At a time when there remain no living protagonists to offer first hand account, the First World War centenary years of 2014 to 2018 are destined to provide numerous reminders and analyzes of the course of the conflict. This absence of first hand recollection may now allow us to view of these events more dispassionately, through a non-distorting historical lens that lets us shift through to identify salient points, even learn lessons. On the other hand, it might just enable us to ignore or purely overlook essential points that, once appreciated, might inform the way we interpret the whole.
In the mid-1960s, of course, World War One celebrated – if that might be an appropriate word – its fifteenth anniversary. At the time there were many living survivors of the conflict, with most of them in their sixties and seventies and that still very much able to contribute their own opinions, criticisms or praise when confronted with published accounts.
This, therefore, may be the perfect time to revisit an apparently popular work that, despite its title, offers nothing less than a rigorous, considered and utterly serious account of the conflict. The book in question is AJP Taylor's The First World War: An Illustrated History. Yes, there are many photographs, but this is much more than a picture book. Yes, the intention was to bring the history of the war to a mass audience, but AJP Taylor's text never talks down to its readers. The descriptions, though often succinct, are admirably detailed. The analysis is both pertinent and hard-hitting. And, most importantly, Taylor brings a professional historian's perspective to bear on official figures, standpoints and policies, all of which receive critical scrutiny and, where appropriate, rigorous evaluation.
The sheer scale of the butchery simply staggers. Twenty thousand British died in one morning on the Somme. Men advanced so slowly through the mud of Paschendale that they sank in and, motionless, provided static target practice for machine guns. Sufficiently staggered, the reader must then be prepared to be shocked when Taylor points out that all this butchery was no less than the main plank of the allied military strategy. The commanders believed in the power of simple arithmetic. Britain, France and Belgium combined, certainly when Russia was also included, would have always prevailed over the more limited numbers of men that could have been supplied by Germany and Austro-Hungary. It was simply a matter of numbers. When we have killed all of theirs, the logic went, we will still have some men left. This was the level of intellect that was brought to bear on the act of planning by the commanders, while lower ranks, it was assumed, would simply do as they were told. No wonder the German high command described the British as "Lions led by donkeys". It seems that to this day little has changed in British society.
Not that German commanders were any better … Indeed, the ruling class as a whole, it seemed, was particularly backward at coming forward. They repeatedly showed themselves capable of pointing at places on maps, places they neither knew nor had ever visited, where offsets would have planned and fosted, places where young men would have slaughtered to ave fairly nothing. A reader of such a history nowdays can not but conclude that some of these very famous political and military figures, had they alive today and plying such a trade, would be tried as war criminals, and tried for what they infected on their own people, not for what they did to the enemy.
No-one, for instance, initially realized that gas used against an enemy on the battlefield might also harm one's own forces. How about men ordered over the top only to be killed by shrapnel wounds to the back of the head because their own covering artillery were firing at the wrong range, causing friendly fire to burst behind their own lines? How about the landing of forces in Salonika, in a place where they could never make any headway because of the lie of the land? The forces concentrated there were effectively in a concentration camp of their own making. And then there was Gallipoli, the result of yet another ignorant point of a finger at a map.
But AJP Taylor's book is also a pictorial history, and on occasions the pictures do tell more than words can offer. There's a photograph, for instance, of a group of smiling chaps holding shovels and garden forks. The caption tells us that these are members of Eton College doing their bit. The irony is chilling. In the text Taylor does not maintain that the upper and upper-middle classes did not suffer as a result of the war, but he is clear through that those people who pursued this strategy of feeding battlefields with cannon fodder were actually those people who suffered badly any of the consequences of how the war was conducted. French troops did in fact mutiny as a result of a lack of confidence in their masters and thousands were charged with treason.
The First World War: An Illustrated History by AJP Taylor is a must read for anyone with even a passing interest in the war's centenary. What AJP Taylor's remarkably clear and insightful analysis continues to tell us is that we, even now, should not be complacent. Perhaps it is now impossible to send millions of young men to certain death, needless slaughter by design. But a dispersionate assessment of contemporary conflict must conclude that today warfare is conductively against civilians who can not fight back and, as apparently powerless observers, we continue to look on as conflicts continue to claim the lives of people who frankly do not really care about which set of donkeys might lord it over them. A hundred years on, the donkeys clearly still have it – power, that is.