The First
World War

Gerard J. De Groot

    The war on the Western Front is unique but not very interesting. It is no wonder that there are so few good films or war novels about it. Quite simply, it is difficult to construct a plot around 44 months of stalemate. But there is a story to be told. Little happened, but millions died.

With this passage, Gerard De Groot introduces us to World War I.

It started in the late summer of 1914, almost as a lark. The ostensible reason was the assassination of an obscure Archduke of Austria, but all Europe seemed to greet it with enthusiasm. Herman Hesse said it was an escape from a "dull, capitalistic peace." Freud said, "All my libido goes to Austria-Hungary." Thomas Mann wrote that he was "tired, sick and tired" of peace.

De Groot is careful to say that popular opinion was not all that important as the cause of this or any other war:

    In any country, foreign policy is formulated by a very small group of individuals who contemptuously ignore popular opinion. Governments go to war not because of mysterious forces swirling in the air but for purely pragmatic reasons.

"Self-interest," he states, "is the most important factor influencing any decision to start a war....If the actions of European leaders seem, in retrospect, terribly reckless, we must bear in mind that few of them expected such a terrible war." Indeed, all the countries involved expected that it would be over and done with in a matter of months. Up to this point, at least for the last hundred years, short wars --- excepting the American Civil War and the War of the Triple Alliance --- had been the pattern.

Why did it go on and on and on --- driving the participants to desperation, impoverishing whole countries, murdering millions of young men, destroying thousands of acres of viable farmland, ruining lives and bodies? De Groot says it was the machinery of it: "It was technology, not idiotic commanders, which put the armies on the Western Front into trenches and kept them there for three years...The men stayed in the trenches ...because it was the only safe place for them:"

    Warfare is shaped by the interplay of firepower and mobility. When firepower is in the ascendancy, the war is static. When methods of movement allow the battlefield to be crossed with sufficient speed and protection, the war is mobile....Movement was impeded by the boggy, shell-churned ground which made the battlefield inaccessible to trucks and motorcycles, and slowed the pace at which a fully equipped soldier could walk.

"The Western Front was also very crowded with soldiers," he concludes. "Crowds move very slowly."

§     §     §

De Groot has chosen, in this 200 page description the events of those five years to avoid the stylistic twitches of the history-writing drones like Martin Gilbert who go plodding, month-by-month, through the battles until the reader wants to scream and pull out his hair. Rather, he has chosen to start with a whizz-bang introduction --- from which comes the beginning quote above --- then divide chapters into the Western Front, 1914 - 1917, the Eastern Front, 1914 - 1917, "The War at Sea," "Sideshows and Imperial Struggles," "1918." (The concluding chapters deal with the home front, the war from the view of the soldiers, the coming of peace, and a final chapter on the horror.)

It's a sensible and well-paced overview of the war, peppered with some wonderfully sly comments on those who were involved. T. E. Lawrence, who was a part of the Palestine Campaign, is seen as a "devious deviant," a man filled with "egotism and trickery."

    80 years after his campaign, his carefully constructed legend shines brighter than the sordid reality.

On Woodrow Wilson: "[He] tended to become intoxicated by the sound of his own moral pronouncements."

    Thus, even though Wilson was a great deal more hard-bitten by the end of the war than he had been when he entered it, he still could not resist playing to the crowd with his moralistic nonsense.

Erich Ludendorff, on whose shoulders the German campaign depended, seemed to be inured to the suffering of civilians, trying to motivate them "always by a fear of what defeat might mean:"

    Eventually, there came a point when defeat seemed a welcome escape from the tortuous quest for victory.

Best of all, when he is describing the world of the common soldier, De Groot's descriptions ring true...and supremely tragic. One nurse who had served as a Volunteer in France found, upon returning home, that her family was obsessed by the shortage of good chocolate: "It is perhaps no wonder that soldiers often felt more in common with their enemies than with their own families."

His insights into the home front are equally telling. During the course of the war, because of the manpower shortage, women in England and France and Germany were able to escape the domestic role that had previously been assigned to them. They were able to work in factories, and, for a time, to make reasonably good salaries. But it was a two-edged sword: "During the war they were but temporary men --- cheap labour."

    The fact that women could be paid so much less for basically similar work increased antagonism between the sexes and needless to say, did nothing for gender equality.

De Groot is particularly sharp in his evaluation of the efforts of the United States, for whom, during the scant year we were involved, saw the whole as rather a lark: "For most of Europe the war had meant carnage, futility, mud and blood. For Americans, it meant clean socks and healthy teeth."

§     §     §

In his wise parsing of the chapters, De Groot has chosen to put the worst of the horror of WWI towards the end of his book. As such, it becomes even more powerful and effective. We have been given the facts, the overview, early on; at the end, in the chapter titled "The Soldier's War," we see what happened to the common man.

    Relatively few men were killed by a single merciful bullet through the heart. Most were blown to bits or crushed by the weight of blast. The lucky ones were essentially vaporized --- ceasing to exist from one moment to the next. Those less fortunate waited while life oozed from them, with arms or legs torn away, like branches of a tree during a hurricane...It was not unusual, after a shelling, for body parts to be found hanging in nearby trees or for a soldier to be killed by the dismembered limb of a comrade.

And an English nurse wrote,

    I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war...could see the poor [soldiers] burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored suppurating blisters, with blind eyes...all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.

De Groot comes up with some interesting insights. Some of the later attacks, he tells us, especially the Second Battle of the Marne --- after the Americans had entered the battlefield --- "were more appropriate to the mobile offenses of the Second World War." He points out that the logistics were mind-boggling: "Imagine making bread for 2,000,000 men." The trenches on the Western Front were immensely long --- 10,000 km for the French, slightly less for the British, 19,000 km for the Germans. And, finally, that one could think of the war as "some ruthlessly efficient blast furnace," for it

    consumed men (essentially a non-renewal resource) at a prodigious rate. In the first four months of the war, France lost 455,000 men killed or missing, another 400,000 wounded.

His conclusion? That the greatest casualty of them all was the loss of stability. Harking back to the cries of glee that erupted --- even from intellectuals --- at the start of hostilities, he says, "Those who craved instability enjoyed brief satisfaction."

    But there was little redemption in carnage. After the war, the Versailles settlement and economic dislocation ensured that chaos became the natural order....Before 1914, a stable world was cause for restlessness; after 1918, the chaos and uncertainty of the world made stability and order seem very attractive.


--- M. J. Carswell, PhD

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