Books: Why the war to end wars might never have begun

Should Britain have stayed out of the Great War? Saul David examines the revisionists' case but concludes that we had no alternative but to fight
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The Independent Culture
The First World War

by John Keegan

Hutchinson, pounds 25, 500pp

The Pity of War

by Niall Ferguson

Allen Lane, pounds 16.99, 586pp

EVEN 80 years on - if the success of recent novels by Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks is anything to go by - the events of the First World War retain their power to fascinate and repulse. Many subsequent calamaties this century (not least the Second World War) can be directly traced to that appalling conflict. What better time, then, for new assessments of the "war to end wars"?

John Keegan's history, so the blurb tells us, is the fulfilment of a "life-long ambition to write the definitive book on the war for our generation". But is he the historian best equipped for such a task? He certainly excels with the technical and personal aspects of war, as readers of his Face of Battle will know; but he tends to rely on published sources - no archives are cited in this work - and so is at something of a disadvantage when tackling major bones of historical contention.

It hardly fills the reader with confidence, for example, when Keegan describes the origins of the First World War as "mysterious". Since his two ground-breaking books in the 1960s, no one has seriously challenged the German historian Franz Fischer's thesis that the German ruling elite was chiefly to blame. By assuring the Austro-Hungarians that it would support any action they chose to take against Serbia, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Serb nationalists in June 1914, the German government was well aware that such a course might lead (thanks to the complicated alliance system) to general war. It was prepared to take that risk because of internal and external pressures that forced it to conclude war was preferable "sooner rather than later".

Keegan is at least partially right when he says: "Secret plans determined that any crisis not settled by sensible diplomacy would, in the circumstances prevailing in Europe in 1914, lead to a general war." Once Russia had mobilised in support of Serbia, the exigencies of the German High Command's Schlieffen Plan (designed to knock France out of the war before her ally, Russia, had a chance to intervene) meant that Germany was bound to do likewise. From that point on, a European war was inevitable. The key question is why - unlike during the earlier crises of 1906, 1911 and 1913 - diplomacy was allowed to fail.

The author is on surer ground in the actual fighting, with vivid descriptions and telling insights. Battles are deftly described and sprinkled with eye-witness accounts. "Here we were as if advancing on a parade ground," recalls a German captain at Mons, "away in front a sharp, hammering sound, then a pause, then a more rapid hammering - machine guns!" They were, of course, opposed only by British riflemen firing the regulation "fifteen rounds a minute".

Overall, however, Keegan paints an oddly sanitised picture. "It was," he writes, "despite the efforts by state propaganda machines to prove otherwise, and the cruelties of the battlefield apart, a curiously civilised war." He acknowledges the genocide of 700,000 Armenians (the actual figure is closer to a million) by the Turkish army in 1915-16, but explains it away as belonging "more properly to the history of Ottoman imperial policy than to that of the war itself". Moreover, he fails to mention the fact that many Serbian civilians were killed by the Austrian army (more non- combatants died than soldiers), or that attacking troops of all nations (including Britain) had a tendency to shoot men trying to surrender.

Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War provides an entirely different, essentially revisionist approach. An authority on the economic history of the period, the author dispels both the Marxist view that big business wanted war (many industrialists and financiers actively tried to prevent it), and the theory that economic rivalry between Britain and Germany was a crucial factor (the former's financial supremacy was not directly challenged by the latter's industrial growth). He also disposes of the myth that Germany's excessive militarism caused the war. It came about, instead, because Germany believed it had lost, or was losing, the arms race, "which persuaded its leaders to gamble on war before they fell too far behind."

The really controversial element is his contention that Britain should never have got involved. He rightly points out that "it was not so much the German threat to Belgium which swung the Cabinet behind intervention as the German threat to Britain, if France fell".

This preoccupation with maintaining the balance of power was, in Ferguson's opinion, a mistake. If Germany's offer to guarantee the territorial integrity of both France and Belgium in return for British neutrality had been accepted, he argues, her war aims would have been "significantly different" from the infamous September Programme - which sought "German hegemony over Europe" and a concerted effort to foment revolution within the British and Russian empires. Instead, German objectives would have been "confined" to the "reduction of Russian power in Eastern Europe, the creation of a Central European Customs Union and acquisition of French colonies".

I am not convinced. It is extemely unlikely that a victorious Germany would have stuck to the terms of any prewar agreement. The idea that she would have been content with the leadership of some form of prototype EEC is laughable. In any case, a conflict between any nation that dominated the continent and the foremost imperial power would have been inevitable sooner or later. It was very much in Britain's interests to enter the war when she did.

This apart, there is much of merit in Ferguson's work. His assertion that, contrary to myth, it was not Germany but the allies that mismanaged their war economies is compelling. So, too, is his assessment of "Why Men Fought" (many actually enjoyed killing), and his belief that surrender was the "key" to the outcome of the war. The general reluctance for men on the Western Front to surrender, he argues, was because they had good reason to fear that they would be killed out of hand. When that fear receded, as it did in the summer of 1918, the Germans surrendered in droves.