Saturday, 2 July 2016

August 1914

August 1914 - Barbara Tuchman
"When at last it was over, the war had many diverse results and one single dominant one transcending all others: disillusion. 'All the great words were cancelled out' for that generation, wrote D.H. Lawrence..."

I have decided to try and finish this draft post today as #Brexit and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme attest to it's relevance in today's world. History can be misquoted to mean anything and the density of Tuchman's research and the way she manages to enter the deluded, prejudiced and overly privileged minds who led various countries and armies in the lead up to WW1 is still redolent with lessons for today.

The name Barbara Tuchman drew me to this book more than the subject matter. I read her masterful history of the fifteenth century A Distant Mirror many years ago and it is one of those books that comes to mind when I try to compile lists of favourite books. I may well read some more of her work after this for once again she makes distant history human, compelling and full of narrative drive and compelling characters.

Tuchman opens this story a few years before 1914 on an somewhat disconnected note. "So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes and jewelled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens - four dowager and three regnant - and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together the represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortège left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendour never to be seen again."

But of course this is central to the book. The First World War is the dying gasp of the Old World. The personality of these Monarchs plays a huge role in the build up to the war and the way in which it is initially fought. The expansionist ambitions of the various kingdoms and empires bubble underneath the pomp and ceremony, sometimes laughably so: "..King Ferdinand of Bulgaria" "annoyed his fellow sovereigns by calling himself 'Czar' and kept in a chest a Byzantine Emperor's full regalia, acquired from a theatric customer, against the day when he should reassemble the Byzantine dominions beneath his sceptre."

The king who has died, although largely a figurehead, has helped to end England's isolation amoung her neighbours, becoming popular even in France. The funeral is "a tribute to Edward's great gifts as a sociable king which had proved invaluable to his country. In the nine short years of his reign England's splendid isolation had given way, under pressure, to a series of 'understandings' or attachments, but not quite alliances, for England dislikes the definitive, with two old enemies, France and Russia, and one new promising power, Japan."

Germany, however, was nursing a grievance and the Kaiser felt it too. Others didn't give them their due respect: "'Soon, with my great Navy to endorse my words, they will be more respectful.' The same sentiments ran through his whole nation which suffered, like their emperor, from a terrible need for recognition." This goes against the advice of the man mainly responsible for the unification of Germany in the nineteenth century: "Bismarck had warned Germany to be content with land power but his successors were neither separately nor collectively Bismarcks."

Germany's military ambition serves to help bring France to an entente cordial with Britain. "M. Clemenceau shared Napoleon's opinion that Prussia 'was hatched from a cannonball' and saw the cannonball coming in his direction." The Kaiser rages at the sight of the English king being lionised in Paris, something he intensely desires. Indeed Tuchman says that it "is perhaps the saddest story of the fate of kings that the Kaiser lived to be eighty-two and died without seeing Paris."

As well as kings and Empires, Tuchman sets the scene for the war in the military literature of the years leading up to it. First she highlights "The Great Illusion, by Norman Angell" "which proved that war was impossible" as "'A twentieth-century war would be on such a scale," "that its inevitable consequences of commercial disaster, financial ruin and individual suffering' would be 'so pregnant with restraining influences' as to make war unthinkable." It is never too wise to bet on humans not doing the unthinkable! This book held sway in discussions in Britain and America and may have undermined their preparedness for war.

On the other side "General Von Bernhard" "was engaged in 1910 in writing a book called Germany and the Next War, published in the following year, which was to be as influential as Angell's but from the opposite point of view. Three of its chapter titles, "The Right to Make War", "The Duty to Make War" and "World Power or Downfall" sum up its thesis." Ideas of nationality can drive a nation to think the unspeakable quite reasonable. Cherry picking the common past can feed prejudice and raise dangerous forces and give them an environment in which a form of determinism can fester and grow. "War, he stated, "is a biological necessity"; it is the carrying out among humankind of 'the natural law, upon which all the laws of Nature rest, the law of the struggle for existence'. Nations, he said, must progress or decay."

Tuchman is brilliant on how the machinery of war, once prepared, can pull the machinery of state. Military leaders in Germany, itching to put their theories and military infrastructures to the test want to mobilise as soon as there are rumours of war. They want to get the jump on their opponents and put enormous pressure on the possibility of last minute diplomacy. "Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country's fate, attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward."

Wishful thinking overtakes an exploration of the possible outcome of the decision to make war - the Kaiser's speech to his departing troops "You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees" is a lot more reassuring than "You will fall like the leaves from the trees". The potential negative consequences are glossed over in order to mobilise support. (I can't help thinking of the Leave campaign in Britain. OK, things may work out alright but there are other possible scenarios.)

The gradual descent into war is shown in great detail and the way the management of armies by men blinkered by their attachment to ideals of proper conduct, which allows columns of men to be flung to their deaths without any clear sense of how this will help other than deluded concepts of courage and honour.  But wars are still waged without any real sense of what the outcomes may be, and in many ways I can't help seeing #Brexit as, in part, an attempt to escape the fruits of the wars engaged in by Britain in the Middle East.

I cannot do justice to how Tuchman explains how geography, theories, personalities, technology and all the other influences converge to set Europe on the road to horror. And she finds many voices that express that horror:
"'The battlefield afterwards was an unbelievable spectacle,' reported a French officer dazed with horror. 'Thousands of dead were still standing, supported as if by a flying buttress made of bodies lying in rows on top of each other in an ascending arc from the horizontal to an angle of sixty degrees.'

From a French soldiers diary: "the guns recoil with each shot. Night is falling and they look like old men sicking out their tongues and spitting fire. Heaps of corpses, French and German, are lying every which way, rifles in hand. Rain is falling, shells are screaming and bursting - shells all the time. Artillery fire is the worst. I lay all night listening to the wounded groaning - some were Germans. The cannonading goes on. Whenever it stops we hear the wounded crying from all over the woods. Two or three men go mad every day."

Tuchman quotes a book by Emile Verhaeren "Belgium's leading living poet, whose life before 1914 had been a flaming dedication to socialist and humanitarian ideals that were believed to erase national lines." Verhaeren dedicates the book to the man he once was: "no disillusionment was ever greater or more sudden. It struck him with such violence that he thought himself no longer the same man."

"The world that used to be and the ideas that shaped it disappeared too, like the wraith of Verhaeren's former self, down the corridors of August and of the months that followed. Those deterrents - the brotherhood of socialists, the interlocking of finance, commerce and other economic factors - which had been expected to make war impossible, failed to function when the time came. Nationhood, like a wild gust of wind, arose and swept them aside."

We must all try to stand in those corridors that have led to tragedy, and see how those gusts of nationhood can be fanned by desire and remember "Arguments can always be found to turn desire into policy."


  1. This sounds excellent, Seamus - powerful, clear-eyed and insightful. A very timely read indeed... I was listening a radio interview about Jeremy Deller's project to mark the anniversary Battle of the Somme (We're Here Because We're Here) on Friday - it was so poignant.

    1. The scary thing is that they went and did it all again twenty years later.