BOOK REVIEW / For these who die: Sue Gaisford considers Martin Gilbert's monumental, shell-shocking account of the First World War: First World War - Martin Gilbert: Weidenfeld pounds 20

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In the winter of 1915 a plank appeared above the parapet of a German trench on the Western Front. On it were painted the words 'The English are fools'. Immediately, indignant English marksmen shot it to bits. Next came another sign: 'The French are fools'. Loyalty to their allies made the troops opposite destroy that one too. But when a third sign appeared saying 'We are all fools. Let's go home', there was laughter and agreement in the English trenches. Let the old men who made this war come and fight it out among themselves, they said, we all want to go home.

But of course they didn't. Even fraternising was a capital offence and those old men would have had few qualms about executing anyone who decided to stop fighting. Only last year the widow of Harry Farr appealed unsuccessfully to John Major for a posthumous pardon for her husband, shot for cowardice in 1916. Two years in the trenches had destroyed his nerves: he was simply unable to go on fighting. His death-warrant was initialled by Haig himself, arguably the very worst of the old men. A friend of Harry's wrote to Mrs Farr telling her to be proud of her husband, that he had been a fine soldier and no coward.

Harry Farr's story is mentioned in this book, but only cursorily. He is shot at a busy moment and the relentless narrative must go on. The next paragraph carries us off to Salonica, where the Serbs are busy taking Mount Kajmakcalan. Two lines later British sea-planes are attacking the Turkish base at El Arish, but we haven't time to linger over that. We must set off with Falkenhayn through the Rotenturm Pass into Transylvania before returning, within a page, to the shooting down of a Zeppelin over Hertfordshire.

It's a terrible rush. Instead of reasoned analysis, Martin Gilbert has attempted to chronicle the events of virtually every day of the war, on all fronts - and there were sometimes 13. That is, in itself, an enormous task, but he sets himself a larger one. Within this demanding chronology, he has tried to give the sufferings of individuals due recognition. Nine million combatants died, and even the British Library could scarcely contain all their stories, so he has to be selective, and he becomes terse. The reader develops his own numbed shell-shock. If a soldier, a writer, an orderly is mentioned, we learn to expect him to be blown up within a line.

Except in the case of Churchill. Gilbert's hero is mentioned with admiration in every chapter. Had he been given his head, we gather, the Dardanelles would have been a triumph and the whole thing over in months. Even his clumsy handling of the attempted defence of Antwerp is seen as satisfactory, though Asquith called it wicked folly. Lord Haldane described talking to Churchill as like trying to argue with a brass band, but Gilbert enjoys the band and demands an encore.

There are other problems with this book, caused by inattention to detail. There was surely never a ship called the Madgeburg, for example, nor could Macmillan's wound have given him a 'limpid' handshake. After 300 pages and nearly three years at the front, it may be battle-fatigue that causes these slips. Subtler and more pervasive, though, is the book's anti-German bias. Certainly there were terrible German atrocities, but detailed repetition of them, and even of unfounded rumours of them, begins to grate. Gilbert shows sympathy for other peoples, particularly the Armenians and the Poles, but there is little sense of the suffering of the ordinary German soldier, nor of German civilians left starving by the Allied blockade. Patriotism, as Nurse Cavell said, is not enough.

Throughout the chronicle sounds the roll-call of death. Statistics detail the VCs won and shipping tonnage lost, the numbers of dead left after each engagement, the nationalities of soldiers buried in each cemetery. I was reminded of an old soldier who once told me not to believe the inscriptions on the white tombstones in the British cemetery at Festubert - 'I put three dead Germans in each of them myself'. Like the cricket score-boards in Oh What A Lovely War, such figures become, eventually, horribly meaningless.

In footnotes, Gilbert gives information about the futures of the famous people mentioned in the text. We learn that Ho Chi Minh was a kitchen-hand in the Carlton Hotel in 1914; that the little Winogradsky boys, evacuated to Reigate in 1917, grew up to become Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont; that Montgomery was at one stage given up for dead, but lived to fight another day, another war.

One reason why this war still exerts such a fascination is that it provoked such extraordinary courage. Gilbert does not mention the artist Muirhead Bone, whose charcoal sketches, drawn on the spot at the speed of terror, conveyed so vividly the horror of the Western Front. Nor does he mention the Wipers Times, the blackly brilliant newspaper printed under fire in the rubble of Ypres. But he does tell some good stories, like the one about the laconic private who, as a runner panted up the line with a roll of maps under his arm, stepped aside saying 'For God's sake let him pass. It's a bloke with the peace treaty.'

When he allows himself to be side-tracked by other writers, Gilbert's book takes on a new energy. Wilfred Owen's tortured, sensitive figure haunts the later pages with the unsentimental accuracy, compassion and power of his poetry; the controlled despair of Vera Brittain's diary, which describes exactly how men die of gas- poisoning, complements the rage of Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est. It is Brittain who quotes a wounded Scottish sergeant predicting how it would end: 'We shall beat them, but they'll break our hearts first.'

When the end comes, Gilbert wisely allows John Buchan to describe the German machine-gunner who stood up beside his weapon, took off his helmet, bowed and walked slowly away, while a curious rippling sound began, 'like the noise ot a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea'. For Robert Graves, as for so many others, victory was hollow and too late: he went out to walk alone in the Welsh hills, 'cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead'.

Gilbert's book is a monumental work in both senses. Its vast, ambitious chronology ensures that it will always be a valuable reference book, and it is a monument to those who died - on average, more than 5,000 soldiers for every day of the war. Kipling, who lost his only son, spoke for many in these ugly, anguished lines: 'The flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given . . . /To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes - to be hindered by fires - /To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation /From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation. /But who shall return us our children?'

(Photographomitted)

Comments