Was WWI “Pointless Carnage”?

Jenkins, The Great and Holy WarYesterday Thomas Kidd’s interview of Philip Jenkins, his fellow Anxious Bencher, further whetted my appetite for Jenkins’ new book on religion and World War I, The Great and Holy War. But I was mostly struck by the way Jenkins pushed back against Kidd’s statement that “WWI is often remembered for unprecedented, but often pointless carnage, especially in the notorious experiences of trench warfare.”

While Jenkins affirmed that religion might help explain the scale of killing, he added:

Incidentally, I do challenge the idea of “pointless” carnage. Some battles in the war were far bloodier than they need have been, and military incompetence was widespread. The First Day of the Somme was a perfect example. But I would stress the main Allied goal of the war, of preventing a ruthless German hegemony over the whole of Europe, which in the imperial context of the time meant over most of the world. From 1914, the Germans could only be defeated by wearing down and penetrating their very strong fortifications in France and Belgium, and the Western Allies took some time to find the military means to accomplish that. It was a war of attrition, but so (for instance) was the Battle of Normandy in 1944, which actually cost casualties at a greater rate than did most of the famous battles of the First World War. And ultimately, the Western Allies of 1944 broke through German lines and ended the stalemate, just as they ultimately did in 1918.

But pointless? No more than World War II.

My guess is that this strikes most readers as surprising, even appalling. The “pointless”-ness of the carnage unleashed between 1914-1918 has been reinforced by generations of historians, journalists, novelists, poets, filmmakers, composers, politicians, and others. In part, this stemmed from a backlash against the hyperbolic and often hypocritical propaganda of the Allies, who claimed to be fighting a war for Western civilization against a barbaric (“The Hun”) enemy, then forced Germany to accept total responsibility for the war in the ensuing peace conference. And, for Americans, at least, there’s a clear contrast with the “Good War” fought (albeit with worse loss of life) against a German state of undeniable iniquity.

Douamont French Cemetery
Section of the French military cemetery next to the Douaumont Ossuary, where rest the unidentified remains of tens of thousands of French and German soldiers who died at the Battle of Verdun, February-December 1916 – Creative Commons (Lvcvlvs)

But I also suspect that the general public doesn’t realize that over the past half-century, there’s been a shift in historical opinion. Thanks to the pioneering work of the German historian Fritz Fischer and his students, many (most?) historians have come to believe that Germany either sought out war in 1914 or at least behaved so recklessly as to make it highly likely. They also have come to recognize that there was substantial continuity between German territorial aims in the two world wars. (Like the Third Reich, the Second sought to expand eastward.) And if the Western democracies were less liberal than we would like, they never descended into the virtual military dictatorship that ruled Germany from 1916-1918.

At least in Britain, all this has burst into the public square as the war’s centenary has unleashed fierce debate about the necessity of the war and Germany’s aims and conduct within it. See my January post on “WWI at 100: Commemoration and Political Correctness,” in which I reported on British education secretary Michael Gove’s comments that British action in WWI was justified as a response to the “pitiless” and “aggressive expansionism” of Wilhelmine Germany.

Against Gove and his conservative defenders, left-wing writers like Seamus Milne snarled back, “This is all preposterous nonsense. Unlike the second world war, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war. It was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.” And it’s not just those of the left who feel this way. Cf. historian Niall Ferguson, whose 2000 book The Pity of War argued that Britain should never have intervened in the continental conflict of 1914 and could even have lived with a German victory in that war. Fourteen years later, he hasn’t changed his mind, telling a recent interviewer, “We should not think of this as some great victory or dreadful crime, but more as the biggest error in modern history.”

Among those supporting Gove, criticized by Milne, and rebutted by Ferguson is the acclaimed popular historian Max Hastings, whose history of the war’s beginnings, Catastrophe 1914, I’ve finally started to read.

Hastings makes clear that leaders of all nationalities were deeply flawed and played a role in the way events unfolded a century ago. If they were not recklessly pursuing war or policies that risked it (e.g., the Russian minister in Belgrade, Nikolai Hartwig, and Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the Serbian military intelligence chief who had been one of the assassins of King Alexander in 1903; the bizarre Austrian chief of staff Conrad Hötzendorff), they did not have the competence or willpower necessary to restrain the warmongers (e.g., Russia’s ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II; the British foreign secretary Edward Grey).

But in the end, Hastings is most sympathetic to the Fischer thesis, which he summarizes as arguing “that the Kaiserreich must bear the burden of guilt, because documentary evidence showed the country’s leadership bent upon launching a European war before Russia’s accelerating development and armament precipitated a seismic shift in strategic advantage” (p. xx). And he clearly feels that Britain and its Allies were justified in employing military might to resist German hegemony.

While he doesn’t rush to judgment (and is under no illusions about the imperial ambitions of Britain, France, and other allies), Hastings comes to a conclusion much like Jenkins’:

In the twenty-first century, most British people remain extravagantly triumphalist about their nation’s role in the Second World War [a triumphalism that Hastings does well to puncture in WWII histories like Inferno], while seeming extravagantly eager to dismiss the arguments for resisting German aggression in 1914.

Hastings, Catastrophe 1914The case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame. Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it decline to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria. Even if Berlin did not seek to contrive a general European conflagration, it was willing for one, because it believed that it could win….

Once the struggle had begun, it would be entirely mistaken to suppose, as do so many people in the twenty-first century, that it did not matter which side won. The allies imposed a clumsy peace settlement at Versailles in 1919, but if the Germans had instead been dictating the terms as victors, European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit. Germany adopted territorial war aims in the course of the First World War which were not much less ambitious than those favoured by its ruler in the Second. It thus seems quite wrong to describe the undoubted European tragedy of 1914-18 as futile, a view overwhelmingly driven in the eyes of posterity by the human cost of the military experience. If the Kaiserreich did not deserve to triumph, those who fought and died in the ultimately successful struggle to prevent such an outcome did not perish for nothing, save insofar as all sacrifice in all wars is just cause for lamentation. (pp. 562-63)


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