In commemoration of this day, the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, I’m posting this article I wrote on a now-defunct website two years ago, to mark the centennial of the outbreak of the war. The Battle of the Somme can in many ways signify the overall destructiveness of World War I and the gloom it still casts in human consciousness in its highest degree.
Note once more, that I wrote this in 2014, so some things may be out of date or subject to revision.
The world in 2014 continues to mark the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War, particularly over the mid-summer when the actual hostilities commenced in earnest. Much discussion has been made about the long political echoes of the First World War. As civil war continues to rage in Syria, the 2014 Israeli-Palestine conflict appears no closer to resolution, and ISIS swiftly moves through Iraq, many recognize that these contemporary conflicts are directly tied to the outcome of World War I, which created the Middle East as we know it today.
Much less however, has been remarked about the cultural echoes of World War I. The Great War supplanted a century of optimism and shattered its illusions forever. Ultimately, these illusions have still not recovered, and the naiveté of our ancestors seems to us today foolhardy.
Following the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Europe, and more broadly, the world, entered an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Between 1815 and 1914, there were no general conflicts between the great powers of the world. What wars that did involve them were localized and short, as we can see with this abbreviated list:
- First Italian War of Independence (1848 – 1849)
- First Schleswig War (1848 – 1851)
- Crimean War (1853 – 1856)
- Second Italian War of Independence (1859)
- Expedition of the Thousand (1860 – 1861)
- Second Schleswig War (1864)
- Austro-Prussian War/Third Italian War of Independence (1866)
- Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 1871)
- Italo-Turkush War (1911-1912)
- Balkan Wars (1912-1913)
To demonstrate how much of a historical outlier this really was, it is necessary to delve further back in time. Europeans had fought each other in frequent wars from time immemorial. The Roman Empire held this streak at bay somewhat, but upon its decline and collapse, the fires continued to rage uncontrollably once more.
Throughout the Middle Ages, strong fortifications were constructed even when Viking raids ceased in the 11th century. Feudal warlords fought each other and slaughtered peasants with such frequency that the Catholic Church found it necessary to intervene with the doctrines of the Peace and Truce of God – and to encourage the nobles and their knights to turn their swords east against the Islamic infidel, which ushered in two centuries of on-again, off-again crusading.
The wars did not stop when the Middle Ages ended. Instead, they got bigger and deadlier, as dynastic warfare prevailed and untold wealth poured into Europe from the Americas. The wars became more frequent too. In fact, in the 200 years between 1501 and 1701, Europe only experienced ten total years without any kind of war.(1)
The 17th century has been termed as the “General Crisis” by some historians. It was a time with numerous large and protracted wars, the two most notable of which were the Thirty Years’ War, which reduced Germany’s population by a quarter, and the series of British civil wars known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which decimated Ireland and even caused more per capita English deaths than World War I.(2)
The 18th century started off just as bloody with the long War of the Spanish Succession and the even longer Great Northern War. As the century progressed, warmaking on a global scale became a reality for the first time. Frederick the Great and the rise of Prussia plunged the Continent into numerous long, large wars, and the French Revolution led to over 20 years of almost non-stop warfare between the great powers which raged from Iberia to Russia and killed millions.
At last, with Napoleon’s defeat, Europe entered a period of general peace. The power structure worked out by the Congress of Vienna proved to be remarkably durable and the people began to embrace, with untold optimism, the period of peace and prosperity before them. This optimistic idealism is perhaps best summarized by Tennyson’s famous Locksley Hall:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be; Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales; Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and the rained a ghastly dew, From the nation’s airy navies grappling in the central blue; Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm, With the standards of the people plunging thro’ the thunderstorm; Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle flags were furl’d In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world. There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe, And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.(3)
Even Edward Creasy, who was introducing his classic 15 Decisive Battles of the World, expressed the great hope of his contemporaries that his subject matter would be a thing of the past in the introduction to his work:
It is an honorable characteristic of the Spirit of this Age that projects of violence are regarded among the civilized states with gradually increasing aversion.
“For a writer therefore, of the present day to choose battles for his favorite topic, merely because they were battles; merely because so many myriads of troops were arrayed in them, and so many hundreds or thousands of human beings stabbed, hewed, or shot each other to death during them, would argue strange weakness or depravity of mind.(4)
He expresses his own hopeful sentiments in his concluding remarks:
In closing our observations of this last of the Decisive Battles of the World, it is pleasing to contrast the year which it signalized with the year that is now passing over our heads. We have not had (and long may be without) the stern excitement of martial strife, and we see no captive standards of our European neighbors brought in triumph to our shrines. But we behold an infinitely prouder spectacle. We see the banners of every civilized nation waving over the arena of our competition with each other, in the arts that minister to our race’s support and happiness, and not to its suffering and destruction.
Peace hath her victories no less renowned than War; and no battlefield ever witnessed a victory more noble than that, which England, under her Sovereign Lady and Royal Prince, is now teaching the peoples of the earth to achieve over selfish prejudices and international feuds, in the great cause of the general promotion of the industry and welfare of mankind.(5)
Combined with this era of peace came the industrial revolution, which created unimaginable wealth and at last allowed humanity to break free of the grip of reliance on muscle power alone for energy. In his The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson writes about the wealth and interconnectedness of the world economy through the 19th century:
Globalization, in the sense of a rapid integration of international markets for commodities, manufactures, labor, and capital, is not a new phenomenon. In the three decades before 1914, trade in goods reached almost as large a proportion of global output in the past thirty years. Although in gross terms, stocks of international capital were larger in relation to global GDP during the 1990s than they were a century ago, in net terms the amounts invested abroad – particularly by rich countries in poor countries – were much larger in the earlier period.
By the middle of the 19th century, the key technologies of the industrial revolution could be transferred anywhere. Communication lags had been dramatically reduced thanks to the laying of an international undersea cable network. Capital was abundantly available and, as we shall see, British investors were more than ready to risk their money in remote countries. Equipment was affordable, energy available and labor so abundant that manufacturing textiles in China or India ought to have been a hugely profitable line of business.(6)
The prosperity of the industrial revolution and the technological advances it created made people marvel and further added to the optimism of the period, creating an illusion of never-ending advancement. Such enthusiasm could often be seen (and indeed, was meant to be induced by) the World’s Fairs of the period where crowds gawked at the inventions and items on display, remarking upon the eternal progress of man. These fairs were very profitable, even ones which took place only years after the end of a war, such as Vienna’s in 1873 and Paris’ in 1878.
This optimistic attitude even contributed to the outbreak of World War I. As we have seen, the conflicts seen in 19th century Europe tended to be short and decisive. It was therefore the belief at the time that warfare in the industrial age would not be akin to the protracted conflicts of previous centuries. Unfortunately, the lessons of the American Civil War, which suggested something different, had not been learned by those across the Pond.
A short conflict was assumed by all of the major powers and this was reflected in their war plans, such as Germany’s infamous Schlieffen Plan, which assumed that France could be knocked out of the conflict in a matter of weeks. A widespread belief prevailed that the war would be over by Christmas, both among the military commands and the general public.
When war broke out, young men flocked to the colors, believing that the affair would make for a nice adventure wherein they could win glory for themselves and their country. This poem written by Rupert Brooke, a soon-to-be dead British soldier, reflects this mentality:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust coneal’d
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air.
Wash’d by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.(7)
The reality of the war was of course different. The horrors of a general, industrialized conflict on multiple fronts using industrial technology quickly became apparent to everyone, as the photos, videos, and descriptions of the period relay to us.
The four years of war between 1914 and 1918 killed tens of millions, and in ways far more gruesome than any that had been experienced before. Terrifying new artillery and weapons such as the machine gun and mustard gas caused carnage and suffering not yet before seen by human eyes. Whereas before the Napoleonic Wars, armies rarely numbered over 100,000, that number and many more were casualties multiple times in single battles such as Verdun and the Somme. The industrial wonders that people had marveled at throughout the 19th century now removed their masks and showed off, in spectacular display, their vicious faces, and the trembling they caused was without precedent.
In such an atmosphere, talk of glory quickly ceased. By the end of the war, a very different form of poetry was being crafted; this time exemplified at the hands of Siegfried Sassoon, a British officer:
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glowering sun
Smouldering through pouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one, by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in the mud.
O Jesu, make it stop!(8)
Poetry such as this lends witness to the horrors of what became known as the Lost Generation. Following the Great War, humanity would never view warfare or society through the same rose-colored glasses again, as is evidenced both by the rise of fanatical ideologies in the Great War’s aftermath.(9) This was also evidenced by Britain and France doing everything they could to avoid plunging their nations into another war with Germany, despite the clear threats that Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime presented. Neville Chamberlain, at the height of the policy of appeasement, presented his agreement with Hitler on Czechoslovakia as:
We, the German Fuhrer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for our two countries and for Europe.
We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.
We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference, and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.
My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is ‘peace for our time.’ Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.(10)
This desire to preserve peace at any cost is a reminder of how damaging World War I had been to contemporary psyches. It closed the book on the zeitgeist of optimism that reigned from 1815 to 1914. Now keenly aware of the horrors of industrialized warfare and that long, high intensity wars were not a thing of the past, peace at any price was the modus operandi of Britain and France in the years leading up to World War II, despite the fact that numerous opportunities presented themselves for a quick defeat of Hitler. Far from the rampant militaristic fervor of before (a more destructive expression of the optimism of the 19th century), war presented glory in the minds of no one.
Today there may seem to be a similar situation to the international political order that prevailed through the time leading to World War I. Like then, there has been a very long period without a general war between the major world powers (or even a localized one between any of them), an order that has maintained itself since 1945. For the first time in its history, Europe has experienced 70 years of almost uninterrupted peace. In such an atmosphere, many again wonder whether such wars are a thing of the past and begin to look forward with hope.
However, the instinctual revulsion toward war and a keen awareness of its horrors that formed in the aftermath of World War I persists in the public consciousness. As the violent protests against the Vietnam War and in the lead up to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq reveal, war of any kind is taken and considered seriously, and often opposed by many for any reason. The presence of nuclear weapons no doubt only adds to these fears in the extreme, and the imagery of their testing and use adds even more powerful incentives to the public to oppose the warfare seen in the past.
Perhaps the present situation is best described as a cautious belief in progress, ever-mindful of the consequences of war.
Given this cultural climate, and the interconnectedness of the global economy, will the period of relative peace be indefinite this time? Are high intensity conflicts between the major world powers truly a thing of the past, as Tennyson, Creasy, and their contemporaries hoped in their own time? The optimists among us, while remaining wary due to the still-lingering echoes of World War I, would like to hope so. However, Niall Ferguson gives some stark warnings as to the eerie similarity between the present climate and the period leading up to the outbreak of the First World War:
The combination of global integration and financial innovation had made the world seem reassuringly safe to investors. Moreover, it had been forty-four years since the last major European war, between France and Germany, and that had been mercifully short. Geopolitically of course, the world was anything but a safe place. Any reader of the Daily Mail could see that the European arms race and imperial rivalry might one day lead to a major war; indeed, there was an entire subgenre of popular fiction based on imaginary Anglo-German wars. Yet the lights in financial markets were flashing green, not red, until the very eve of destruction.
There may be a lesson here for our time, too. The first era of financial globalization took at least a generation to achieve. But it was blown apart in a matter of days. And it would take more than two generations to repair the damage done by the guns of August 1914.(11)
The interconnectedness of the global economy did not stop the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and in fact, may have contributed to its cause.(12) Ferguson continues to warn:
One important lesson of history is that major wars can arise even when economic globalization is very far advanced and the hegemonic position of an English-speaking empire seems fairly secure. A second important lesson is that the longer the world goes without a major conflict, the harder one becomes to imagine (and, perhaps, the easier one becomes to start.(13)
As the wars in Ukraine and Syria continue to unfold, and the West and Russia continue to turn up the heat on each other in the largest confrontation between the two since the Cold War, it is very necessary to remember these lessons, no matter how farfetched the possibility of war may seem, just as the type of war that World War I became was to those living in 1914.
Ultimately the public will need to remain wary and vigilant, and avoid the naïveté of its hopelessly optimistic ancestors, whose dearest illusions were shattered by a war the likes of which they could not imagine coming.
- Parker, Geoffrey. “Dynastic War.” In The Cambridge History of Warfare, 148. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- West, Sam, Narrator. “Blood On Our Hands.” The English Civil War. Posted February 10 2005. Channel 4 February 10 2005.
- Alfred, Tennyson. “Locksley Hall.” Representative Poetry Online. January 1, 1842. Accessed August 9, 2014. http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/locksley-hall.
- Creasy, Edward, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, VII London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1851.
- Creasy, Edward, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, 407. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1851.
- Ferguson, Niall. “From Empire to Chimerica.” In The Ascent of Money, 287-288. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
- Murray, Williamson, A and Parker, Geoffrey. “The West At War.” In The Cambridge History of Warfare, 312. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Murray, Williamson, A and Parker, Geoffrey. “The West At War.” In The Cambridge History of Warfare, 313. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Murray, Williamson, A and Parker, Geoffrey. “The West At War.” In The Cambridge History of Warfare, 312. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Chamberlain, Neville. “Peace for Our Time.” Britannia. September 30, 1938. Accessed August 9, 2014. http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/peacetime.html.
- Ferguson, Niall. “From Empire to Chimerica.” In The Ascent of Money, 305. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
- Ferguson, Niall. “From Empire to Chimerica.” In The Ascent of Money, 288-289. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
- Ferguson, Niall. “From Empire to Chimerica.” In The Ascent of Money, 341. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.