generals' appreciation for their predicament, but they were determined to go on--there was too much pride and (by then) too much blood involved to simply give up. The Germans believed they were in control of the situation, which was definitely the case in the East, while the French would not accept German occupation of their territory.

Meanwhile, in the East, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians fought pitched battles with the Czarist Russian Empire. The Austrians faced a weakness in that many of its subject peoples (and thus military service men) were Slavic, like the Russians, and so became less inclined to fight. The Germans eventually took over leadership in the East after Austria sustained some defeats. The collapse of the Russian army came about due to the economic pressure of the war back home, eventually leading to the Bolshevik Revolution. Keegan covers some of the military aspects of this struggle as well, though it is clear that once the Russian army left the field, they ceased to be a player in the Great War.

In reading this book, I was confronted again and again by the sheer number of casualties inflicted on one side or another. The numbers are so staggering, it is often difficult to make much sense of them. And perhaps because of Keegan's attempt to cover the entire war in one book (475 pages' worth), it is difficult to get a feel for what was going on. He takes the general's-eye-view, discussing topography, army locations and routes of march, as well as tactics and armaments used. However, there are only a few places where one can get a good "feel" for what the war was actually like to the average combat soldier. Here's one passage, however, that caught my attention:

Up the road we staggered, shells bursting around us. A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said, "I'm blind, Sir," and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn away by a piece of shell. "Oh God! I'm sorry, sonny," I said. "Keep going on the hard part," and left him staggering back in his darkness...

This is not a particularly pretty or, despite the rhetoric that led up to it, glorious war. It was, quite simply, the worst example of industrial civilization turned on itself. World War Two would produce more casualties and even more frightful weapons, but the First World War, in my view, is the worse of the two conflicts because it was this war that destroyed Western Civilization's confidence in itself. It would take a couple more wars before a similar loss of faith in Western rightness afflicted America (World War Two, Korea, and especially Vietnam). The cultural and political vacuums created by World War I would give rise to totalitarian governments in Russia, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The industrial, economic, and artistic progress of Europe were all diminished by the loss of so many of its young men. And, of course, the worst part of it all is that it need not have happened.

Keegan's book, together with The Guns of August and Paris 1919, deserves to be read, if only to give Westerners a better understanding of what created the mass wars, movements, and attempted genocides of the 20th century. Perhaps, by learning, we might learn better how to prevent such catastrophes in the future. One can, at least, hope for such an outcome.

No comments: