The Great War

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January/February, 2000


The Great War

By Andrew Cockburn


The Pity of War

By Niall Ferguson
Basic Books

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On the evidence of the late George Vesel, of Carmel, California, one of the most influential people of the twentieth century was a teenage girl who lived in Sarajevo in 1914. Vesel, whom I interviewed in 1986, had been a close friend during his youth of Gavrilo Princip, who murdered the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on June 28, 1914, thus precipitating a chain of events leading, sequentially, to the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, the Cold War, Vietnam, and so on. According to Vesel, Princip was motivated to perform the fateful deed (to which Vesel was an eyewitness) because his girlfriend had just dumped him.

Niall Ferguson, an English academic prodigy, has confined his research to documentary sources and has therefore missed this crucial data. Nevertheless, in a style of historiography more common in England than on this side of the Atlantic, he sets out to offer what he suggests are radically revisionist assessments of various aspects of the conflict. He energetically rebuts the notion that World War I was rendered inevitable by secret diplomacy and militarism, as the survivors of the ensuing slaughter commonly believed. Nor does he accept that the German leaders embarked on war in 1914 out of a sense of hubris, but rather because they felt weak and thought they could only get weaker as time went on. Other topics subjected to his exhaustive scrutiny include the effect of propaganda in keeping the war going, British and German economic management, German military prowess, morale on both sides, and the reason for Germany's sudden collapse.

Curiously, despite his stated conclusions, Ferguson makes a convincing case that secret diplomacy and militarism did actually play a vital role in escalating the clash into a world war. (If Britain had not joined in, ultimately dragging the United States with her, the conflict would have remained just another one of those European wars.) Neither the British public nor the majority of the ruling Liberal government felt any particular antipathy toward Germany. However, key officials in the British War Office, together with a clique at the Foreign Office, had been secretly negotiating with the French for years to send the British army to France if war broke out with Germany. Thus the British were committed. Why did they do this? Ferguson skates over the issue, but he does provide an instructive hint: He suggests that Sir Henry Wilson, the senior general who had forged the crucial agreement with the French, was principally interested in strengthening the War Office "for a future departmental war with the Admiralty," while the naval strategists were touting their own demented scheme for an amphibious invasion of Germany's Baltic coast.

Of course, when generals and admirals put parochial interests such as interservice rivalry ahead of their official task of guarding the nation and defeating an enemy, they usually find themselves woefully unprepared for an actual conflict. Sir Henry Wilson may have triumphed in scotching the schemes of the hated admiralty but, as Ferguson concedes, the British army in 1914 was completely unsuited for war in Europe, composed of "semi-literate, unskilled working class youths" and officered by "men whose principal accomplishment was a Œgood seat' on a hunter." The Germans, supposedly more professional in their approach, had their own extraordinary lapses. Their senior officer corps was deliberately dominated by landed aristocrats, while the General Staff failed to notice that the nitrates crucial to the manufacture of ammunition all came from British owned mines in Chile, along sea routes dominated by the Royal Navy. When they belatedly noticed this awkward fact and sent a fleet to open the sea lanes, the British were at a loss to understand the reason for the expedition. Only the fortuitous genius of German chemists in inventing a process for producing artificial nitrates saved Germany from rapid defeat.

Ferguson supplies mountains of data to emphasize that most people in Europe did not want a war, and that indeed the secret plotting of the anti-German clique in the British War Office and Cabinet almost failed to swing the government and country behind intervention. The fact that the British did nonetheless intervene and slaughter a generation of their own youth in the process gives rise to the thought that the word "conspiracy"---abhorred by any professional historian with tenure on his mind---might just apply. Ferguson derides the possibility that arms manufacturers might have had something to do with bringing on the war, pointing out their relative insignificance in the national economies of the time. He may be right, though it might be worth bearing in mind that people who actually lived through those events had a strong impression to the contrary. In his wonderful memoir of growing up in pre-war Vienna, the great writer Stefan Zweig remarks on how the assassination of the deeply unpopular Archduke initially did not arouse much outrage in Austria. "It was only when newspapers in the pay of the arms manufacturers began to whip up sentiment against Serbia that the mood began to change and become bellicose."

The author has already made a name for himself by highlighting the historic role of the bond markets, and therefore operates on familiar ground in discussing the financial arrangements made by the warring powers. In discussing military events, however, he is on less sure ground. He does discuss the fact that in actual combat the Germans were rather more successful and proficient than the Allies, but that in the final months they began surrendering in large numbers. However, he seems at a loss to understand the reasons for either of these phenomena. Here Ferguson would have done well to have studied the late Col. John Boyd, for example, preeminent among military thinkers of this or almost any other age, who spent much time analyzing the process through which the minds of combatants, when disoriented by conflicting and rapidly changing data inputs, "fold back on themselves" and effectively cease to function. Collectively, this is manifested in an army by the loss of the will to fight, hence mass surrenders. The Germans, especially in the tactics they developed for their great offensive in the spring of 1918---which almost won the war---proved adept in fostering this sort of collapse. Their defeat on the western front in the summer and fall of that year was surely a result of the same process.

Ferguson's lack of insight on this subject however is not uncommon in contemporary British, as opposed to American, military studies. Thanks perhaps to the searing experience of Vietnam, the United States currently produces discussion on this topic an order of magnitude more sophisticated than anything coming across the Atlantic. (Some British historians currently argue that their World War I generals were actually rather good at their job. One fatuously compared them to a football manager "who takes a few seasons to get it right"!)

Given the vast amount of documentation available on the war (to which historians can now add my friend Vesel's reminiscences) the subject will undoubtedly be tossed around for many years to come, including confident pronouncements by "debunkers" like Ferguson. Readers should however entertain the possibility that the survivors of that conflict who thought that their friends had died of a combination of venal defense contractors, stupid politicians, and self seeking militarists might just have got it right.

Andrew Cockburn is the author, most recently, of Out of the Ashes; The Ressurection of Saddam Hussein

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