1914-1918: the History of the First World War by David Stevenson

New tales from the trenches

Joanna Bourke
Friday 03 September 2004 00:00

The trauma of the First World War simply won't go away. Most of the men and women who fought during that conflict are no longer with us (in 2003, there were only 37 British Expeditionary Force veterans still living), but their experiences were crucial in forging the modern world.

Combat required individuals to kill and to die for their country and comrades. Lieutenant-Colonel JW Barnett was one of millions of combatants who found the trials of war almost unbearable. As he tersely observed in his diary of 29 April 1915, "Shelling continues... St Jean church blazing & whole village smashed to pieces. Gurkha jammed under beams in burning house. Had to shoot him in head as could not be got out. Horrible. Curse this war - it is murder. All fellows look done - drawn faces." Anyone writing the history of this worldwide cataclysm must be able to look men like Barnett in the face. David Stevenson, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, has written a history that does this, and more.

Reviewers are generally not given to hyperbole, but this history of the 1914-1918 conflict surpasses all others. It is tough, erudite, and comprehensive. Stevenson will have his critics. There is a numbing bloodlessness in the lengthy cataloguing of casualty statistics, and the men and women cowering under the barrages are eerily silent. Nevertheless, this book is a brilliant political, strategic and military analysis of the 1914-1918 war.

It is the first truly global history of the conflict. In his precise, unadorned prose, Stevenson tells the story of a war that had no historical parallel. The German preference for a localised Balkan war or, failing that, a continental one, rapidly proved unrealistic. The conflict stretched to all corners of the earth.

Stevenson rejects a western European perspective. Between 1914 and 1917, as many men were fighting on the Eastern Front as in France or Belgium and, for a time, the Eastern Front was more than twice the length of its Western counterpart. Not surprisingly, in this global context, death came in many guises. In the Alps, soldiers froze to death or were asphyxiated at high altitudes, while in the Middle East and Africa they were scorched by the sun as they desperately sought to locate the enemy.

This was "total war", and Stevenson does not ignore its effect on civilians. His attempt to be comprehensive leads to a dizzying piling up of layers upon layers of facts, but the overall effect is momentous.

The book begins with a pertinent question: "Why still remember the 11th of November?" Stevenson provides many answers, but one of the most startling is dazzlingly simple: the cataclysm was man-made. Slaughter was deliberate governmental policy.

This is not to deny that citizens were initially keen to enter the fray. Except in rural Russia, opposition to war was muted. Every nation, including Germany, framed support for the war in terms of a righteous cause and a need to defend its own against external aggression. By themselves, however, popular attitudes did not make war inevitable.

The great powers needed the support of their citizens if they were to wage war, but they also needed the military hardware and the "will". As early as Christmas 1914, in both eastern and western Europe, the belligerent armies found themselves trapped in a ruthless new world.

With only one exception (the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line), the 475 miles of trenches on the Western Front moved barely more than five miles between 1914 and 1918. Yet the two sides refused to negotiate. When the conflict started, there were some archaic features. As in 19th-century wars, cavalry had a role to play (the Germans deployed 77,000), British officers carried swords in combat, and commanders were dependent on dispatch riders to communicate since wireless sets were rare and their messages were easily intercepted.

Nevertheless, this was to become a war dictated by technology and driven by the urge to slaughter en masse. Technological changes not only ensured that the war would be lengthy, but also helped to make it particularly terrifying for participants. Machine guns and field artillery were the pre-eminent killers, but the fear inspired by flamethrowers (particularly at Verdun where the Germans made extensive use of them), poison gas (which claimed half a million casualties on the Western Front) and tanks cannot be overestimated.

In the face of such terrifying confrontation between technology and humanity, it is no wonder that men dug in. During some encounters, the ground between enemy trenches could be as close as five yards. As Stevenson tells us, trenches "offered the best protection against blast and bullets". The Germans proved particularly adept at this form of defence: their trenches during the great battles in Champagne, the Somme, and at Arras represented an impressive feat of engineering.

Sometimes in such situations, there were moments of relief from the horror. Stevenson documents the famous "Christmas truce" of 1914, when British and German soldiers laid down their arms and fraternised in no man's land.

Individual attempts at reconciliation could also be glimpsed on rare occasions. During a campaign in northern Italy, a young British soldier called Cecil H Cox recalled that he looked into the eyes of his enemy, and could not shoot. "I saw a young German coming towards me and at that moment I just could not murder him and lowered my gun, he saw me do so and he followed suit, shouting 'What the h- do you want to kill me for, I don't want to kill you.' He walked back with me and asked if I had anything to eat? At once the relief inside me was unspeakable, and I gave him my iron rations & my army biscuit."

Lack of opportunity, military discipline and loyalty to comrades, dead and alive, militated against many such actions. But, according to one estimate, about one-third of British units on the Western Front had engaged in "live and let live" practices. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that many men found (often to their own astonishment) that they were able to cope with the terror and unrelenting repugnance of combat.

The war ended with painful abruptness. As late as the spring and summer of 1918, the Germans had managed to overrun 10 times as much territory as the Allies had done in the previous year. But their casualties had been colossal and American reinforcements were beginning to make a difference. The peace treaties, signed with Germany, Austria, Belgium, Hungary and Turkey between 28 June 1919 and 10 August 1920, came too late for the 10 million military dead.

Stevenson's history of the war of 1914-1918 revels in the details of the conflict, periodically pulling back to draw our attention to the bigger picture. As a result, it is crammed with subtle insight, as well as a not-so-subtle reminder of the follies of war.

Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, is the author of 'An Intimate History of Killing' (Granta)

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