THE FIRST WORLD WAR was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised frontfighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: ‘It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand – vengeance!’1
The monuments to the vengeance he took stand throughout the continent he devastated, in the reconstructed centres of his own German cities, flattened by the strategic bombing campaign that he provoked, and of those – Leningrad, Stalingrad, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London – that he himself laid waste. The derelict fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, built in the vain hope of holding his enemies at bay, are monuments to his desire for vengeance; so, too, are the decaying hutments of Auschwitz and the remnants of the obliterated extermination camps at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. A child’s shoe in the Polish dust, a scrap of rusting barbed wire, a residue of pulverised bone near the spot where the gas chambers worked, these are as much relics of the First as of the Second World War.2 They have their antecedents in the scraps of barbed wire that litter the fields where the trenches ran, filling the French air with the smell of rust on a damp morning, in the mildewed military leather a visitor finds under a hedgerow, in the verdigrised brass of a badge or button, corroded clips of ammunition and pockmarked shards of shell. They have their antecedents also in the anonymous remains still upturned today by farmers ploughing the bloodsoaked soil of the Somme – ‘I stop work at once. I have a great respect for your English dead’ – just as the barely viewable film of bodies being heaped into the mass graves at Belsen in 1945 has its antecedents in the blurred footage of French soldiers stacking the cordwood of their dead comrades after the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915. The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation.
There are more ceremonial monuments. Few French and British communities lack a memorial to the dead of the Second World War. There is one in my West Country village, a list of names carved at the foot of the funerary crucifix that stands at the crossroads. It is, however, an addition and an afterthought. The cross itself was raised to commemorate the young men who did not return from the First World War and their number is twice that of those killed in the Second. From a population of two hundred in 1914, W. Gray, A. Lapham, W. Newton, A. Norris, C. Penn, L. Penn and W. J. White, perhaps one in four of the village’s men of military age, did not come back from the front. Theirs are names found in the church registers that go back to the sixteenth century. They survive in the village today. It is not difficult to see from the evidence that the Great War brought heartbreak on a scale never known since the settlement was established by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest and, thankfully, has not been known since. The memorial cross is, the church apart, the only public monument the village possesses. It has its counterpart in every neighbouring village, in the county’s towns, where the names multiply many times, and in the cathedral of the diocese at Salisbury. It has its counterpart, too, in every cathedral in France, in each of which will be seen a tablet bearing the inscription, ‘To the Glory of God and in memory of one million men of the British Empire who died in the Great War and of whom the greater number rest in France’.
Nearby, certainly, will stand a memorial to the locality’s own dead, itself replicated in every surrounding town and village. France lost nearly two million in the Great War, two out of every nine men who marched away. They are often symbolised by the statue of a poilu, defiant in horizon blue, levelling a bayonet eastward at the German frontier. The list of names on the plinth is heartrendingly long, all the more heartrending because repetition of the same name testifies to more than one death, often several, in the same family. There are similar lists to be seen graven in stone in the towns and cities of most combatant nations of the Great War. Particularly poignant, I find, is the restrained classicism of the memorial to the cavalry division of the Veneto that stands beside the cathedral of Murano in the lagoon of Venice, bearing row after row of names of young men from the lowlands of the River Po who died in the harsh uplands of the Julian Alps. I am touched by the same emotion in the churches of Vienna where severe stone tablets recall the sacrifice of historic Habsburg regiments now almost forgotten to history.3
The Germans, who cannot decently mourn their four million dead of the Second World War, compromised as the Wehrmacht was by the atrocities of the Nazi state, found a materially, if not morally equivalent difficulty in arranging an appropriately symbolic expression of grief for their fallen of the First, since so many lay on foreign soil. The battlefields of the east were closed to them by the Bolshevik revolution, those of the west made at best grudgingly accessible for the retrieval and reburial of bodies. The French and the Belgians found little room in their hearts or in the national soil for the creation of German war cemeteries. While the British were accorded a sépulture perpétuelle for their places of burial, which ramified during the 1920s into an archipelago of gardened graveyards along the line of the Western Front breathtaking in their beauty, the Germans were obliged to excavate mass graves in obscure locations to contain the remains of their casualties. Only in East Prussia, on the site of the Tannenberg epic, did they succeed in creating a mausoleum of triumphal monumentality for the fallen. At home, far from the fronts where their young men had died, they gave form to their sorrow in church and cathedral monuments that take their inspiration chiefly from the austerity of high Gothic art, often using the image of Grünewald’s Crucifixion or Holbein’s Christ in the Tomb as their theme.4
The Christ of Grünewald and Holbein is a body that has bled, suffered and died, untended in its final agony by relative or friend. The image was appropriate to the symbolisation of the Great War’s common soldier, for over half of those who died in the west, perhaps more in the east, were lost as corpses in the wilderness of the battlefield. So numerous were those missing bodies that, in the war’s immediate aftermath, it was proposed, first by an Anglican clergyman who had served as a wartime chaplain, that the most fitting of all the memorials to the War dead would be a disinterment and reburial of one of those unidentified in a place of honour. A body was chosen, brought to Westminster Abbey and placed at the entrance under a tablet bearing the inscription, ‘They buried him among the Kings because he had done good toward God and toward His house’. On the same day, the second anniversary of the armistice of 11 November 1918, a French Unknown Soldier was buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and unknown soldiers were later reburied in many of the victor nations’ capitals.5 When the defeated Germans attempted to create a national memorial to their dead in 1924, however, the unveiling broke down into a welter of political protest. The speech made by President Ebert, who had lost two sons, was heard out. The two minutes of silence that was supposed to follow was interrupted by the shouting of pro-war and anti-war slogans, which precipitated a riot that lasted all day.6 The agony of a lost war continued to divide Germany, as it would until the coming of Hitler nine years later. Soon after his assumption of the Chancellorship, Nazi writers began to represent Hitler, the ‘unknown corporal’, as a living embodiment of the ‘unknown soldier’ Weimar Germany had failed as a state to honour. It was not long before Hitler, in his speeches as Führer of the German nation, began to refer to himself as ‘an unknown soldier of the world war’. He was sowing the seed that would reap another four million German corpses.7
War’s rancours are quick to bite and slow to heal. By the end of 1914, four months after the outbreak of the Great War, 300,000 Frenchmen had been killed, 600,000 wounded, out of a male population of twenty million, perhaps ten million of military age. By the end of the war, nearly two million Frenchmen were dead, the majority from the infantry, the major arm of service, which had lost 22 per cent of those enlisted. The heaviest casualties had been suffered by the youngest year-groups: between 27 per cent and 30 per cent of the conscript classes of 1912–15. Many of those young men were not yet married. By 1918, however, there were 630,000 war widows in France and a very large number of younger women deprived by the war of the chance of marriage. The imbalance between the sexes of those aged twenty to thirty-nine stood in 1921 at forty-five males to fifty-five females. Among the five million wounded of the war, moreover, several hundred thousand were numbered as ‘grands mutilés’, soldiers who had lost limbs or eyes. Perhaps the worst afflicted were the victims of disfiguring facial wounds, some of whom were so awful to behold that secluded rural settlements were established, where they could holiday together.8
The suffering of the German war generation was comparable. ‘Year groups 1892–1895, men who were between nineteen and twenty-two when the war broke out, were reduced by 35–37 per cent.’ Overall, of the sixteen million born between 1870 and 1899, 13 per cent were killed, at the rate of 465,600 for each year the war lasted. The heaviest casualties, as in most armies, fell among the officers, of whom 23 per cent were killed – 25 per cent of regular officers – as against 14 per cent of enlisted men. The surviving German ‘grands mutilés’ included 44,657 who lost a leg, 20,877 who lost an arm, 136 who lost both arms and 1,264 who lost both legs. There were also 2,547 war blind, a fraction of those seriously wounded in the head, of whom most died. In all, 2,057,000 Germans died in the war, or of wounds in its aftermath.9
Germany, though it lost the largest number of counted dead – those of Russia and Turkey remain uncounted with any exactitude – was not the worst proportionate sufferer. That country was Serbia, of whose pre-war population of five million, 125,000 were killed or died as soldiers but another 650,000 civilians succumbed to privation or disease, making a total of 15 per cent of the population lost, compared with something between two and three per cent of the British, French and German populations.10
Even those smaller proportions left terrible psychic wounds, falling as they did on the youngest and most active sections of society’s males. It has, as the war recedes into history, become fashionable to decry the lament for a ‘Lost Generation’ as myth-making. The loss, demographers demonstrate, was swiftly made good by natural increase of population, while loss was felt, the harder-hearted sort of historian insists, by a fraction of families. At the very worst, they argue, only 20 per cent of those who went to the war did not return, while the aggregate was lower, 10 per cent or less. For the majority, the war was but a passage in their lives, an interruption of normality to which society rapidly returned as soon as the guns fell silent.
This is a complacent judgement. It is true that the Great War, by comparison with that of 1939–45, did little material damage. No large European city was destroyed or even seriously devastated during its course, as all large German cities were by aerial bombardment during the Second World War. The First World War was a rural conflict, on the Eastern as on the Western Fronts. The fields over which it was fought were swiftly returned to agriculture or pasturage and the villages ruined by bombardment – except for those around Verdun – quickly rebuilt. The war inflicted no harm to Europe’s cultural heritage that was not easily repaired: the medieval Cloth Hall at Ypres stands today as it did before the bombardments of 1914–18, so do the town squares of Arras, so does the cathedral of Rouen, while the treasures of Louvain, burnt in an uncharacteristic act of vandalism in 1914, were replaced piece by piece in the war’s aftermath.
Above all, the war imposed on the civilian populations involved almost none of the deliberate disruption and atrocity that was to be a feature of the Second. Except in Serbia and, at the outset, in Belgium, communities were not forced to leave their homes, land and peaceful occupations; except in Turkish Armenia, no population was subjected to genocide; and, awful though the Ottoman government’s treatment of its Armenian subjects was, the forced marches organised to do them to death belong more properly to the history of Ottoman imperial policy than to that of the war itself. The First, unlike the Second World War, saw no systematic displacement of populations, no deliberate starvation, no expropriation, little massacre or atrocity. It was, despite the efforts by state propaganda machines to prove otherwise, and the cruelties of the battlefield apart, a curiously civilised war.
Yet it damaged civilisation, the rational and liberal civilisation of the European enlightenment, permanently for the worse and, through the damage done, world civilisation also. Pre-war Europe, imperial though it was in its relations with most of the world beyond the continent, offered respect to the principles of constitutionalism, the rule of law and representative government. Post-war Europe rapidly relinquished confidence in such principles. They were lost altogether in Russia after 1917, in Italy after 1922, in Germany in 1933, in Spain after 1936, and only patchily observed at any time in the young states created or enlarged by the post-war settlement in Central and Southern Europe. Within fifteen years of the war’s end, totalitarianism, a new word for a system that rejected the liberalism and constitutionalism which had inspired European politics since the eclipse of monarchy in 1789, was almost everywhere on the rise. Totalitarianism was the political continuation of war by other means. It uniformed and militarised its mass electoral following, while depriving voters generally of their electoral rights, exciting their lowest political instincts and marginalising and menacing all internal opposition. Less than twenty years after the end of the Great War, the ‘war to end wars’ as it had come to be called at the nadir of hopes for its eventual conclusion, Europe was once again gripped by the fear of a new war, provoked by the actions and ambitions of war lords more aggressive than any known to the old world of the long nineteenth-century peace. It was also in the full flood of rearmament, with weapons – tanks, bombing aircraft, submarines – known only in embryo form in the First World War and threatening to make a Second an even greater catastrophe.
The Second World War, when it came in 1939, was unquestionably the outcome of the First, and in large measure its continuation. Its circumstances – the dissatisfaction of the German-speaking peoples with their standing among other nations – were the same, and so were its immediate causes, a dispute between a German-speaking ruler and a Slav neighbour. The personalities, though occupying different status, were also the same: Gamelin, the French commander in 1939, had been principal staff officer to Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander in 1918, Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, had been First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914, Hitler, ‘the first soldier of the Third Reich’, had been one of the first volunteers of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Reich in August 1914. The battlefields were to be the same: the River Meuse, crossed with spectacular ease by the German panzer divisions in May 1940, had proved impassable at Verdun throughout 1914–18; Arras, focus of some of the British Expeditionary Force’s worst trench fighting on the Western Front, was the scene of the British army’s only successful counter-attack in 1940; while the River Bzura, a narrow watercourse west of Warsaw, was to be critical to the conduct of operations on the Eastern Front both in 1939 and in 1915. Many of those who marched off in 1939 were the same people who, younger in age, junior in rank, had also marched away in 1914, convinced they would be home, victorious, ‘before the leaves fall’. The fortunate survivors would, however, have admitted this difference. In 1939 the apprehension of war was strong, so was its menace, so, too, was knowledge of its reality. In 1914, by contrast, war came, out of a cloudless sky, to populations which knew almost nothing of it and had been raised to doubt that it could ever again trouble their continent.
Europe in the summer of 1914 enjoyed a peaceful productivity so dependent on international exchange and co-operation that a belief in the impossibility of general war seemed the most conventional of wisdoms. In 1910 an analysis of prevailing economic interdependence, The Great Illusion, had become a best-seller; its author Norman Angell had demonstrated, to the satisfaction of almost all informed opinion, that the disruption of international credit inevitably to be caused by war would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end. It was a message to which the industrial and commercial society of that age was keenly sympathetic. After two decades of depression, precipitated by an Austrian bank failure in 1873 but sustained by a fall in the prices to be had both for raw materials and for manufactured goods, industrial output had begun to expand again in the last years of the nineteenth century. New categories of manufactures – electrical goods, chemical dyes, internal combustion vehicles – had appeared to tempt buyers; new sources of cheaply extractable raw materials had been found; so, too, had new deposits of precious metals, above all in South Africa, to fertilise credit. Rising population – there was a 35 per cent increase in Austria-Hungary between 1880 and 1910, 43 per cent in Germany, 26 per cent in Britain, over 50 per cent in Russia – sharply enlarged the size of internal markets; emigration – twenty-six million people left Europe for the Americas and Australasia in 1880–1910 – increased demand for goods there also, while the enormous expansion of overseas empires, formal and informal, in Africa and Asia, drew millions of their inhabitants into the international market, both as suppliers of staples and consumers of finished goods. A second revolution in transport – in 1893 steamship overtook sailing-ship tonnage for the first time – had greatly accelerated and expanded the movement of commerce overseas, while the extension of the railway network (virtually complete in Western Europe and the United States by 1870) in Eastern Europe and in Russia – where it grew in length from 31,000 to 71,000 kilometres between 1890 and 1913 – added that enormous region, rich in cereals, minerals, oil and timber, to the integrated international economy. It is scarcely surprising that, by the beginning of the century, bankers had recovered their confidence, gold-based capital was circulating freely, largely from Europe to the Americas and Asia, at a rate of £350 million a year in the first decade of the twentieth century, and return on overseas investment had come to form a significant element of private and corporate incomes in Britain, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium; Belgium, one of the smallest countries in Europe, had in 1914 the sixth largest economy in the world, the result of early industrialisation but also of intense activity by its banks, trading houses and industrial entrepreneurs.
Russian railways, South African gold and diamond mines, Indian textile factories, African and Malayan rubber plantations, South American cattle ranches, Australian sheep stations, Canadian wheatfields and almost every sector of the enormous economy of the United States, already by 1913 the largest in the world, producing one-third of its industrial output, devoured European capital as fast as it could be lent. The greater proportion passed through the City of London. Though its central banking reserve of gold was small – only £24 million in 1890, when the Bank of France had £95 million, the Reichsbank £40 million and the United States Federal Reserve £142 million – the worldwide connections of its private banks and discount houses, insurance and commodity companies and equity and produce exchanges made it nevertheless the principal medium of buying, selling and borrowing for all advanced countries. Its predominance fed the belief so persuasively advanced by Norman Angell that any interruption of the smooth, daily equalisation of debit and credit it masterminded must destroy not only confidence in the monetary mechanism by which the world lived, but the very system itself.
Speaking to the Institute of Bankers in London on 17 January 1912, on ‘The Influence of Banking on International Relations’, Angell argued that
commercial interdependence, which is the special mark of banking as it is the mark of no other profession or trade in quite the same degree – the fact that the interest and solvency of one is bound up with the interest and solvency of many; that there must be confidence in the due fulfilment of mutual obligation, or whole sections of the edifice crumble, is surely doing a great deal to demonstrate that morality after all is not founded upon self-sacrifice, but upon enlightened self-interest, a clearer and more complete understanding of all the ties that bind us the one to the other. And such clearer understanding is bound to improve, not merely the relationship of one group to another, but the relationship of all men to all other men, to create a consciousness which must make for more efficient human co-operation, a better human society.
W. R. Lawson, a former editor of the Financial Times, observed at the end of the speech, ‘It is very evident that Mr. Norman Angell had carried this meeting almost entirely with him.’11
It was not only bankers – of whom many of London’s foremost were German – that accepted the interdependence of nations as a condition of the world’s life in the first years of the twentieth century, a necessary condition and one destined to grow in importance. The acceptance was far wider than theirs. Much of it had a purely practical basis. The revolution in communications – by railway, telegraph and stamped postage – required international co-operation to service the new technologies and bureaucracies of travel and messaging. An International Telegraph Union was established in 1865 and the International Postal Union in 1875. An International Conference for Promoting Technical Uniformity in Railways was set up in 1882 – too late to standardise gauges between Western and Eastern Europe, where Russia had already adopted the broad gauge which was to make the use of its railways by invaders so difficult both in 1914 and 1941 but which, in peace, was nothing but an impediment to commercial traffic. The International Meteorological Organisation, set up to exchange information on the world’s weather movements, of critical importance to maritime transport, appeared in 1873 and the International Radiotelegraph Union, which allotted separate wavelengths for the new invention of wireless, in 1906. All these were governmental organisations whose workings enjoyed the support of treaty or statute in member states. The world of commerce was meanwhile establishing its own, equally necessary, international associations: for the Publication of Customs Tariffs in 1890, of Patents and Trademarks in 1883, for Industrial, Literary and Artistic Property in 1895, of Commercial Statistics in 1913; an Institute of Agriculture, which collected and published statistics of farming production and marketing, came into being in 1905. Particular industries and professions meanwhile set up their own international bodies: the International Congress of Chambers of Commerce was established in 1880, the Congress of Actuaries in 1895, the Association of Accountancy in 1911, the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1906, the Committee for the Unification of Maritime Law in 1897, the Baltic and White Sea Conference (which standardised maritime charter) in 1905. An International Bureau of Weights and Measures had been organised in 1875 and the first International Copyright Conventions were signed in the 1880s.
Without such bodies the network of buying and selling, collecting and distributing, insuring and discounting, lending and borrowing could not have knotted as it did in the square mile of the City of London. Internationalism, however, was not merely commercial. It was also intellectual, philanthropic and religious. The only truly transnational religious movement remained, as it had since the collapse of the Roman empire, the Catholic Church, with bishoprics throughout the world centred on that of Rome; its incumbent in midsummer 1914, Pope Pius X, was, however, a willing prisoner in the Vatican, a root-and-branch opponent of all modernising tendencies in theology and as suspicious of his own liberals as he was of Protestants. The latter were equally divided among themselves, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist and Independent of many hues. Some denominations nevertheless succeeded in co-operating in the missionary field at least. The China Inland Mission, uniting several Protestant churches, dated from 1865. A World Missionary Conference held at Edinburgh in 1910 broadened that impetus and in 1907 Christians in universities had founded the International Christian Movement at Tokyo. Little of this spirit, however, permeated Europe. There the only inter-Protestant body was the Evangelical Alliance, founded in 1846 in resistance to Catholicism.
Doctrinal differences therefore made fellowship between Christians a chancy spiritual undertaking. Common Christianity – and Europe was overwhelmingly Christian by profession in 1914 and strongly Christian in observance also – found an easier expression in philanthropy. Anti-slavery had been an early issue to white international sentiment, Christian at its root. In 1841 Britain, France, Russia, Austria and Prussia had signed a treaty that made slave-trading an act of piracy, a policy Britain was already energetically enforcing through the anti-slavery patrols of the Royal Navy off West Africa. The treaty’s provisions were extended by another signed in 1889 at Brussels, ironically the capital of a king who ran a brutal slave empire in the Congo. Nevertheless the oceanic slave trade had by then been extinguished by international co-operation. The traffic in women and children for prostitution, ‘White Slavery’, also stimulated international action, or at least expressions of disgust. An International Abolitionist Federation Congress met at Geneva in 1877, there were other conferences in 1899 and 1904 and in 1910 a convention, subsequently signed by nine states, decreed the traffic to be a crime punishable by their domestic law wherever committed.
Conditions of labour were also a philanthropic concern. In an age of mass emigration governments neither could nor sought to regulate the welfare of those seeking a new life in distant lands. The impulse to restrict working hours and forbid the employment of children had been a major influence, however, on domestic legislation in many European states during the nineteenth century and was by some subsequently given international force. By 1914 many European states had entered into bilateral treaties protecting workers’ rights to social insurance and industrial compensation, while restricting female and child labour. Most were designed to protect migrant workers in border areas; a typical treaty was that of 1904 between France and Italy, guaranteeing reciprocal insurance facilities and protection of respective labour laws to each other’s citizens. They may best be seen as a state response to the activities of the international working man’s movements, particularly the First International, founded by Karl Marx in London in 1864, and, the Second, Paris 1889. It was their preaching of social revolution that had driven governments, particularly Bismarck’s in Germany after 1871, to enact labour welfare laws as a measure of self-protection.
Other, older measures of self-protection were present in international agreements to check the spread of disease, usually by the quarantining of ships in the distant trade and of immigrants from the Near East, identified as the main source of epidemic outbreaks in Europe. The sale of liquor and drugs was also subject to international control; an Opium Conference between twelve governments met at the Hague in 1912; inevitably it failed in its purpose, but the undertaking was evidence of a growing willingness by governments to act collectively. They had done so with success to suppress piracy. They would also co-operate to repatriate each other’s criminals, though usually not if their offences could be decreed political. There was a strong objection in liberal states to supporting the rule of tyrannical governments, despite the prevailing commitment of all to the principle of absolute sovereignty. Non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, however, was restricted to Christendom. The Ottoman empire’s treatment of its minorities had prompted international intervention in Greece in 1827, in the Lebanon in 1860, and several times later. The Chinese empire’s complicity in the Boxer siege of the Peking embassies in 1900 had prompted the despatch of a full-scale international relief expedition, mounted by British bluejackets, Russian Cossacks, French colonial infantry, Italian Bersaglieri and detachments of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, as well as Japanese guardsmen and United States marines.
The relief expedition was a complete success, showing that Europe could act together when it chose. It could, of course, also think and feel together. Europe’s educated classes held much of its culture in common, particularly through an appreciation for the art of the Italian and Flemish renaissance, for the music of Mozart and Beethoven, for grand opera, for the architecture of the Middle Ages and the classical revival, and for each other’s modern literature. Tolstoy was a European figure; so, too, were other writers of Europe’s present or recent past. Victor Hugo, Balzac, Zola, Dickens, Manzoni, Shakespeare, Goethe, Molière and Dante were familiar, at least as names, to every European high school child, and French, German and Italian were commonly taught them in their foreign-language classes. Despite a growing resistance to the primacy of Latin and Greek in the high schools, Homer, Thucydides, Caesar and Livy were set-books in all of them and the study of the classics remained universal. Through the teaching of the tenets of Aristotle and Plato, there was, despite the nineteenth-century turmoil of ideas stoked by Hegel and Nietzsche, even a congruence of philosophy; the classical foundations stood, perhaps more securely than the Christian. Europe’s university graduates shared a corpus of thought and knowledge and, tiny minority though they were, their commonality of outlook preserved something recognisable as a single European culture.
It was enjoyed by an ever-increasing number of European cultural tourists. Ordinary people travelled little; seamen, transhumant pasturers herding their flocks across mountain frontiers, migrant workers moving to the harvest, cooks and waiters, itinerant musicians, pedlars, specialist craftsmen, the agents of foreign business, these were the only sort of aliens Europe’s settled people would have met before 1914. The monied tourist was the exception. Travel had been the pastime of the rich in the eighteenth century. By the beginning of the twentieth it had become a middle-class pleasure as well, thanks to the railway revolution and the rise of the hotel industry which it fuelled. Karl Baedeker’s Guides, the essential handbook for the tourist abroad, were in 1900 in their thirteenth edition for Rome, their ninth for the Eastern Alps and already their seventh for Scandinavia. Tourism was, for the majority, channelled and unadventurous. The most visited locations were Venice and Florence, the Holy City, the castles of the Rhine, and Paris, ‘City of Light’; but there were also large annual migrations to the spa towns of Central Europe, Carlsbad and Marienbad, to the French and Italian rivieras and to the Alps. Some travellers were venturing further afield. Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates, with their tutors, had already embarked on what was to become the twentieth-century institution of the Hellenic tour; and Baedeker’s Guide to Austria included Bosnia, with an entry on Sarajevo: ‘. . . the numerous minarets and the little houses standing in gardens give the town a very picturesque appearance . . . The streets on the river-banks are chiefly occupied by the Austrian and other immigrants, while most of the Turks and the Servians have their houses on the hillsides . . . the so-called Konak is the residence of the Austrian commandant. Visitors are admitted to the garden.’12
The most important visitor to Sarajevo in 1914 would be Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. He, of course, was travelling within his own territory but the members of the royal houses of Europe were great international travellers and their acquaintanceship one of the most important of bonds between states. If international marriages were uncommon even between Europe’s upper classes, between royal houses they remained an instrument of foreign relations. The offspring of Queen Victoria were married into most of the Protestant royal families of the continent; one granddaughter, Ena, had breached the religious barrier and was Queen of Spain. Grandsons of Victoria occupied the thrones of her own country and of Germany in 1914; her daughter-in-law’s family, the Sonderburg-Glucksburgs of Denmark, numbered as members the Empress of Russia and the Kings of Greece and Norway. It was broadly true that all European royalty were cousins; even the Habsburgs of Austria, most imperious of sovereigns, occasionally mingled their blood with outsiders; and since every state in Europe, except France and Switzerland, was a monarchy, that made for a very dense network of inter-state connections indeed. Symbolic relationships ramified those of birth. The Kaiser was Colonel of the British 1st Dragoons and an admiral in the Royal Navy; his cousin, George V, was Colonel of the Prussian 1st Guard Dragoons. The Austrian Emperor was Colonel of the British 1st Dragoon Guards; while among foreign colonels of Austrian regiments were the Kings of Sweden, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Bavaria, Württemburg, Saxony and Montenegro and the Tsar of Russia.
Symbolic relationships were, however, not hard currency in foreign affairs, any more than were royal cousinship or marriage ties. Nineteenth-century Europe had produced no solid instruments of inter-state co-operation or of diplomatic mediation. The ‘Concert of Europe’, which had been Napoleon’s unintended creation, had withered; so, too, had the anti-revolutionary League of the Three Emperors. It is commonplace to say that Europe in 1914 was a continent of naked nationalism: it was true all the same. The Catholic Church had long lost its pan-European authority; the idea of a secular ecumenicism had died with the Holy Roman Empire in 1804. Some effort had been made to supply the deficiency through the establishment of a code of international law. It remained a weak concept, for its most important principle, established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, was that of the sovereignty of states, which left each in effect unfettered by anything but judgement of self-interest. The only area over which states had agreed to limit the operation of self-interest lay not on land but at sea, which the leading powers had agreed at Paris in 1856 should be one where neutrality was respected and private military activity outlawed. The immunity of medical personnel and of those in their care had been established by the first Geneva Convention of 1864 and some limitation of the destructiveness of weapons had been negotiated at St Petersburg in 1868. The Geneva Convention, however, was on common humanitarianism, while the St Petersburg Declaration did not inhibit the development of automatic weapons or high-explosive projectiles.
The decision of Tsar Nicholas II in 1899 to convene an international conference dedicated not only to strengthening the limitation of armaments but also to the founding of an international court for the settlement of disputes between states by arbitration was therefore a creative innovation. Historians have perceived in his summons of the powers to the Hague an admission of Russia’s military weakness. Cynics said the same at the time, as did Russia’s professional enemies in Germany and Austria. People of goodwill, of whom there were many, thought differently. With them the Tsar’s warning that ‘the accelerating arms race’ – to produce ever larger armies, heavier artillery and bigger warships – was ‘transforming the armed peace into a crushing burden that weighs on all nations and, if prolonged, will lead to the very cataclysm it seeks to avert’ – struck a chord. It was to some degree in deference to that public opinion that the 1899 Hague Conference did consent both to a limitation of armaments, in particular the banning of aerial bombardment, and to the creation of the International Court.
A EUROPE OF SOLDIERS
The flaw in the provision for an International Court was that its convening was to be voluntary. ‘The greatest thing’, wrote the American delegate about the conference, ‘is that the Court of Arbitration . . . shall be seen by all nations [to] indicate a sincere desire to promote peace [and to] relieve the various peoples of the fear which so heavily oppresses all, the dread of a sudden outburst of war at any moment.’ A German delegate more realistically noted that the Court’s ‘voluntary character’ deprived it of ‘the very last trace of any compulsion, moral or otherwise, upon any nation’.13The truth of Europe’s situation at the turn of the century lay rather with the German than the American. There was, admittedly, a fear of war in the abstract, but it was as vague as the perception of what form modern war itself might take. Stronger by far, particularly among the political classes in every major country, was the fear of the consequences of failure to face the challenge of war itself. Each – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary – felt its position threatened in some way or other. The three great European empires, German, Austrian and Russian, felt threatened by the national dissatisfactions of their minorities, particularly in Austria-Hungary, dominated by Germans and Magyars but populated by Slav peoples who outnumbered them. All three were also troubled by demands for wider democracy – in Russia for any democracy at all – and all the more acutely when nationalism and the democratic impulse found a common voice. Democracy was not the problem in Britain or France, since their male populations exercised full electoral rights. It was the burden of a different sort of empire that weighed upon them, the administration of vast overseas dominions in Africa, India, Arabia, South-East Asia, the Americas and the Pacific, a source of enormous national pride but also a spur to aggressive jealousy among their European neighbours. The British believed that Russia had ambitions on India, which its Central Asian possessions closely abutted; the belief was probably mistaken but held nonetheless. The Germans certainly and deeply resented their lack of colonies, sought to extend the few they had acquired in Africa and the Pacific and were ever ready to quarrel, particularly with France, over influence in the few remaining areas not yet subject to European rule.
In a continent in which a handful of powers exercised control over a large cluster of subordinate peoples, and from which two, Britain and France, ruled much of the rest of the world, it was inevitable that reactions between all should be infused with suspicion and rivalry. The worst of the rivalries had been provoked by Germany, through its decision in 1900, enacted in the Second Naval Law, to build a fleet capable of engaging the Royal Navy in battle. Even though Germany’s merchant fleet was by then the second largest in the world, the British rightly decided to regard the enactment of the Second Naval Law as an unjustified threat to its century-old command of the seas and reacted accordingly; by 1906 the race to outbuild Germany in modern battleships was the most important and most popular element of British public policy. There was a strong and complementary military rivalry between the continental powers, exemplified at its starkest by the decision of France, a nation of forty million people, to match the strength of Germany, with sixty million, in number of soldiers; the ‘Three Year Law’ of 1913, extending the service of conscripts, promised, at least in the short term, to achieve that object. There were other rivalries, not least between Britain and France which, by 1900 mutual allies in the face of Germany’s rising aggressiveness, nevertheless managed to quarrel over colonial interests in Africa.
What uniformly characterised all these disputes was that none was submitted to the process of international arbitration suggested by the discussions at the Hague in 1899. When issues of potential conflict arose, as they did over the first (1905) and second (1911) Moroccan crises in Franco-German relations, turning on German resentment of the extension of French influence in North Africa, and over the First (1912) and Second (1913) Balkan Wars, the results of which disfavoured Austria, Germany’s ally, the great powers involved made no effort to invoke the Hague provision for international arbitration but settled affairs, as was traditional, by ad hoc international treaty. Peace, temporarily at least, was in each case the outcome; the ideal of supranational peacemaking, towards which the Hague Conference had pointed the way, was in no case invoked.
International, which chiefly meant European, policy was indeed, in the opening years of the twentieth century, guided not by the search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority. That means, as the Tsar had so eloquently warned at the Hague in 1899, translated into the creation of ever larger armies and navies, the acquisition of more and heavier guns and the building of stronger and wider belts of frontier fortification. Fortification, however, was intellectually out of fashion with Europe’s advanced military thinkers, who were persuaded by the success of heavy artillery in recent attacks on masonry and concrete – as at Port Arthur, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 – that guns had achieved a decisive advantage. Power had transferred, it was believed, from static defence to the mobile offensive as represented particularly by large masses of infantry manoeuvring, with the support of mobile field guns, at speed across the face of the battlefield. There was still thought to be a role for cavalry, in which European armies abounded; the German army, in the years before 1914, added thirteen regiments of mounted riflemen (Jäger zu Pferde) to its order of battle, while the French, Austrian and Russian armies also expanded their horsed arm. It was on numbers of infantrymen, equipped with the new magazine-rifle, trained in close-order tactics and taught, above all, to accept that casualties would be heavy until a decision was gained that, nevertheless, the generals counted upon to achieve victory.14 The significance of improvised fortification – the entrenchments and earthworks thrown up at speed which, defended by riflemen, had caused such loss to the attacker on the Tugela and Modder rivers during the Boer War, in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and at the lines of Chatalja during the Second Balkan War – had been noted, but discounted. Given enough well-led and well-motivated infantry, the European military theorists believed, no line of trenches could be held against them.
Among the other great industrial enterprises of Europe in the first years of the twentieth century, therefore, the industry of creating soldiers flourished. Since the triumph of Prussia’s army of conscripts and reservists over the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870, all leading European states (Britain, sea-girt and guarded by the world’s largest navy, was the exception) had accepted the necessity of submitting their young men to military training in early manhood and of requiring them, once trained, to remain at the state’s disposition, as reservists, into late maturity. The result of this requirement was to produce enormous armies of serving and potential soldiers. In the German army, model for all others, a conscript spent the first two years of full adulthood in uniform, effectively imprisoned in barracks which were governed by distant officers and administered by sergeants all too close at hand. During the first five years after his discharge from duty he was obliged to return to the reserve unit of his regiment for annual training. Then, until the age of thirty-nine, he was enrolled in a unit of the secondary reserve, or Landwehr; thereafter, until the age of forty-five, in the third-line reserve, the Landsturm. There were French, Austrian and Russian equivalents. The effect was to maintain inside European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong, of men who had shouldered a rifle, marched in step, borne the lash of a sergeant’s tongue and learnt to obey orders.
Submerged, also, below the surface of Europe’s civil geography was a secondary, military geography of corps and divisional districts. France, a country of ninety administrative departments, created by the First Republic to supplant the old royal provinces with territorial units of approximately equal size, named for the most part after the local river – Oise, Somme, Aisne, Marne, Meuse (names to which the First World War would give a doleful fame) – was also divided into twenty military districts, comprising four or five departments. Each military district was the peacetime location of a corps of the ‘active’ army, and the source in war of an equivalent group of divisions of the reserve; the XXI Corps had its location in French North Africa. The forty-two active divisions, comprising 600,000 men, would on mobilisation take with them into the field another twenty-five reserve divisions and ancillary reserve units, raising the war strength of the army to over three million. From the I Corps District (departments of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais) to the XVIII (Landes and Pyrenees) the military replicated the civil geography of France at every layer. So, too, did it in Germany, also divided into twenty-one Corps Districts, though there a larger population yielded both more conscripts and more reserve units.15 The I Corps District in East Prussia was the peacetime station of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, but also of the wartime I Reserve Corps and a host of additional Landwehr and Landsturm units, dedicated to the defence of the Prussian heartland, against the danger of Russian attack. Russia’s military geography resembled Germany’s; so, too, did that of Austria-Hungary, whose multilingual kaleidoscope of archduchies, kingdoms, principalities and marquisates produced Europe’s most complex army, comprising Hungarian hussars, Tyrolean riflemen and Bosnian infantry in the fez and baggy trousers of their former Ottoman overlords.16
Whatever the diversity of the European armies’ component units – and that diversity embraced French Turcos in turban and braided waistcoats, Russian cossacks in kaftan and astrakhan hats and Scottish highlanders in kilt, sporran and doublet – there was a central uniformity to their organisation. That was provided by the core fighting organisation, the division. The division, a creation of the Napoleonic revolution in military affairs, normally comprised twelve battalions of infantry and twelve batteries of artillery, 12,000 rifles and seventy-two guns. Its firepower in attack was formidable. In a minute of activity, the division could discharge 120,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition – more if its twenty-four machine guns joined in the action – and a thousand explosive shells, a weight of fire unimaginable by any commander in any previous period of warfare. There were in Europe, in 1914, over two hundred divisions, in full existence or ready to be called into being, theoretically deploying sufficient firepower to destroy each other totally in a few minutes of mutual life-taking. The current belief in the power of the offensive was correct; whoever first brought his available firepower into action with effect would prevail.
What had not been perceived is that firepower takes effect only if it can be directed in timely and accurate fashion. That requires communication. Undirected fire is wasted effort, unless observers can correct its fall, order shifts of target, signal success, terminate failure, co-ordinate the action of infantry with its artillery support. The communication necessary to such co-ordination demands, if not instantaneity, then certainly the shortest possible interval between observation and response. Nothing in the elaborate equipment of the European armies of the early twentieth century provided such facility. Their means of communication were at worst word of mouth, at best telephone and telegraph. As telephone and telegraph depended upon preserving the integrity of fragile wires, liable to be broken as soon as action was joined, word of mouth offered the only standby in a failure of communication, consigning commanders to the delays and uncertainties of the earliest days of warfare.
Radio communication, wireless telegraphy as it was then known, offered a solution to the difficulty in theory, but not in practice. Contemporary wireless sets, dependent on sources of energy too large and heavy to be useful militarily outside warships, were not practicable tools of command in the field. Though wireless was to play a minor strategic role early in the coming war, it was to prove of no tactical significance at any time, even at the end. That was to prove true at sea also, because of the failure of navies to solve the problem of assuring radio security in the transmission of signals in action and in close proximity to the enemy.17 In retrospect, it may be seen that a system existing in embryo, though promising to make effective all the power available to combatants in their quest for victory, lagged technically too far behind its potentiality to succeed.
If the potentiality of modern communications failed those dedicated to waging war, how much more did it fail those professionally dedicated to preserving the peace. The tragedy of the diplomatic crisis that preceded the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914, which was to swell into the four-year tragedy of the Great War, is that events successively and progressively overwhelmed the capacity of statesmen and diplomats to control and contain them. Honourable and able men though they were, the servants of the chancelleries and foreign officers of the great powers in the July crisis were bound to the wheel of the written note, the encipherment routine, the telegraph schedule. The potentialities of the telephone, which might have cut across the barriers to communication, seem to have eluded their imaginative powers. The potentialities of radio, available but unused, evaded them altogether. In the event, the states of Europe proceeded, as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilisation.