Military history


AN EARLY AUTUMN BITE is in the air as a gold-tinged late afternoon falls over the rolling countryside of northern France. Where the land dips between gentle rises, it is already in shadow. Dotting the fields are machine-packed rolls, high as a person's head, of the year's final hay crop. Massive tractors pull boxcar-sized cartloads of potatoes, or corn chopped up for cattle feed. Up a low hill, a grove of trees screens the evidence of another kind of harvest, reaped on this spot nearly a century ago. Each gravestone in the small cemetery has a name, rank, and serial number; 162 have crosses, and one has a Star of David. When known, a man's age is engraved on the stone as well: 19, 22, 23, 26, 34, 21, 20. Ten of the graves simply say, "A Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God." Almost all the dead are from Britain's Devonshire Regiment, the date on their gravestones July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most were casualties of a single German machine gun several hundred yards from this spot, and were buried here in a section of the front-line trench they had climbed out of that morning. Captain Duncan Martin, 30, a company commander and an artist in civilian life, had made a clay model of the battlefield across which the British planned to attack. He predicted to his fellow officers the exact place at which he and his men would come under fire from the nearby German machine gun as they emerged onto an exposed hillside. He, too, is buried here, one of some 21,000 British soldiers killed or fatally wounded on the day of greatest bloodshed in the history of their country's military, before or since.

On a stone plaque next to the graves are the words this regiment's survivors carved on a wooden sign when they buried their dead:


The comments in the cemetery's visitors' book are almost all from England: Bournemouth, London, Hampshire, Devon. "Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk." "Sleep on, boys." "Lest we forget." "Thanks, lads." "Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace." Why does it bring a lump to the throat to see words like sleep, rest, sacrifice, when my reason for being here is the belief that this war was needless folly and madness? Only one visitor strikes a different note: "Never again." On a few pages the ink of the names and remarks has been smeared by raindrops—or was it tears?

The bodies of soldiers of the British Empire lie in 400 cemeteries in the Somme battlefield region alone, a rough crescent of territory less than 20 miles long, but graves are not the only mark the war has made on the land. Here and there, a patch of ground gouged by thousands of shell craters has been left alone; decades of erosion have softened the scarring, but what was once a flat field now looks like rugged, grassed-over sand dunes. On the fields that have been smoothed out again, like those surrounding the Devonshires' cemetery, some of the tractors have armor plating beneath the driver's seat, because harvesting machinery cannot distinguish between potatoes, sugar beets, and live shells. More than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds were fired on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, of which an estimated 15 percent failed to explode. Every year these leftover shells kill people—36 in 1991 alone, for instance, when France excavated the track bed for a new high-speed rail line. Dotted throughout the region are patches of uncleared forest or scrub surrounded by yellow danger signs in French and English warning hikers away. The French government employs teams of démineurs, roving bomb-disposal specialists, who respond to calls when villagers discover shells; they collect and destroy 900 tons of unexploded munitions each year. More than 630 French démineurs have died in the line of duty since 1946. Like those shells, the First World War itself has remained in our lives, below the surface, because we live in a world that was so much formed by it and by the industrialized total warfare it inaugurated.

Even though I was born long after it ended, the war always seemed a presence in our family. My mother would tell me about the wild enthusiasm of crowds at military parades when—at last!—the United States joined the Allies. A beloved first cousin of hers marched off to the sound of those cheers, to be killed in the final weeks of fighting; she never forgot the shock and disillusionment. And no one in my father's family thought it absurd that two of his relatives had fought on opposite sides of the First World War, one in the French army, one in the German. If your country called, you went.

My father's sister married a man who fought for Russia in that war, and we owed his presence in our lives to events triggered by it: the Russian Revolution and the bitter civil war that followed—after which, finding himself on the losing side, he came to America. We shared a summer household with this aunt and uncle, and friends of his who were also veterans of 1914–1918 were regular visitors. As a boy, I vividly remember standing next to one of them, all of us in bathing suits and about to go swimming, and then looking down and seeing the man's foot: all his toes had been sheared off by a German machine-gun bullet somewhere on the Eastern Front.

The war also lived on in the illustrated adventure tales that British cousins sent me for Christmas. Young Tim or Tom or Trevor, though a mere teenager whom the colonel had declared too young for combat, would bravely dodge flying shrapnel to carry that same wounded colonel to safety after the regiment, bagpipes playing, had gone "over the top" into no man's land. In later episodes, he always managed to find some way—as a spy or an aviator or through sheer boldness—around the deadlock of trench warfare.

As I grew older and learned more history, I found that this very deadlock had its own fascination. For more than three years the armies on the Western Front were virtually locked in place, burrowed into trenches with dugouts sometimes 40 feet below ground, periodically emerging for terrible battles that gained at best a few miles of muddy, shell-blasted wasteland. The destructiveness of those battles still seems beyond belief. In addition to the dead, on the first day of the Somme offensive another 36,000 British troops were wounded. The magnitude of slaughter in the war's entire span was beyond anything in European experience: more than 35 percent of all German men who were between the ages of 19 and 22 when the fighting broke out, for example, were killed in the next four and a half years, and many of the remainder grievously wounded. For France, the toll was proportionately even higher: one half of all Frenchmen aged 20 to 32 at the war's outbreak were dead when it was over. "The Great War of 1914–18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours," wrote the historian Barbara Tuchman. British stonemasons in Belgium were still at work carving the names of their nation's missing onto memorials when the Germans invaded for the next war, more than 20 years later. Cities and towns in the armies' path were reduced to jagged rubble, forests and farms to charred ruins. "This is not war," a wounded soldier among Britain's Indian troops wrote home from Europe. "It is the ending of the world."

In today's conflicts, whether the casualties are child soldiers in Africa or working-class, small-town Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan, we are accustomed to the poor doing a disproportionate share of the dying. But from 1914 to 1918, by contrast, in all the participating countries the war was astonishingly lethal for their ruling classes. On both sides, officers were far more likely to be killed than the men whom they led over the parapets of trenches and into machine-gun fire, and they themselves were often from society's highest reaches. Roughly 12 percent of all British soldiers who took part in the war were killed, for instance, but for peers or sons of peers in uniform the figure was 19 percent. Of all men who graduated from Oxford in 1913, 31 percent were killed. The German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, lost his eldest son; so did British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. A future British prime minister, Andrew Bonar Law, lost two sons, as did Viscount Rothermere, newspaper mogul and wartime air minister. General Erich Ludendorff, the war's key German commander, lost two stepsons and had to personally identify the decomposing body of one, exhumed from a battlefield grave. Herbert Lawrence, chief of the British general staff on the Western Front, lost two sons; his counterpart in the French army, Noël de Castelnau, lost three. The grandson of one of England's richest men, the Duke of Westminster, received a fatal bullet through the head three days after writing his mother, "Supply me with socks and chocolates which are the two absolute necessities of life."

Part of what draws us to this war, then, is the way it forever shattered the self-assured, sunlit Europe of hussars and dragoons in plumed helmets and emperors waving from open, horse-drawn carriages. As the poet and soldier Edmund Blunden put it in describing that deadly first day of the Battle of the Somme, neither side "had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won." Under the pressure of the unending carnage two empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman, dissolved completely, the German Kaiser lost his throne, and the Tsar of Russia and his entire photogenic family—his son in a sailor suit, his daughters in white dresses—lost their lives. Even the victors were losers: Britain and France together suffered more than two million dead and ended the war deep in debt; protests sparked by returning colonial veterans began the long unraveling of the British Empire, and a swath of northern France was reduced to ashes. The four-and-a-half-year tsunami of destruction permanently darkened our worldview. "Humanity? Can anyone really believe in the reasonableness of humanity after the last war," asked the Russian poet Alexander Blok a few years later, "with new, inevitable, and crueler wars in the offing?"

And in the offing they were. "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain," Adolf Hitler fulminated less than four years after the war ended. "...No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance!" Germany's defeat, and the vindictiveness of the Allies in the peace settlement that followed, irrevocably sped the rise of Nazism and the coming of an even more destructive war 20 years later—and of the Holocaust as well. The First World War, of course, also helped bring to power in Russia a regime whose firing squads and gulag of Arctic and Siberian prison camps would sow death and terror in peacetime on a scale that surpassed many wars.

Like my uncle's friend with no toes on one foot, many of the war's more than 21 million wounded survived for long years after. Once in the 1960s I visited a stone, fortress-like state mental hospital in northern France, and some of the aged men I saw sitting like statues on benches in the courtyard there, faces blank, were shell-shock victims from the trenches. Millions of veterans, crippled in body or in spirit, filled such institutions for decades. The war's shadow stretched also onto tens of millions of people born after it ended, the children of survivors. I once interviewed the British writer John Berger, born in London in 1926, but who sometimes felt, he told me, as if "I was born near Ypres on the Western Front in 1917. The first thing I really remember about [my father] was him waking up screaming in the middle of the night, having one of his recurring nightmares about the war."

Why does this long-ago war intrigue us still? One reason, surely, is the stark contrast between what people believed they were fighting for and the shattered, embittered world the war actually created. On both sides participants felt they had good reasons for going to war, and on the Allied side they were good reasons. German troops, after all, with no justification, invaded France and, violating a treaty guaranteeing its neutrality, marched into Belgium as well. People in other countries, like Britain, understandably saw coming to the aid of the invasion's victims as a noble cause. And didn't France and Belgium have the right to defend themselves? Even those of us today who opposed the American wars in Vietnam or Iraq often hasten to add that we'd defend our country if it were attacked. And yet, if the leaders of any one of the major European powers had been able to look forward in time and see the full consequences, would they still have so quickly sent their soldiers marching off to battle in 1914?

What kings and prime ministers did not foresee, many more far-sighted citizens did. From the beginning, tens of thousands of people on both sides recognized the war for the catastrophe it was. They believed it was not worth the inevitable cost in blood, some of them anticipated with tragic clarity at least part of the nightmare that would engulf Europe as a result, and they spoke out. Moreover, they spoke out at a time when it took great courage to do so, for the air was filled with fervent nationalism and a scorn for dissenters that often turned violent. A handful of German parliamentarians bravely opposed war credits, and radicals like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht later went to prison—as did the American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs. But it was in Britain, more than anywhere else, that significant numbers of intrepid war opponents acted on their beliefs and paid the price. By the conflict's end, more than 20,000 British men of military age had refused the draft. Many refused noncombatant alternative service too, and more than 6,000 served prison terms under harsh conditions: hard labor, a bare-bones diet, and a strict "rule of silence" that forbade them from talking to one another.

Before it became clear just how many Britons would refuse to fight, some 50 early resisters were forcibly inducted into the army and transported, some in handcuffs, across the English Channel to France. A few weeks before that famous first day on the Somme, a less known scene unfolded at a British army camp not far away, within the sound of artillery fire from the front. The group of war opponents was told that if they continued to disobey orders, they would be sentenced to death. In an act of great collective courage that echoes down the years, not a single man wavered. Only at the last minute, thanks to frantic lobbying in London, were their lives saved. These resisters and their comrades did not come close to stopping the war, and have won no place in the standard history books, but their strength of conviction remains one of the glories of a dark time.

Those sent to jail for opposing the war included not just young men who defied the draft, but older men—and a few women. If we could time-travel our way into British prisons in late 1917 and early 1918 we would meet some extraordinary people, including the nation's leading investigative journalist, a future winner of the Nobel Prize, more than half a dozen future members, of Parliament, one future cabinet minister, and a former newspaper editor who was publishing a clandestine journal for his fellow inmates on toilet paper. It would be hard to find a more distinguished array of people ever behind bars in a Western country.

In part, this book is the story of some of these war resisters and of the example they set, if not for their own time, then perhaps for the future. I wish theirs was a victorious story, but it is not. Unlike, say, witch-burning, slavery, and apartheid, which were once taken for granted and are now officially outlawed, war is still with us. Uniforms, parades, and martial music continue to cast their allure, and the appeal of high technology has been added to that; throughout the world boys and men still dream of military glory as much as they did a century ago. And so, in much greater part, this is a book about those who actually fought the war of 1914–1918, for whom the magnetic attraction of combat, or at least the belief that it was patriotic and necessary, proved so much stronger than human revulsion at mass death or any perception that, win or lose, this was a war that would change the world for the worse.

Where today we might see mindless killing, many of those who presided over the war's battles saw only nobility and heroism. "They advanced in line after line," recorded one British general of his men in action on that fateful July 1, 1916, at the Somme, writing in the stilted third-person usage of official reports, "...and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine-gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out.... He saw the lines which advanced in such admirable order melting away under the fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. He has never seen, indeed could never have imagined, such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports that he had had from the very few survivors of this marvellous advance bear out what he saw with his own eyes, viz, that hardly a man of ours got to the German front line."

What was in the minds of such generals? How could they feel such a slaughter to be admirable or magnificent, worth more than the lives of their own sons? We can ask the same question of those who are quick to advocate military confrontation today, when, as in 1914, wars so often have unintended consequences.

A war is usually written about as a duel between sides. I have tried instead to evoke this war through the stories within one country, Britain, of some men and women from the great majority who passionately believed it was worth fighting and some of those who were equally convinced it should not be fought at all. In a sense, then, this is a story about loyalties. What should any human being be most loyal to? Country? Military duty? Or the ideal of international brotherhood? And what happens to loyalty within a family if, as happened in several of the families in these pages, some members join in the fight while a brother, a sister, a son, takes a stance of opposition that the public sees as cowardly or criminal?

This is also a story about clashing sets of dreams. For some of the people I follow here, the dream was that the war would rejuvenate the national spirit and the bonds of empire; that it would be short; that Britain would win by the time-honored means that had always won wars: pluck, discipline, and the cavalry charge. For war opponents, the dream was that the workingmen of Europe would never fight each other in battle; or, once the war began, that soldiers on both sides would see its madness and refuse to fight on; or, finally, that the Russian Revolution, in claiming to reject war and exploitation forever, was a shining example that other nations would soon follow.

As I tried to make sense of why these two very different sets of people acted as they did in the crucible of wartime, I realized that I needed to understand their lives in the years leading up to the war—when they often faced earlier choices about loyalties. And so this book about the first great war of the modern age begins not in August 1914 but several decades earlier, in an England that was quite different from the peaceful, bucolic land of country estates and weekend house parties so familiar to us from countless film and TV dramas. Part of this prewar era, in fact, Britain was fighting another war—which produced its own vigorous opposition movement. And, at home, it was in the grips of a prolonged, angry struggle over who should have the vote, a conflict that saw huge demonstrations, several deaths, mass imprisonments, and more deliberate destruction of property than the country had known for the better part of a century.

The story that follows is in no way a comprehensive history of the First World War and the period before it, for I've left out many well-known battles, episodes, and leaders. Nor is it about people usually thought of as a group, like the war poets or the Bloomsbury set; generally I've avoided such familiar figures. Some of those whose lives I trace here, close as they had once been, fell out so bitterly over the war that they broke off all contact with each other, and were they alive today would be dismayed to find themselves side by side in the same book. But each of them started by being bound to one or more of the others by ties of family or friendship, by shared beliefs, or, in several cases, by forbidden love. And all of them were citizens of a country undergoing a cataclysm where, in the end, the trauma of the war overwhelmed everything else.

The men and women in the following pages are a cast of characters I have collected slowly over the years, as I found people whose lives embodied very different answers to the choices faced by those who lived at a time when the world was aflame. Among them are generals, labor activists, feminists, agents provocateurs, a writer turned propagandist, a lion tamer turned revolutionary, a cabinet minister, a crusading working-class journalist, three soldiers brought before a firing squad at dawn, and a young idealist from the English Midlands who, long after his struggle against the war was over, would be murdered by the Soviet secret police. In following a collection of people through a tumultuous time, this book may seem in form more akin to fiction than to a traditional work of history. (Indeed, the life story of one woman here inspired one of the best recent novels about the war.) But everything in it actually happened. For history, when examined closely, always yields up people, events, and moral testing grounds more revealing than any but the greatest of novelists could invent.



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