The Great War non-fiction: How Europe stumbled into suicide in 1914


Guy Keleny
Thursday 17 July 2014 16:10 BST
Struggles of the time: a Women's Suffrage march in London during wartime
Struggles of the time: a Women's Suffrage march in London during wartime

At the centre of the drama in Lawrence Sondhaus' The Great War at Sea (Cambridge Univer-sity Press, £25) is the Imperial German navy. Never in the history of human conflict has an elite armed service so damaged its own side. The German High Sea Fleet was created in the 1890s in misguided enthusiasm for the sea-power theories of Mahan. Its existence drove Britain into the arms of France and Russia.

The only contribution Germany's dreadnoughts could have made to victory would have been to destroy the British Grand Fleet, break out into the Atlantic and cut Britain off from the world's sea-lanes. It didn't happen. At Jutland the High Sea Fleet, in the words of an American observer, assaulted its jailer, but remained behind bars.

So Germany resorted to submarine warfare, which gave Woodrow Wilson the casus belli to bring the United States into the war. And in 1918, mutinies aboard the battleships, now idle in harbour, triggered the final collapse of Germany.

That is the main thread, but there is a lot more in this lively account of a global naval struggle. Not many people know, for instance, that the dispatch of a Japanese squadron to the Mediterranean was part of the Allied response to the Adriatic exploits of Miklós Horthy, Austro-Hungarian admiral and future regent of Hungary. The sea-dogs of the Great War were a surprisingly colourful bunch.

Less good fun, but impressive on a deeper level is TG Otte's July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914 (CUP, £25).

Otte traces in detail the diplomatic manoeuvres that started on 28 June with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and ended with the "lamps going out all over Europe" in the first week of August. He casts a sardonic eye over the decisions of men none of whom desired a general European war; but too many of whom were ready to take reckless risks.

Otte indicts chaotic decision-making in Vienna, Berlin and St Petersburg, rejects the tempting notion that Britain should have stood aside, and concludes that the motor of the drive to war was each power's sense of its own weakness. If you want to understand how Europe stumbled into suicide in 1914, read this book.

And if you want to understand how a Liberal cabinet decided to take Britain to war two days before the German invasion of Belgium, over the protests of a considerable peace movement, read Douglas Newton's eloquent The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain's Rush to War, 1914 (Verso, £20). But the sad truth is that in September 1914 Britain had only a choice of bad outcomes. Sitting pretty on top of the world, she had more to lose and less to gain from a great war than any other European player – whether she joined in or kept out.

That sad truth is illustrated by Lucinda Gosling, who has mined a rich seam in the archives of The Tatler among others, to bring to your coffee table Great War Britain: the First World War at Home (History Press, £25), a glossy portrait of a world moving from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, with its automobiles and moving pictures, high society and socialism, women's suffrage on the march and the Ballets Russes on the London stage (1911).

What an exciting new world it was: why did it have to be twisted out of shape by war? Still, the human spirit can never be quite crushed. To the night-time airship raids over British cities, Marcel's Permanent Hairwaving Institute responds with an advertisement: "Don't let a Zeppelin catch you in Curlers. Have Natural Wavy Hair and look your best under any circumstances."

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