Books: The bells of hell went ting-a-ling for everyone

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The First World War

by John Keegan Hutchinson pounds 25

The Pity of War

by Niall Ferguson Allen Lane pounds 18.99

began during one of the hottest summers on record. The Habsburg empire had lost Germany to Prussia, Italy to Piedmont and now faced the prospect of losing the Balkans to Serbia. It was backs- to-the wall time. A pro-terrorist Serb state secured Russian support; Habsburg intransigence towards Serbia was egged on by Berlin. Germany's military elite had their own agendas and anxieties, inclining them to strike then at both France and Russia, though their planning actively risked British involvement, and hence global escalation.

Unlike today, there were no arbitratory organisations, or hotlines to dispel false perceptions. Moreover, diplomatic dithering upset precise military schedules, surrendering advantage with each elapsing hour. Hence, on 30 July 1914 Russia's Foreign Minister told the Chief of Staff: "Now you can smash your telephone," making it impossible to receive orders rescinding mobilisation. This sort of thinking took hold across the continent; fears of revived Napoleonic hegemony enabled Sir Edward Grey to bounce a cabinet into war that was otherwise contemplating how much of Belgium could be violated before Britain was forced to fulfil its commitments. "You see," said Lloyd George pointing at a map of Belgium during a crucial cabinet session, "it is only a little bit, and the Germans will pay for any damage they do."

During the ensuing four and a quarter years of conflict, around ten million men perished. An Indian soldier wrote: "This is not war, it is the ending of the world." The benign, civilised and cosmopolitan societies of the old world were shattered; an era of fascism and Bolshevik or Nazi totalitarianism ensued. A sense of loss - formally expressed for this nation by Lutyens's architectural evocation of nothingness at the Cenotaph - endures nearly a century later. As it also does for young Australians who pilgrimage to the beachheads of Gallipoli to honour their grandfathers. Both John Keegan and Niall Ferguson mention relatives who fought or died in the 1914-18 war, in accounts as radically different as a sepia Flanders battle scene in a regimental mess, juxtaposed against jagged Vorticist brutality. John Keegan, one of the world's most distinguished military historians, is a writer of immense humanity and style. He describes every major or minor theatre, while conveying the minute it took to empty the magazine from an Enfield rifle, or the anaesthetising effect of the 20 million shells rained down on Verdun. He writes as sympathetically of Italians slaughtered in the 12 battles of the Isonzo, as of men who did not return to Kilmington in Wiltshire.

Keegan finds saving virtues in even the stoniest generals, such as Italy's Cadorna, despite the fact that: "In no way - appearances, attitude, spoken pronouncement, written legacy - [did they] commend themselves to modern opinion." Fifty-six British generals were killed.But Haig taxes Keegan's generosity.

After initial mobile encounters, the war in the West settled along a 450-mile front, weaving from the Franco-Belgium coast to Switzerland. Beyond this belt of devastation, with its craters, defoliation and villages smashed into brick-coloured smudges, life went on much as normal. Large sections of the front were inactive, confining intense fighting to where advantage was possible. Here, the "fronts" loured and moved like the weather systems to which they lent their name. Complex entrenchments, with kinks to minimise the field of fire of unwanted occupants, were separated by impenetrable swathes of barbed wire, first used on American cattle ranches in the 1870s. Chlorine and phosgene gas were used to try to break the stalemate, interspersed with lachrymatory bromide shells: troops had to choose between crying or choking. Artillery barrages were walked forward by observers in spotter balloons, although the risk of blasting one's own infantry to smithereens was considerable. Massed tanks appeared only later.

Keegan's books is a multi-service, international history of the war, rather than an account of stasis in the trenches. War in the East was fluid. Serbs and Russians ravaged the Austro-Hungarians, requiring enhanced German input, while the involvement of Turkey on the side of the Central Powers opened up new campaigns in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia. New allies, such as the Greeks, Italians and Romanians were a mixed blessing, requiring the diversion of troops to support them, although no one reading this book will speak lightly of Italian cowardice. Soldier Svejk apart, these campaigns largely involved illiterate peasants. Whereas the war in the West had a generous supply of warrior writers, including Barbusse, Junger, Owen, Remarque and Sassoon, the war in the East had to await Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 for literary justice.

Keegan does not neglect the war beyond Europe. In Africa, where Rhodesians such as Arthur "Bomber" Harris fought alongside Boer veterans to expel the Germans from Namibia; and China, where Sikhs and South Wales Borderers joined Japanese allies in liberating Tsingtao, home of the light Sino- German beer. In the end, this global dimension really counted. With Bolshevik Russia knocked out of the war, the Germans moved their last considerable forces westwards for one final heave. But their submarine destruction of American shipping, and fomenting of trouble in Mexico, also led Woodrow Wilson to declare war. A German politician rashly predicted: "They will not even come." In the event, a nation with the world's 17th-largest army soon deployed more than a million men, with the prospect of millions more. These included US Marines, whose response to calls to retreat was the immortal, "Hell, we just got here." The thought of these millions of fresh troops, arriving at the rate of a quarter of a million a month, sapped the German army's will to fight.

Niall Ferguson is unarguably this country's brightest younger historian, single-handedly responsible for revivifying the Lazarus of economic history. His latest book is brilliant, hard-headed and disturbing; a pyrotechnic amalgam of war finance, kill ratios, and the gruesome fate of prisoners. It is compulsive reading.

The opening scenario has some surprises. In 1914, anti-militarism was in the ascendant, while the nations most slated to fight were forming alliances. This did not happen in the case of Britain and Germany, because unlike France or Russia, Germany did not threaten the Empire. By 1914, a Germany with puny invisible resources and feeble domestic revenues had lost a naval arms race with Britain, while the armies of France and Russia loomed ever larger. Germany struck out from a sense of weakness: economic, financial and military. As Ferguson writes: "if Germany had been as militarist in practice as France and Russia, she would have had less reason to feel insecure and to gamble on a pre-emptive strike."

Britain felt no obligation to defend Belgium, as the Foreign Office eagerly indicated, while nothing in Germany's initial strategic aims directly threatened the British Empire. Hawks in the cabinet and on the Conservative opposition benches talked up Germany's rather modest initial objectives into plans for Napoleonic hegemony. Britain could have lived with the Kaiser's European Union, while the nations of eastern Europe might have fared better under informal German empire than they did under the totalitarian tyrannies which after a brief interval succeeded it. Much of educated England had to be dragged into war screaming, shocked to find themselves allied with barbaric Russia against the land of the PhD. The exceptions included that dreary interactive gaggle of hack writers and spooks whose germanophobe scaremongering fuelled public paranoia by blurring fact and fiction.

Given the huge disparity in resources between the Entente and Central Powers, Ferguson wonders why the latter were not quickly annihilated. The human disparity was 32 to 25 million soldiers; that of combined national income 60 per cent higher in the Entente's favour, not to speak of Britain's vast reserves of accumulated overseas capital. In reality, the Germans used their slender resources more efficiently, and killed or captured far higher proportions of men than they lost. The home front held up too, despite real privation, with far fewer strikes than those plaguing the British war effort.

Whereas many British units fell apart once officers were slain, the Germans developed stochastic tactics, with tight groups of killers, who did not need constant orders, roving around the battlefields to deadly effect. Nihilists such as Ernst Junger came into their element. Why men endured this carnage is controversial. Loyalty to immediate pals, or a desire for revenge, sometimes joined what Sassoon described as "an insidious craving to be killed", a fatalistic death instinct. But most of all there was the optimistic calculation of individual chances, as in the Tommies' song: "The bells of hell go ting-a-ling / For you but not for me". Anti-war literature was often ambiguous. Sentimental notions of soldiers as frustrated pacifists wanting to perpetuate the footie played during truces do not sit well with evidence Ferguson cites of Gordon Highlanders returning from such contacts, fingering their bayonets and muttering: "I don't trust those bastards."

Lack of goodwill was evident elsewhere, namely the high incidence of killing prisoners; passages detailing these are the most shocking in Ferguson's book. This was not simply provoked by feint surrenders, but by a desire for revenge, deliberate refusal to divert food or guards, or by orders to take no captives. It also proved difficult once "you start a man killing ... to turn him off again like an engine", a fact demonstrated over and over again in the bloodlust unsatiated climate of much of post- war Europe. For as both these fine books show, notably Ferguson's which ventures more deeply into post-war Europe, the First World War left much unfinished business, and men more than ready for conflicts made more vicious by related, if superficially inimical ideologies, in which utopia was menaced by class or race enemies.