If At First You Don’t Succeed… – WORLD WAR ONE – a Short History by Norman Stone


For the unhappy many on the front lines of the Great War, after no one much remembered why they were fighting, one last recourse was gallows humor, implicitly at the expense of their leaders. “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here,” they came to say. Many, of course, are still there – because they are – and there is no disrespect in recognizing that we honor them because we honor them because we honor them. That’s more than reason enough. We don’t really need to fear the Kaiser, remember Zimmerman, or rage against unrestricted submarine warfare.

For Norman Stone, World War I was a 4-year period in which the world “went from 1870 to 1940.” Rendering the whole story of this hyper-accelerated epoch in a mere 190 pages, when others have managed to illuminate much less while working at much greater length, Stone dramatically re-compresses time all over again, tracing the broad outlines of strategy, diplomacy, and personal and mass psychology, and yet he never seems too rushed for a witty turn of phrase, a memorable detail, or a colorfully absurd footnote.

The overall effect of this kind of history-writing is often exactly as diverting as it is ungraspably awful.  This feat of letters is possible not because Stone is desperate to crack a joke, but because his material cooperates and he has mastered it, as in the grandly and horrendously comedic set-up:

In 1914, to crowds of cheering people, the troops moved off, generals on horseback dreaming that they would have a statue in some square named after them. No war has ever begun with such a fundamental misunderstanding of its nature.

The philosopher Henri Bergson’s book Laughter (Le rire) had just three years earlier defined humor for the world as the imposition of the mechanical on the human.  Approaching a century later, it may not be too obscene to view the events of 1914-8, the industrialized mechanics of mass murder imposed on human scale expectations, as a test of Bergson’s proposition, its grim punchline – contradictory, unexpected, irrational, like most good jests.

It would stand to reason, for instance, that an artillery bombardment of, literally, millions of explosive shells on a confined front (e.g., 4.6 million to prepare the battle of Third Ypres) would produce some useful tactical effect. Instead, more often than not, the enemy would emerge, still game enough for the next encounter – better off than many of the characters in the nightmarish 1936 Looney Tunes send-up of the Great War “Boom Boom.”

“Boom Boom” remembers the guns, the shells, the trenches, the destruction, the terror, and even makes light of torture, but forgets the gas. It turns out that in real life even the introduction of weapons of mass destruction produced a farce:

At Loos, a mining town, the British even released gas, but, as [Robert] Graves describes the effort, it was a fiasco – the sort of British blunder that soldiers remember from the early stages of either world war. Gas was to be released from cylinders. The spanners to unscrew them were the wrong size. The chemistry teachers knew nothing much about poison gas, and hated what they were doing, and the military were not more respectful of bewildered chemistry teachers. The wind was wrong, but since the cylinders were in place, the order was given for the gas to be released, and it blew back on the British. The little town of Loos was captured, but the two reserve divisions were kept too far back, and advanced in a hurry over duck-boards in communications trenches, or along roads that were jammed axle-to-axle with carts, guns and the ineffable cavalry, arriving far too late to do anything further except to be slaughtered over the next two days. This at least caused a change in the British command…

The ineffable cavalry: Nothing better symbolized the unpreparedness for the war that was actually fought, as opposed to the one armed and planned for, than the herds of cavalry mounts clogging and fouling roads and depots, using up precious space in boxcars for themselves, their feed, and their equipment. In battle after battle they were held in reserve to exploit the breakthroughs that never came or to scout positions that hardly budged, that were effectively impregnable or had long since ceased to exist, or that, later in the war, were much better reconnoitered from the air. Altogether an imposition of the mechanical on the equine, you might say.

We laugh also out of sheer incomprehension. The raw facts leave one wondering if something possibly beyond understanding took place. This was a war, after all, in which a single week‘s undifferentiated “wastage” (a term that looks forward to and trumps antisepticisms like “collateral damage” and “overseas contingency operation”) could entail the deaths of more combatants than all those lost by the U.S. in all the wars we have fought since Vietnam. It was a war in which each of several battles fought to no apparent purpose caused casualties far greater in number than all of the Americans who have served at all in Iraq and Afghanistan. The single battle of Verdun, in Stone’s view, “broke the French army, or at any rate strained it to such a degree that the country never really recovered: France’s last moment as a Great Power.” Third Ypres, popularly recalled as Paaschendaele, “did more to disaffect the British educated classes than anything that Lenin ever wrote.” A century’s leftward tilt and cultural decline may have originated in muddy fields where hundreds of thousands of casualties cost the British their last reserves, physical and emotional – where wounded men crawled into shell-holes for safety, only to find “that the rain caused the water in them to rise and rise, so that they could see their own deaths by drowning approaching, fractions of an inch at a time.”

Not really very funny.

The point was supposed to have been progress, or loyalty, or self-defense, or empire, or enlightenment, or democracy, or honor, or justice, but the arc of modern history bends toward irony. Or so the soldiers who were there because they were there seem to have concluded. The diplomats may have figured it out, too – as when, foreshadowing much later land-trades, revolutionary Russia signed all of Central Europe and the Ukraine over to the Germans at Brest-Litovsk, and scrambled to fill out their delegation for the “first diplomatic treaty ever to be filmed”: On the one side of the great hall were the representative aristocrats of Germany, Austria, and their allies. On the other, alongside a few old generals who at least knew the protocol, were “…representatives of a new state, soon to be called the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics – some Jewish intellectuals, but various others, including a Madame Bitsenko who had recently been released from a Siberian prison where she had been put for assassinating a governor-general, [and] a ‘delegate of the peasantry’ who had been picked up from the street in the Russian capital at the last minute as useful furniture (he, understandably, drank)…”

Very understandably. One imagines him silently toasting the war to end war… that would give birth to a series of civil wars and, at length, an even worse war. Of course, he couldn’t have known that, but it would have been in keeping with the larger theme of grand futility, grand illusion that he himself partly symbolized, and that seemed a part of almost every major war plan, war aim, and stratagem. For further instance, the navies: The German Navy had been built at crushing expense, and was therefore too precious to risk: Instead of winning the war it mainly provided a ready insurrectionary reserve – rather like the Russian fleet, also trapped in harbor, also collectively disgruntled, deprived, disrespected, and drunk. The British Navy comes out ahead in the balance – a bit: It successfully blockaded Europe, but in so doing mainly impelled a headlong rationalization of German war industry that put the Kaiser a year ahead of his enemies. The greatest positive accomplishment of the Royal Navy may have been protecting merchant shipping so poorly against U-boats as to bring the enraged Americans earlier into the war.

The decisive action – inspiring Clemenceau’s famous, true, and funny line about war as a series of catastrophes resulting in a victory – was on the land. The Germans, we learn, were stalled and turned back again and again – from the initial invasion to the the last failed offensive – because they never learned when they had taken things too far. The winning tactics were developed by the brilliant Russian general A.A. Brusilov, commanding troops in one of the worst-handled, most thoroughly defeated armies. The Germans improved upon his methods, applying them in one last flurry of inglorious destruction, but it was Marshal Foch of the nearly shattered French Army, now Generalissimo of the American-reinforced Allies, who, in the final war-winning offensive, “discovered how this war was to be won: he stopped.”

He stopped – and the denouement was a real-life satire:

The answer was to suspend the attack where it had suceeded, and attack somewhere else, keeping the enemy reserves on the move. Move, they did: demoralizing slow journeys by train, halts, countermandings, continuations, and all of it in hot weather… A third of the entire German army was to spend the last three months of the war in or near slow-moving trains.

Schadenfreude, in retrospect, for us – obviously no joke to the participants: Not to the men who continued to die in large numbers as diplomacy and indecision delayed the foregone conclusion for those three months, not to commanding General Ludendorff, who went on to popularize the “stab-in-the-back” theory of how the Germans lost the war – not even to winners like Foch or Britain’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George, both of whom accurately predicted another war twenty to twenty-five years hence – and perhaps least of all to the Austrian corporal Hitler recuperating from his wounds, weeping at the worst news of all – peace – and blaming the Jews. He was, as we know, wrong about everything, but right about one big thing: The great machinery of mass death (and irony) merely needed some time in the shop, and post-war Europe would possess all the tools he needed for the repair job.


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12 comments on “If At First You Don’t Succeed… – WORLD WAR ONE – a Short History by Norman Stone

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  1. Fine writing, Colin.

    It reminds me of the memorials I’ve seen in every English city, bleak reminders of enormous loss.

  2. Very fine writing; but I think you let yourself get a bit carried away by the prose. Not that I, of all people, occupy ground suitable for making that charge.

    “The greatest positive accomplishment of the Royal Navy may have been protecting merchant shipping so poorly against U-boats as to bring the enraged Americans earlier into the war.”

    A nicely turned sentence that suited your objective and narrative flow; but it implies that the Royal Navy could have protected merchant shipping much better. I could be wrong but it seems more the case that the technology to protect merchant shipping simply wasn’t there.

    Regardless, I enjoyed the review a lot, and I’ve put the book on my wish list; although I doubt the fellow’s writing matches what you produced for sheer elan. It reminds me a bit of parts of Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War .

    By the way, Youtube has removed your video for unauthorized use. The next knock on your door may be their lawyers.

  3. Oh, that’s a tragedy about the YouTube – did you catch it before it was pulled?

    According to Stone and others, when the Royal Navy finally enforced effective convoy tactics, they reduced the hit on shipping significantly enough to neutralize the U-boats. A parallel process occurred during WW2.

    I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the book at all. The detail work alone – the footnotes I referred to – justifies it as a read for history buffs.

  4. I may have seen it when I was a kid. I found it while I was looking for some other cartoon I seem to remember – I was thinking it was Bugs Bunny vs Daffy Duck – in which a huge bombardment occurs, but Daffy or whoever is still standing there, smoldering, dirtied up, and frazzled, but mainly just a little upset and ready for the next round.

    Boom Boom though – I meant it when I described it as nightmarish. I think the poor quality black and white enhances the effect.

  5. @ CK MacLeod:

    I think the bugs bunny / daffy duck thing was a later cartoon and about WW2.

    I probably should have written that I think I saw Boom Boom as a kid because of the way memory works and the possibility that scenes and gags were later copied in other cartoons; but the scene with the shell chasing the motorcycle and the scene of the cow? becoming an angel with a harp sure seemed familiar. Also the bugler at the beginning.

    The matter of fact violence with consequences might well stem from the horrified attitude that grew out of that war. In Messina my wife and I came upon a very elaborate war memorial that contained hundreds of crypts of soldiers who died from 1915 to 1918. WW2 didn’t inspire that sort of monument – or perhaps the felt need to bring men home for burial had lessened – or perhaps Mussolini and his fascists built monuments like that in service to their Second Roman Empire sense of grandiosity.

    My mother, visiting family in her (our) ancestral town in northeastern Italy in the 1990’s, met a several year older than her cousin who still commonly wore his full blackshirt fascist uniform out of yearning for the good old days. Among the other relatives he was considered off his rocker, but no one was shocked by him. They joked with my mom that he was lucky the communists hadn’t shot him after the war.

  6. The horrors that followed should not obscure the fact that Imperial Germany was an aggressively expansionist power which would have to be contained (and preferably dismantled) sooner or later to insure the stability of Europe. We can argue whether it was worth the cost, or handled sanely even if it was, but I think the persistent notion that WWI was nothing more than a singularly tasteless joke does a disservice, no doubt inadvertent, to its Allied practitioners, who tend to be stereotyped as mad social Darwinists or their hapless lab rats and guinea pigs. .

    After all, the American Civil War may have been criminally negligent overkill too, and most white Southerners just wanted to be left alone.

  7. @ Seth Halpern:
    I think you’re right, Seth, that German expansionism-militarism was a problem that would have had to have been sorted out sooner or later anyway. Stone is also very strong relative to his space limitations on the inevitability of the war, whose outbreak is tied to sheer accident in the popular imagination – the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – though the event amounted to a sought-after pretext for the Germans. They were convinced they had to act before Russia became too strong. The British and French were convinced they had to act before Germany became too strong. There was and remains little precedent in world history for a peaceful resolution of such competing claims. The ongoing decline of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were major complicating factors.

    The expanded context for the “comedic set-up” is that the war planners were looking back on their own recent military precedents, and had to go back 40 years for the last Great Power confrontation in Europe. They appear to have expected something resembling the Franco-Prussian war, maybe even shorter given the greater destructiveness and mobility of their armies. They had dismissed the more relevant precedent that you happen to bring up, of the American Civil War.

  8. The credulous led by the incredibly clueless.

    But not all. I posted the comment below to J.E. Dyer’s commemoration of Veteran’s Day.

    http://theoptimisticconservative.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/ninety-one-years/#comments

    I remember being surprised as an early teenager when my dad, a WW2 veteran, told me that his father’s war was altogether a different thing from his – unnecessary and foolish. “It was none of our business, and it really did a lot of good, didn’t it?”

    My dad’s father was gone by then, so I took that thought to my mother’s father, who had also fought in WWI, with an artillery unit. I can’t quote him because his english was poor and my italian far worse. The gist of what I got was that it was a good war because it yielded him American citizenship. The work in the army wasn’t easy; but it wasn’t nearly as hard as work for the padrone who was a (unprintable and I doubt I could get translate the italian vehemence into a description). I was quite shocked at the time.

    It was the first time in his life he ate any significant amount of meat and the American sargeants were easy to work for next to the overseer on the padrone’s land. They treated you like a person rather than like an animal. Then he told me about gas attacks and how they (the common soldiers) almost looked forward to them. There were gas masks for the horses; but the mess sargeants made sure all the units knew to go slow on getting the masks on weak or sickly horses when supplies of meat were low.

    “You ate the horses!”

    ‘When you’re belly’s empty, Sulliva, you mangia what there is.’

    The peasant’s point of view of the wars of the gentry.

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "If At First You Don’t Succeed… – WORLD WAR ONE – a Short History by Norman Stone"
  1. […] Seth Halpern makes a good point in the discussion under the World War One review, and I’ve already conceded that I may have overdone the “what a pointless joke it was” theme, or anyway have underrated the historical and moral necessity of the war itself, but consider this post from yesterday, by blogger Jacob T. Levy, that got a fair amount of attention and linkage via Memeorandom on the political left: There’s commemorative cannon-fire outside my office right now, and I’m more disgusted than moved. Yet more artillery fire seems to me to miss what should be the point. […]

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