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.