Book review: The War That Ended Peace, By Margaret MacMillan

Piers Brendon salutes complementary histories of a descent into the abyss

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The Independent Culture

These two books promise to be among the finest additions to the huge literary monument being raised to mark the centenary of the First World War.

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Both are vivid, gripping and scholarly, and they complement each other in illuminating ways. Margaret MacMillan provides a big picture of Europe between 1900 and 1914, a time of increasing international tension that was also, in Stefan Zweig's phrase, a "Golden Age of Security". Max Hastings focuses on the year 1914 itself, describing the transition from peace to a war of movement that finally bogged down in the mud and blood of the trenches.

All this is familiar territory and it must be said that MacMillan's volume, in particular, contains no real surprises – apart from her assertion that the battle of Omdurman saw the defeat of the army of the Mahdi, who was actually long dead. Still, she does give a wide-ranging and well-balanced account of the co-existence of an old world dominated by tradition, hierarchy and rural life, and the new world of cities, telephones, cars, aeroplanes, dreadnoughts and cultural innovation. She skilfully outlines the pressures towards peace during the Edwardian era (among them prescient fears of military stalemate and mutual destruction) as well as tracing the path to war.

Nothing was inevitable, she rightly says, and chance played its part. But naval rivalry was the crux of Anglo-German antagonism. Grand-Admiral Tirpitz believed that Germany was engaged in a life-or-death struggle for a place in the sun, which could only be won by a powerful fleet. The British thought their survival as a great power depended on ruling the waves. So they out-built Germany in the dockyards and ended their diplomatic isolation. The Entente Cordiale was a calculated defensive measure and not, as royalist historians like to imagine, an initiative inspired by Edward VII. In fact, he blighted it by trying to insist that French leaders visiting him should wear court dress, including knee breeches.

Kaiser Wilhelm, though, seriously exacerbated animosities. Aggressive, unbalanced and indiscreet, he ran round the continent, said the Foreign Office, like someone scratching a Lucifer match against powder barrels. During the Boxer uprising he urged German troops in China to imitate Huns and take no prisoners.

He contributed to the various crises, notably in Morocco, which helped to fortify the two alliance systems dividing Europe. He connived at war plans which, though not rigidly determined by railway timetables, wrecked his hopes of avoiding a general conflagration. After the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kaiser gave his ally carte blanche to exact vengeance on Serbia, which had spawned the assassins.

Max Hastings also blames Wilhelm, whose marginalia on official documents were as erratic as they were splenetic, the exclamation mark being "his favoured instrument of policy-making". The Kaiser could never bring himself to take the one decision – withdrawing his support from Austria-Hungary – that would have prevented Russia and then France from entering the conflict. And he agreed to the violation of Belgian neutrality, without which Britain might have not have fought at all. There is plenty of evidence to show that the German leaders were willing to go to war in 1914, says Hastings, in the hope of winning a speedy victory before military conditions turned against them.

Hastings is shorter on nuances than MacMillan. He dismisses the notion that the Great War was a vast, futile tragedy as the "poets' view" of Armageddon without mentioning the romantic belligerence of, say, Rupert Brooke. On the other hand, Hastings is more original, lighting up dark areas such as the Galician front, introducing new minor characters into the story and, above all, writing with marvellous cogency and trenchancy. He sees things clearly and articulates them without hesitation, reservation or deviation.

Thus Britain had to prevent Europe from being dominated by Germany, whose treatment of Belgian and French civilians was indeed beastly. The Schlieffen Plan, whereby the bulk of the German army aimed to knock France out of the war with a right hook through Belgium before the Russian steamroller could get moving, was fundamentally unsound. Reliant on boots and hooves, opposed by modern firepower, soldiers could not make a decisive breakthrough. Field Marshal Schlieffen was "a fantasist who brought doom upon his foolish disciples".

Hastings is equally tough on the generals who made their forces attack in the manner of Roman legions. Neither author fully explains why the top brass failed to learn the lessons of recent battles such as Omdurman, where British rifles and machine-guns had mown down massed ranks of Dervishes, and Colenso, where Boer Mausers had mown down massed ranks of Britons. In 1914 such visible offensives produced a staggering butcher's bill: on 22 August, 27,000 Frenchmen were killed, a much greater loss than that suffered by British troops on the first day of the Somme. Hastings calls the first British commander-in-chief on the western front, General French, "a poltroon". The best he can say about Douglas Haig, his successor, is that he was able "to preside over carnage without spoiling his lunch".

Hastings deals with all aspects of the war. He is particularly good on the pervasiveness of secrecy and propaganda, known in France as bourrage de crâne or skull-stuffing, which made civilians sceptical about all official information. He colourfully depicts Winston Churchill's attempt to save Antwerp, one of the least successful of his "daredevil pranks". But Hastings is at his best on the battlefield itself. Here advancing men felt that they were entering "the jaws of hell" while those retreating looked like "ghosts in Hades expiating by their fearful endless march the sins of the world".

What caused the war and how it should have been fought, if at all, are questions that cannot finally be resolved. But these books make a valuable contribution to a debate that will rage with special intensity over the next few years.

Piers Brendon's most recent book, 'Eminent Elizabethans', is published by Vintage