To my 19-year-old son, the First World War — which ended 100 years ago today — is as remote an event as the Congress of Berlin was to me when I was 19, Lloyd George as distant a figure as Disraeli. To my generation, the First World War was not quite history. My father’s father, John Ferguson, had joined up at the age of 17 and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of more than 6m men from the United Kingdom who served. Of that number, 722,785 did not come back alive. Just under half of all those who lost their lives were aged between 16 and 24 — a fact that never fails to startle.
John Ferguson was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned. But, like more than 1.6m other servicemen, he did not come back unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage.
My grandfather’s most vivid recollection of the war was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced, he and his comrades fixed bayonets and prepared for the order to go over the top. At the last moment, however, the command was given to another regiment. So heavy were the casualties in the ensuing engagement that my grandfather felt sure he would have died if it had been the Seaforths’ turn.
As a schoolboy, reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen, learning to shoot an antiquated rifle in our school’s Combined Cadet Force, I could readily imagine the raw fear of awaiting that order. I wonder if my son knows that sensation.
His generation is not only more distant from the war than mine. It has also been exposed to a great deal of nonsense on the subject. Here are just a few examples I have encountered in recent weeks.
1) Despite the enormous sacrifices of life and treasure, the war was worth fighting. (No, as I argued in my book The Pity of War, an unprepared Britain would probably have been better off staying out, or at least delaying its intervention.)
2) The peace of 1919 failed and was followed just 20 years later by another world war because there wasn’t enough European integration in the 1920s. We learnt our lesson after 1945 and that’s why we haven’t had a third world war. (No, we haven’t had a third world war mainly because of Nato.)
3) The peace failed because of American isolationism. (No, it failed because Woodrow Wilson’s belief that Europe’s borders could be redrawn on the basis of national “self-determination” was naive.)
4) Today, 100 years later, politics in both Europe and the United States is afflicted by the same pathologies that destabilised Europe after the First World War. (No, populism isn’t fascism.)
Let me counter with 10 points that I would like all my children to understand about what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation.
1) The war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires — the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman — that broke out because all their leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.
2) It was not fought mainly by infantrymen going over the top. It was fought mainly with artillery. Shellfire caused 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as improvements in artillery tactics (the creeping barrage, aerial reconnaissance).
3) The Germans were not doomed to lose. If the French had collapsed in the first six months of the war — when 528,000 French soldiers were permanently incapacitated — it could have been 1870 or 1940. French resilience was one of the surprises of the war. Even so, by mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force. German submarines were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by the revolution, American investors saw a German victory as possible as late as the spring of 1918.
4) True, the Germans were handicapped in many ways. Their allies were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria. Their generals used methods — submarine warfare, in particular — that made American intervention likely, if not inevitable.
5) Economically, too, the German side was at a massive disadvantage. Britain and her allies had bigger empires (the population ratio was 5.3 to 1), bigger economies (3.6 to 1) and bigger budgets (2.4 to 1). Moreover, even before the US entered the war, Britain had access to Wall Street.
6) However, the Germans were formidably superior at killing (or capturing) the other side. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s. The German soldiers were effective enough to win their war against Russia in 1917.
7) The Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Was it patriotism? Did they simply believe in the official war aims? Or was it because British propaganda was so effective — and British military justice so harsh? Perhaps all of these played a part. But it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and fags; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals” and “mates” endured.
8) The German army finally fell apart in the summer and autumn of 1918, after it became clear that British tenacity and American intervention made a German victory impossible, and after Bolshevik ideas began to spread westwards from the eastern front. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (August 8-11, 1918), the Germans lost the will to fight and began to surrender in droves.
9) The war was followed not by peace but by pandemonium. The dynasties toppled: Romanovs, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Ottomans — all gone. Their great multi-ethnic empires also disintegrated. The Saxe-Coburgs survived by renaming themselves “Windsor”, but still lost the lion’s share of Ireland. Not only in Russia but all over the world, red revolution seemed unstoppable. To cap it all, an influenza pandemic struck, killing roughly four times as many people as the war had.
10) Not until the advent of a new generation of nationalist strongmen — starting with Jozef Pilsudski, Kemal Ataturk and Benito Mussolini — was it clear that belligerent nationalism was the best antidote to Leninism. Some called it fascism. However, few of the interwar dictators regarded the peace treaties drawn up by the wars’ victors as legitimate. Most of the treaties were dead letters long before war resumed in 1939.
Today, please do observe the two-minute silence, at least, in memory of all those whose lives the Great War ended prematurely. But don’t just zone out, as it’s easy enough to do. If only for 120 seconds, just think of your grandfather or great-grandfather as a boy, in a trench, mortally afraid. And ponder how he got there.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford