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The Summer’s Rage of Fire

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The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World

By Holger H. Herwig
Random House, 2009

The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front

By Peter Hart
Pegasus Books, 2008

Mythology grants immortality to fact, but usually only after some convenient surgery. An Alexander the Great who summarily cuts the Gordian Knot in two is a more attractive figure than an Alexander who sits down cross-legged in the dirt and patiently sets to work untangling the cords, and it doesn’t matter that the actual career of Alexander shows more of the methodical untangler than the dramatic knot-cutter.

Of course war breeds mythology, and the stranger and more logically intransigent the actual facts, the faster mythology rushes in to simplify, indemnify, and glorify. The 20th century had no more strange and logically intransigent war than World War I, and consequently its histories contain an abundance of myth that would have done Herodotus proud.

Those histories tend to do one of two things. Either they try to claw their way off the lee-shore of mythology by over-emphasizing minutiae, or else they embrace the mythology with new and innovative gusto. Since war is never just statistics, and people in crisis sometimes do incredible things, the truest approach is a combination of the two, a constant mediation between simplicity and tedium. In the last ninety years, the First World War has tended to elicit extremes of both minutiae and melodrama, but, as two recent volumes demonstrate with varying degrees of assurance, balanced narrative is still possible if the will is there.

By the start of hostilities in August of 1914, the various countries that made up both the Allied or ‘Entente’ powers – France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, and belatedly the United States – and the Central Powers – Germany and Austria-Hungary – had been feverishly building their national armaments for decades, and it’s a common truism of WWI histories to maintain that there’s something mysterious or paranoid about the certainty each of these countries felt that war must inevitably come to Europe. Technology and prosperity were more widespread than ever before, this truism goes, and yet this indefinable fatalism was in the air, thicker with every year, and eventually it broke out in the senseless, slogging slaughter of the First World War. Holger Herwig, in his The Marne, 1914 and Peter Hart, in his The Somme, each more or less alludes to this general miasma of suicidal gloom, eager as they are to get on to telling the stories of their respective battles. And we are eager to follow them and learn how those battles progressed, but it bears pointing out for a moment that the ‘general atmosphere of paranoia’ line is one of the more damaging myths associated with World War I, since it implicitly exonerates the single country that was in reality entirely responsible for the war and all its attendant horrors. That country was Germany, which had been consistently rattling sabers, pushing boundaries, ignoring treaties, and provoking international incidents virtually since the moment Kaiser Wilhelm I was proclaimed emperor (at a conquered Palace of Versailles) in 1871. Nations such as Britain and France didn’t begin massive-scale arms production – much less take on a gloomy mindset about the future – out of any general fog of worry; they did it because a brainless, stridently militaristic confederation was sitting at the heart of Europe, spewing threats in all directions.

Nevertheless, when war finally did erupt in 1914, it was still ruled by old philosophies left over from the wars of Napoleon Bonaparte. The various technologies of killing had improved immensely in the previous century, but the warfare itself still exercised a dangerously anachronistic allure for the young men called on to wage it, many of whom marched off to a war they thought would be adventurous, one-sided, and short (not all of them, mind you – Kafka, for one, thought the war had come about through “a tremendous lack of imagination”).

Old men had their ideas too, and the most notorious of those in the earliest days of the war was the legendary Von Schlieffen Plan developed in 1905 and calling for a wheeling roundhouse sweep of German troops through Belgium and into France, folding up resistance quickly and efficiently in order to prevent Germany from fighting a war on two fronts (since Russia had a treaty with France and didn’t like Germany any more than any of the other world powers did). When war started, the Von Schlieffen Plan (heavily modified by the great German general Helmuth von Moltke) sprang into motion – and, as any child could have predicted, instantly hit complications (and not just the one wise, evil old Otto von Bismarck had once predicted, that attacking Belgium would be “complete idiocy” because it would bring Britain into the war). Not only did the Russians begin mobilizing their vast forces faster than anticipated, but the Belgians and the French declined to curl up and die on cue – as one German general put it:

That men who have slept on the ground half dead with fatigue, should have the strength to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, that is a thing upon which we never counted; that is a possibility that we never spoke about in our war academies.

Professor Herwig admits the mechanics of the Von Schlieffen Plan but has little patience for the tactic of blaming it in isolation. As he reminds us throughout his taut and intellectually stimulating book, the plan might have been ready-made, but men made the actual decision to implement it:

… decision-making coteries in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and London carefully assessed their situations, weighed their options, calculated their risks, and then decided war lay in the national interests. These coteries saw their states to be in decline or at least to be seriously threatened. To check that perceived decline and threat, they felt the recourse to arms to be imperative. There was no “unexpected slide” into “the boiling cauldron of war,” as David Lloyd George would later famously claim.

Herwig has made a thorough study of the military forces involved on all sides, concentrating especially on the minutiae (he’s one of the first major historians to attempt a calculation of the number of horses that died in the war – a crucial factor usually overlooked in accounts). You’d think this would make his account dry dealing, but no: he has a flair for description, as is evident not only from his memorable gallery of the war’s participants, such as French commander Joseph Joffre:

To his supporters, Joffre was known for his forthrightness, honesty, consideration for subordinates – he retained throughout his life his boyhood nickname le pere Joffre, Papa Joffre – and imperturbable calm under stress. To politicians in Paris, he offered what they valued most –an utter lack of ambition and deviousness. His physical appearance – stout, white hair, with a full round face accentuated by pale blue eyes and a long white mustache – tended to efface any impressions of distinction or drive. His strict daily regimen of work, rest, sleep, and meals – usually ending with a heaping serving of his favorite leg of lamb (gigot a la Bretonne) – further seemed to indicate a placid (and even dull) personality.

But also of the gruesome physical realities of the war’s killing mechanics:

Artillery ruled the battlefield. The German 105mm and 150mm howitzers, called “cooking pots” (marmites) by the French and “Jack Johnsons” by the British, and the lighter 77 mm guns ripped men and horses alike into shreds of flesh and deposited their remains as mounds of pulp. The French 75s, dubbed “black butchers” by the Germans, filled the air with shrieking shrapnel shells (rafales) that exploded above the enemy and drenched those below with thousands of iron balls.

The Battle of the Marne was actually many battles, fought by many armies (often in little or no communication with each other) over a front of 300 miles, and it dramatizes the abrupt change in attitude that came over all participants as the reality of what they were doing came full upon them. “The murderous nature of industrialized warfare changed the common soldiers who conducted it,” he tells us:

… the story is told from the perspective of individual units in separate theaters. These range from the cadets of France’s Saint-Cyr Military Academy advancing on Altkirch, in Alsace, in full-dress uniform to the desperate struggle of German First Army’s hundred thousand grimy and grisly warriors marching to the very outskirts of Paris.

(The chapel of the Saint-Cyr Military Academy had only one entry for its dead in the first year of World War I: “the Class of 1914”).

Exact casualty figures for those first terrible ten days in September are hard to come by, and perhaps this is a mercy, considering how unbelievable the rough estimates are. The Germans may have lost close to 100,000 men, the French perhaps twice that. The wonder, as has been stated many times before, is that either nation kept fighting at all after such losses.

The fighting changed somewhat after the Battle of the Marne. After that point, Germany knew it could not win a quick war with a knockout blow, and so the German armies settled into a two-front war they couldn’t possibly win, and slow, grudging attrition became a defining feature of the conflict. Forces began entrenching, and the network of trenches became a world unto itself. Progress began to be measured in yards rather than miles. Generals steeped in the traditions of the charge, the massed attack, the clear victory, chaffed under these grim new realities and grew impatient with this new face of warfare. As much as any other factor, it was this impatience that brought about the slaughter that’s breathlessly chronicled in Peter Hart’s The Somme, which brings us forward two stale, horrible years to July, 1916 and the Battle of the Somme. Like the Marne, this ‘battle’ was actually a ragged, unorganized series of battles, brought about by the desire of the French and British to make one “big push” that would end the war. The Battle of Verdun with its fruitless objectives and staggering 700,000 casualties had taught these generals nothing only months before, and so on 1 July the French and British opened up an enormous artillery barrage along the German front at the Somme and began moving men into the killing fields.

Over the next four months of sporadic fighting, some 300,000 men would die on both sides (20,000 in the first day) in a cataclysm that would in the end yield nothing of strategic value at all.

In retelling this story, Hart resorts to mythologizing almost as readily as Herwig does to minutiae, and his approach is saved only by the same grace: he’s an emphatic, immediate reporter. He draws his readers into the story by focusing his narrative on the many thousands of first-hand accounts soldiers wrote of their experiences during the battle. Hart often quotes too closely, running the risk of grounding his narrative not only in the soldiers’ experience of the day-to-day but also in their ignorance of the larger picture – and yet it can’t be denied that the glimpses we get through this approach are compelling, as when on 6 August Corporal Charles Smith of the Australian Imperial Force enters a ghastly new series of trenches:

We gained the entrance to the communication trench and passed along it in single file. The trench was a particularly long one and uncomfortably narrow. Loaded up as we were, it was difficult to worm our way along it, and the knuckles of the hands became skinned in consequence. Ghastly sights were witnessed on that journey through the sap. Scores of bodies had been partially buried in the soft earth, and bloody hands and feet protruded at frequent intervals. Boxes of rations and ammunition were scattered about, telling plainer than words that the fatigue parties had come under violent artillery fire and had been annihilated.

That image – dead hands stretching out from walls of mud, as if to grasp at the living as they pass by – might well stand in for the entire First World War from the soldier’s point of view, and the only proper response to the record of such experiences is understatement. Alas, Hart’s experience as a director of the Imperial War Museum in London has encouraged him to eschew understatement in favor of clichés, and so they crop up in his book in far greater numbers than in Herwig’s. War is, we’re told, “a Pandora’s Box, which once opened inevitably brings awful sacrifices.” We’re constantly informed of “the butcher’s bill,” and lest we forget, Hart reminds us that “in war someone always has to suffer.” Cliches often give rise to purple prose, as when Hart opines about wounded soldiers,“In a pregnant second they had been chased from the peak of manhood to utter ruin.”

The Somme has many vivid passages, nevertheless, and it’s always enlivened by Hart’s concentration on the toll his tidings took on the individuals who were trying to live through them:

There is an understandable tendency in considering the massacres of the Somme to concentrate on the legions of the dead. Yet, throughout the Battle of the Somme, as in most battles, three or four were wounded for every man that was killed. The term ‘wounded’ covered a multitude of varying conditions, and there was no denying that a relatively minor ‘Blighty’ wound could come as a blessed relief …

It’s unfortunate, then, that he so often lets his prose run away from him. The mythologizer’s urge is always towards hyperbole, so epic treatment is doled out even to the least of living things:

The blood, the ‘meat’, the vomit, the ripped, torn and loosened bowels brought into sharp focus a further pest – swarms of bloated flies. In a world filled with 5.9-in shells it might be considered that little harm could result from the buzzing of a few flies. But the flies, with their natural predilection for feces, accelerated the spread of disease and somehow amplified the overall horror simply by dint of their ceaseless buzzing and thoroughly nauseating lifestyle.

That oh-so-British crack about the ‘nauseating lifestyle’ of flies would be funnier if it weren’t accompanied by cheap, almost sacrilegious turns of phrase. When Hart continues talking about flies laying eggs in the wounds of soldiers, he can’t resist the tasteless aside, telling us “The reality of war could turn, or indeed colonize, the stomach.”

Sometimes, Hart’s enthusiasms become downright bizarre. It’s right and proper, for instance, that he should pay tribute to the “indomitable defence” put up by the German Army during the Battle of the Somme (although saying “from start to finish they fought as heroes” is going a bit far), but what sense can be made of his soaring peroration at the close of his book? At its peak it reads:

And the British? If this book achieves anything, I hope it will be a renewed respect for the British soldier at war. All of them. Not just the gallant infantry, but the men of the Royal Artillery, the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Engineers, the Army Service Corps, the Army Ordnance Corps – everyone and anyone that was sucked into the gaping maw of the Somme. Not just the usual soldier poets, the tragic working-class heroes and the mounds of dead or wounded. Let us not forget other less popular stereotypes: the ordinary soldiers and gunners who did not see themselves as victims, the staff officers ground down by overwork and responsibility, the brigadier general risking his life to see what was happening to his men, a few arrant cowards intent only in dodging their fate, the sanctimonious padres and the ‘blood and guts’ old colonels. All of them had lives that they put at risk in the cause of their country and each in their own way did their best in that cause.

Surely this is a purple passage too far; this is mythologizing at its most poisonous. So this vigorous, outspoken historian of the First World War wants us to show “renewed respect” for the idiotic colonels who threw away their men’s lives like chaff in the fire? For the war-mongering churchmen who kept recruitments going in a bloody contest that was hardly about turning the other cheek? Incredibly, for the “arrant cowards” who fled so that others would do their fighting for them?

But then, there are perils associated with both approaches. Grounding your account in regimental minutiae can blind you to larger tragedies; smoothing those tragedies over with mythology can obscure the real prices paid by real men and women. In a curious way, both approaches still have their merits (the field of military history would be incalculably poorer if all examples of both were removed from it), but they must be read with caution, at least until the day when the First World War finally gets the definitive, epic treatment it’s deserved for a century. Perhaps Hew Strachan’s much-promised trilogy (only the first volume of which has appeared, and that ten years ago)? Perhaps some other prodigy, even now combing through imperial war records in search of some essential sanities that can be gleaned from that most insane of wars? We must bide our time and wait.

A.C. Childers was born in Chippenham, England and works as a freelance writer and editor in London.