General Introduction

The Great War as we remember it: British gas casualties, 1918 (Imperial War Museum)


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Much attention has been lavished in recent years on the greatest generation and the war they fought—very appropriately as those modest, unassuming heroes, the saviors of the world, pass from this life. But the war that made the world we live in was not their war but the one whose centenary commenced in July 2014. The Austro-Hungarian guns that opened the bombardment of Belgrade on 29 July 1914 heralded a cataclysm that shook Western civilization to its foundations. On the sanguinary battlefields of the First World War, deservedly called the Great War, was acted the opening scenes of an historical tragedy on which the curtain has not yet fallen.

All wars bequeath to posterity memorable, often searing, words and images: Mathew Brady’s Civil War photography, Winston Churchill’s speeches, the Stars and Stripes going up over Iwo Jima, the diary of Anne Frank. But no such bequest is quite as iconic, quite as integrated, as that handed down to us by the Great War: the muddy miserable trenches, the barbed wire entanglements, the rattle of machine guns and the whine of incoming shells, the clouds of gas, the stoic front-line troops, the choleric, well-fed, incompetent chateau generals. Men of good education, elevated taste and high sensitivity answered the call of duty in 1914, and they bequeathed to us an imperishable literary portrait of the war. Siegfried Sassoon, a British infantry officer, put it with bitterness in his poem, "The General":

“Good-morning; good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Sassoon's poem is a brief, stinging condemnation of the hidebound, narrow-minded, aristocratic cavalry generals who, we are told, commanded the British Army on the Western Front. A more detailed and damning account of their blind incompetence is given in C.S. Forester’s novel of the same name. Published in 1936, The General recounts the life and career of Herbert Curzon, presented as a typical product of the prewar British Army. Curzon is a cavalry officer: stolid, unimaginative, of no more than average intelligence, though brave, patriotic, devoted to duty, a man of iron will who would never waver in the execution of an order. Such men as he, Forester notes ominously at the beginning of his story, were destined to command the British Army on the battlefields of the Great War.

Curzon receives his baptism of fire in the Boer War and by 1914 he has risen to the rank of major. The coming of the Great War proves to be his great professional opportunity. He serves with distinction in the First Battle of Ypres, is decorated and receives the first of a series of promotions. Eventually he rises to the rank of lieutenant-general, and to the command of an army corps of four divisions and 100,000 men. In France he orders his troops over the top in a series of attacks that flounder in the mud and barbed wire under a hail of German fire. Finally, in the spring of 1918 his corps is routed in the course of the German “victory offensive” and Curzon himself is gravely wounded, losing a leg.

The fictional Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Curzon seems to be a composite creation: part Douglas Haig, part Herbert Gough. These two generals acquired a particularly negative reputation during and after the war, supposedly epitomizing the incompetence that led to such vast slaughters as the Battle of the Somme. Forester’s portrait of Curzon, though not precisely hostile, is nonetheless damning. But how accurate is it, really? Indeed, how accurate are the memories of the Great War handed down to us by writers and filmmakers? Were the generals really so stupid? Were the soldiers really sacrificed so uselessly? Was the slaughter really so futile? Supposedly Europe blundered into war a century ago—a war that nobody really wanted. The iconography of the Great War rests ultimately on that point: It was an avoidable tragedy.

But it was not: The war that came in August 1914 was one that had long been anticipated. Germany and Austria-Hungary, conscious that the balance of power was tilting against them, fearful of “encirclement,” deliberately chose war that summer on the argument that the longer it was put off, the worse for them: “Better last year than this year—and better this year than next year.” In Berlin they regarded with alarm the growing economic and military strength of tsarist Russia. In Vienna they gazed fearfully upon the Serb-inspired nationalist ferment in the Balkans, an existential threat to the multi-ethnic Habsburg Monarchy. The assassination in Bosnia of the Habsburg heir by Serbian terrorists provoked a crisis that both countries welcomed: in Austria-Hungary as an excuse to stamp out south-Slav nationalism by crushing the upstart Serbs; in Germany as a chance, perhaps the last chance, to make its bid for European dominance and world power.

Like all wars, the Great War was the product of the long-accumulated ambitions,  fears, miscalculations and misunderstandings of many people, from crowned heads, prime ministers and generals to ordinary citizens. At some point between the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte (1815) and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1914), a general European war became inevitable. Perhaps the tipping point was reached in 1871, with the unification of Germany. Perhaps it was reached later, with the conclusion of the Franco-Russian alliance (1894) or the commencement of the Anglo-German naval armaments race (1897). However that may be, the war that came in August 1914 was a war that had to come.

The tragedy of the Great War was that it broke out at a time when science and technology had created the conditions for a profound revolution in the art of war.  The mobilization of the armies and their first battles set that revolution in motion—with results that only a handful visionary thinkers had forecast.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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