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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.