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Posted on 6 Feb 2014 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

PAUL HAM 1914: The Year the War Ended. Reviewed by Rod Madgwick

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1914Paul Ham provides a readable and fair-minded corrective to the history wars being waged in the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.

If you have ever stood by the grave of an Australian, or any other soldier, who died in the First World War and wondered at the wasteof it all and how it came about, or if you have not, then this is a book for you. All the more so if, like this reviewer, you shy away from the jargon and mindset of much military history.

One hundred years after the start of that carnage, the wretched history wars are on us again. This time the battle is over who started the Great War, what caused it and whether the British and their empire were justified in getting into it: whether for the stakes involved and ample feats of heroism, despite the slaughter, it was in some real ways for the victors a Good or at least a Noble Thing.  In Australia the jingoism, the armchair-leftish platitudes, the revisionism and the revanchism will no doubt reach their crescendos next year with the centenary of Gallipoli. In England, centenary celebration of militarism is well underway. The Tory government is going all out with commemorations. A minister there has recently flown the revanchist flag and other scholars and commentators (for example, here and here) have shot it down.

But why a book about 1914 rather than about the Great War as a whole, along the lines, say, of Antony Beevor’s recent popular account of World War II? The year 1914 was when the war was born, notwithstanding its longer, complex gestation. According to Ham (and Churchill), and with the benefit of hindsight, this was the year when Germany and its allies really lost the war; when modern wartime slaughter came into its own, and when the old European world was transformed and imperialism fatally undermined. It’s to this year that the succeeding horrors of the 20th century – Nazism, Stalinism, World War II and the Cold War – can, on Ham’s argument, largely be traced. The Western Front, now seared into western consciousness, was established in 1914 and remained there for the war’s duration.

Ham is much concerned with the immediate and longer-term causes of the war – imperial, diplomatic and social. He is also agitated about the moral issues involved. Unlike his critically acclaimed Hiroshima Nagasaki, which uncovered fresh primary sources, this book is largely reliant on secondary sources, in particular the most distinguished of the many scholarly works on the Great War and its causes. However, Ham has a fine eye, and a journalist’s instinct for the telling speech, diplomatic cable, poems and letters from soldiers and their families, to drive home his story of callousness, stupidity, suffering, loss and waste. Churchill confessed in a 1915 letter to ‘loving’ the war, even though he understood it was ‘smashing and shattering the lives of thousands’ and that ‘a curse should rest on me’ for such exultation.

Ham offers a profound denunciation of the war and its consequences, and condemns virtually all the key leaders of all the great nations and empires involved. Despite his stated aim of a ‘straightforward narrative history’, Ham’s heart is clearly with Wilfred Owen and his (then) incendiary poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ about the realities of death in the trenches:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Ham is at pains to debunk two popular assumptions about responsibility for the war. The first is that the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian pan-Slav militant, precipitated the conflict. The author’s assessment is that the true cause was:

… the uses to which [the men in power] put the murder … It accelerated forces … which would have culminated in war anyway … Any other spark might have ignited war: Anglo-Russian naval talks … German gunboat [diplomacy], Russian mobilization.

The second is that ‘nobody in positions of power sleepwalked to war’, as Christopher Clark and others have suggested:

The leaders were wide awake, sentient decision-makers who knew what was happening and were aware of the repercussions of their actions. Some went willingly to war (Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia); or … accepted it with complacent resignation (France, Britain) …

Yet European leaders later claimed that the war was ‘inevitable’, ‘ordained by God or Darwin’ and ‘unavoidable’ – as if the tragedy unfolded before their eyes like some terrible accident, which they were helpless to avert.

It was:

 … governments, not prophets or gods, [who] inflicted the abomination of the Great War on the world. And they made little concerned effort to prevent it: mediation was scarcely given a chance in the rush to arms.

Ham takes the view that, while all the great powers had some share of responsibility, Germany was indeed the chief culprit, though less thoroughly black-hearted than some have suggested. In pursuit of its desire for a colonial empire to rival those of Britain and France, it:

… orchestrated the Austrian war with Serbia and consciously precipitated the domino effect that drew in Russia, whose grossly irresponsible [and in Ham’s view premature] decision to mobilize ensured that it would soon be at war with Germany.

Ham also makes clear that German racism, complaints and tendency to play the victim long preceded Hitler.

Britain tried to be all things to all the other powers, failed plainly and promptly to tell Germany that it would fight with France if moves were made to attack that ally, and left attempts to mediate until after the German die had been cast. So late was England to France’s side and so technical the English reading of their Triple Alliance treaty that the French ambassador to Britain questioned whether ‘the word “honour” should not be struck out of the English vocabulary’.

Nor were the French innocent:

… the French Government may not have wanted war but did nothing to avert it and, once war looked likely, welcomed and even relished the prospect … Never had France seemed better equipped to take the offensive to Germany, to exact revenge for 1815, 1870 and 1911[a diplomatic humiliation], and reclaim Alsace-Lorraine.

The extent to which, throughout Europe, people at large seemed to welcome a test of arms in the lead-up to World War I now seems extraordinary. True, very few foresaw the horrors that technical developments in weaponry and warfare, and outworn military leadership, would produce. But in essence the war was about colonial rivalries and the preservation and glorification of the status quo – declining and rigid class systems. Many soldiers of the  great powers were too young to vote, or unenfranchised, but all able-bodied men over 18 were eligible to face bullets.  Leftist, pacifist and religious objectors seem to have carried little weight. In France the ‘jingoist press’ fired up great crowds, ‘impatient for war’. Only a few, such as the socialist Jaurès, who foretold that war would leave ‘all of France a smouldering ruin’, opposed a war. Jaurès was branded a traitor for his courage. The Socialist Party fell in behind the Poincaré government.

In England there seems to have been less general appetite for a test of arms, but in the end the unconscionable German ultimatum to small and neutral Belgium, that country’s brave defiance and the subsequent brutal German invasion, cemented public opinion in favour of war. The Labour Party, then a minor force in parliament, was split, but in 1915 entered into a wartime coalition.

How and why the more progressive social elements failed to stop the deadly games of empire, race and class deserves more analysis than Ham ventures. Indeed the least convincing aspects of the book generally are the efforts to portray social attitudes other than those of the ruling politicians and bureaucrats.

Another surprise is the relatively scant attention given by an Australian author to the role of the Turks and the Ottomans. Of the major European powers, France suffered the highest rate of deaths per head of population in the war – 4.3%. The Ottoman Empire suffered 13.7%, a seventh of all the people subject to it. In 1909 the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff approved a press article which saw Turkey as ‘now in the hands of a clique of traitors, bribed with English money and working for the interests of England’. How then did it come to pass that Turkey, humiliated and crushed after the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, entered the war on the side of the Central Powers? German officers were sent in 1913 to retrain the Turkish army. They ended by commanding Turkish forces in the Dardanelles and promoting Mustapha Kemal, whose division vanquished the British and the Anzacs at Gallipoli, thus ‘saving the Ottoman Peninsula and denying the Allies a “third front” against Germany’. The intriguing story of how British diplomacy so utterly failed to prevent Turkey becoming an enemy is not told here, even in outline.

The book is very readable and seems to a general reader to be fair-minded.  Ham has provided a useful armoury and reference against the cacophony of competing ideologists and their war by proxy, the history wars, that is already getting louder. All in all, this is as good a book of popular history as anyone has a right to expect.

Paul Ham 1914: The Year the World Ended William Heinemann 2013 HB 736pp $49.99

Rod Madgwick is a retired Federal Court judge.

To see if this book is available from Newtown Library, click here.

1 Comment

  1. “Britain tried to be all things to all the other powers, failed plainly and promptly to tell Germany that it would fight with France if moves were made to attack that ally, and left attempts to mediate until after the German die had been cast”.

    Britain are an easy target. But unless the suggestion is that Grey ought to have bluffed Berlin, the British could not have “promptly” told Germany it would fight because this was by no means clear or even likely until the invasion of Belgium. Germany knew beyond doubt that the invasion of Belgium was a casus belli for Britain, but did it anyway giving Whitehall hawks the moral gloss + political backing for a war they thought strategically necessary. The German military calculated that the British had a small army (and no conscription) and so staked all on Schlieffen Plan.