The Great War
In his Age of Extremes Eric Hobsbawm wrote: "The destruction of the past or rather of the social mechanisms that linked one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century."
Now the Age of Extremes is an uncannily prescient book; written at a time (1994) when American neo-conservatives were crowing about the "end of history". Hobsbawm, old Marxist that he was, correctly saw that with the collapse of the Eastern bloc a world brought into existence as a result of the Great War was coming to an end. The new world would be fundamentally different: not Eurocentric; globalised economically; and characterised by "the disintegration of the old patterns of human and social relationships...".
Now that we are in the second decade of the 21st century some things are becoming clearer. And Hobsbawm's characterisation of the period from 1914 to 1991 as the "short twentieth century" - a unified era brought into existence as a direct result of the forces unleashed by the Great War now seems blindingly obvious. No Great War: no October Revolution in Russia; no Stalin; no Nazi Germany; no World War Two; no Holocaust; no Cold War.
The centenary of the war has produced a flood of new books. Many of these focus on the causes of the
war and reengage with the debate as to whether the war was inevitable or a colossal snafu and the
related debate as to whether Germany was really to blame. The consensus that developed following the publication in 1961 of Fritz Fischer's Germany's War Aims in the First World War - that Germany
precipitated the war in order to pre-empt Russia's growing economic and military power has come
under attack in recent years and does suffer from the fact that no coherent war aims can be found to
have existed prior to September 1914.
In 1914 - The Year the World Ended Paul Ham argues that "the Great War, in short was an avoidable
exercise in collective stupidity...launched by profoundly flawed ...men..." Ham is a reliable guide in
most cases but this judgement seems a little glib. In The War that Ended Peace Margaret Macmillan
offers a more nuanced analysis based on a detailed survey of the economic and political developments
in each of the main protagonists in the generation leading up to the war. She emphasises how the
motivations and historical experiences of each of the major players interacted to narrow options and
make war more likely. Max Hasting's Catastrophe provides a relatively concise overview of what he
describes as "the most complex series of happenings in history" before moving on to a detailed account
of operations in the balance of 1914. His view is that Germany and Austria bore primary responsibility
and that the war had to be fought to prevent the Kaiserreich dominating continental Europe.
The debate about the causes of World War One is essentially impossible to resolve because each step in the descent into the abyss was a necessary but not sufficient cause. Current events in Europe do however
make one hope that the lead up to the war receives the attention it deserves.
Once the war began its history is necessarily military history and this can be something of an acquired
taste. Partly that is because the subject matter - killing and destruction on an industrialised scale - is
inherently repulsive. But on the other hand without military history it would be impossible to
understand how the carnage went on for four years. Nor would the societal dislocation that it caused be
Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli is a well written conventional narrative history which places the campaign in
its strategic context and provides considerable information about Turkish as well as Allied motivation
and objectives. Patsie Adam-Smith’s Anzacs is a history of the first AIF with insights into matters such
as the comparative rates of venereal disease in the allied armies. The Australians led the way in this
area as well as on the battlefield. Somme Mud by EFP Lynch is the memoirs of an Australian infantry
man, written in 1921 but only recently rediscovered and published for the first time. This appears to be
the genuine article – the forward is by the respected military historian Bill Gammage – and is that rare
thing: a detailed first hand account by an intelligent and thoughtful observer who somehow forced
himself to confront and record the appalling reality he experienced.
The starting point for reading on the first AIF and in many ways the originator of the Anzac ‘legend’ is
CEW Bean’s Official History of the Australia in the war of 1914-1918. At twelve volumes and in
amazing detail – often actions are recounted at the platoon level with individuals being named - this is
not for the faint hearted. Bean was not jingoistic and was careful to discount exaggerated claims as to
Australian martial prowess but he is also assiduous in finding admiring commentary from both allied and enemy observers. The overall effect is somewhat adulatory. Bean also wrote an abridged version of his history
Anzac to Amiens which is rather more approachable.
A somewhat less uplifting impression is conveyed by The Broken Years a selection of Australian soldier’s letters home, edited by Bill Gammage, many of which depict the brutalising effect of incessant slaughter on the correspondents. Particularly by 1918 the Australians hated the enemy and exalted in their destruction. It was this hatred which seems to have driven the Australians to perform so well in the critical battles of 1918.
Many of those battles were directed by an Australian – John Monash. Roland Perry’s Monash: the Outsider who Won a War makes a pretty big claim for its subject in its title. In March and April 1918 Australian troops under the command of Monash, stopped the last great German offensive of that war from taking Amiens and splitting the British and French armies. It was the last throw of the dice for the Germans and it nearly came off. On 8 August of that year 100,000 Australian troops, again commanded by Monash, and supported by Canadians, smashed the German defences south of the Somme and advanced 8 kilometers in two days. At least 6 German divisions were effectively destroyed. Ludendorff, the German supreme commander called it his worst experience of the war and thereafter became convinced the war was unwinnable.
Monash is a fascinating figure on several levels. As a Jew of German birth he encountered real but
subtle prejudice, particularly as he was promoted into the highest ranks of the army. His outstanding
ability as an organiser, his considerable personal charm and his ability to attract mentors, including
George V meant that none of this detained him for long. But whether he won the war as Perry suggests
is definitely open to debate. Like a lot of successful military commanders Monash understood the value of public relations and one must be careful not to swallow his PR whole.
John Laffin’s The Battle of Hamel focuses on the first major set piece conducted by Monash which
prefigured his later successes and set the pattern for the defeat of the German’s on the Western front.
British writers tend to be less effusive about Monash. Indeed since the 1980s there has been the development of a revisionist school which seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of the likes of Douglas Haig. Walter Reid's Architect of Victory Douglas Haig makes the case for the rationality of Haig's leadership and the centrality of his contribution to devising the improved operational methods which eventually permitted the Allies to break the stalemate in 1918.
Readers of Patrick Lindsay’s Fromelles will struggle with this view. Frommelles was the first battle in which Australians were involved on the Western Front and was the a textbook example of the horrors of trench warfare. Over 5,000 of the 7,000 attackers were casualties including over 2000 dead.
Les Carlyon's The Great War is a sound over view of 1916 to 1918; written from an Australian perspective it places it in the broader context of the war's strategic and tactical evolution.
Because evolve it did. Contrary to the classic image of repeated suicidal frontal attacks as shown in films such as Paths to Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front, the commanders of both sides had grasped by the end of 1914 that there was no point in committing infantry to wave attacks against entrenched opponents. Over the next three years the respective protagonists sought to develop techniques that would permit infantry to capture and hold opposing trench systems. Many of the techniques that produced the Allied breakthrough of August and September 1918 - the creeping barrage, smoke, counter battery fire, and tanks were already in use by 1916. The problem was that it took nearly two years of trial and error and the consequent appalling casualties to perfect the combination.
In Beaten Down by Blood Michelle Bomford gives us a tightly focused account of the First AIF’s last great battle in September 1918 at Mont St Quentin Peronne. Bomford draws on eye witness accounts and battalion war diaries and citations as well as the microscopic history of CW Bean to give a detailed account of the battle.
There is a brief but perceptive treatment of the military ‘strikes’ (usually called mutinies) that followed the battle in late September and a balanced treatment of whether the battle was militarily justified or as CW Bean alleged a product of Monash’s thirst for military prestige. Bomford comes down on the side of Monash and concludes the battle contributed to hastening the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line and materially shortened the war.
The Great War also generated a lot of literature albeit of varying quality. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry is a good illustration of this. The work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves has stood the test of time but a lot of their compatriots produced jingoistic doggerel. The war poets may not however be a reliable guide to how the bulk of the population viewed the war. Atypical perhaps, but Robert Graves' memoir Farewell to All That is a wonderful insight into the world of a public school educated British officer. For a much less ambitious but still valuable account of a "typical" Australian see An Anzac's Story by Ron Kyle.
In the late 1920s novels drawing on war experience began to be published. Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel gives a nihilistic German perspective. Klaus Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is a far more perceptive book and of course a classic of the genre. Flesh in Armour by Leonard Mann has some interest for its candid descriptions of Australians in frontline combat but suffers from being neither true history nor well written fiction. Frederic Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune is a similar attempt from a British perspective and Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison from the Canadian. The problem can be seen in the cliché that war is 99 per cent boredom and one percent terror. A novel that attempts to reproduce this experience cannot be truthful without risking narrative momentum and acquiring an episodic, directionless character.
One writer who has successfully negotiated this difficult terrain is Pat Barker. Her magnificent Regeneration trilogy by combing the stories of Owen, Graves and Sassoon with a hyper realistic depiction of the front is a triumph.
The Great War continues to affect us in personal ways. The development of Anzac Day as a response to a collective yearning for meaningful national ritual; as opposed to a spree for returned soldiers, is only the most obvious example. Then there are the direct effects. Had my great grandfather not been killed in April 1917 my great grandmother would never have emigrated from Scotland to Australia; someone else would be writing this article. Many Australian families are still marked by the effects of the 250,000 casualties (some 69,000 deaths) through the impact on our grand parents and parents.
The resurgence of interest in family history evident in both television and on the internet is testimony to this and also suggests that Hobsbawm may not have got everything right. The trick will be - and this is the true role of history - to ensure that the past we rediscover is not merely a fantasy designed to serve our contemporary narcissism.