The great misconceptions of the First World War
Eleven leading historians explode some major myths that have clouded our understanding of the Great War over the past 100 years...
The killing of Franz Ferdinand was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back
Wrong, says Christopher Clark
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a kind of 9/11 moment for the Austrian leadership. It altered their politics and produced a completely unbroken consensus in favour of war. Prior to the killing, records show that the Austrians were focusing on diplomatic solutions to the Balkans crisis, but after the assassination everything changed.
The archduke was not a popular man in Austria but nonetheless the fact that he was killed upset people hugely. This, after all, was also an attack on the monarchy and the Habsburg state, so it caused an immense shock. At the same time, his dying words to his wife about the couple’s children generated a lot of sympathy for him.
Ironically, Franz Ferdinand was one of the most outspoken exponents of peace in the Balkans and he was planning to fire Conrad von Hötzendorf, the hawkish chief of the general staff. By killing the archduke, the murderers removed one of the best opportunities for peace, and kept in power the most influential exponent of war.
Some people argue that war was on the cards anyway but this is based on an overly deterministic view of the alliance system that operated in Europe at the time. It was far more wobbly and open-ended than we tend to think today. Levels of distrust within the alliances were very high and we know that, for example, in the summer of 1914 the British were toying with the idea of dropping Russia and seeking an understanding with Berlin. So, had Europe managed to survive those months, the Entente may well have drifted apart and the outcome could have been very different.
Christopher Clark is a professor of history at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin, 2012).
The British were naively enthusiastic for war in 1914
Wrong, says Catriona Pennell
One of the most common misconceptions of the First World War is that the British population responded with unabated enthusiasm when war broke out in August 1914. Picture the black and white photographs of crowds waving joyfully at the gates of Buckingham Palace or the grinning faces of men queuing outside recruitment offices. There is a lazy acceptance that these images equate to a joyous reaction to the onset of war, with no interrogation, verification or contextualisation.
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The origins of this myth lie in the postwar and interwar period, in particular the published memoirs of wartime politicians like David Lloyd George, chancellor of the exchequer in 1914. Two decades after the war had begun, he described scenes of wild enthusiasm that were, in his mind, unprecedented; quite a statement considering he was of an age to recall the boisterous celebrations that marked the end of the siege of Mafeking (during the Second Boer War) in 1900. In his mind it was these enthused masses who had demanded war against Germany while British statesmen did their best to keep the country neutral.
However, it is important to remember that history, while written in retrospect, is lived forwards. As historians, we must try to recapture what was known at the beginning of the war as accurately as possible, rather than imposing assumptions in the light of what happened later.
My research into local, regional and national responses to the outbreak of war reveals that it is far too simplistic to describe the reactions of over 40 million people in the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland (as it was at the time) with a single adjective: enthusiastic.
There was no single emotional reaction to the outbreak of war. Instead, responses were ambiguous and complex, and changed over time. The outbreak of war on 4 August was greeted with a sense of shock and surprise. This was followed by a fortnight of chaos and dislocation as people tried to make sense of their newly frightening situation.
By early September, people were firmly ‘inside the war’ of which they could see no end. While they accepted the need for Britain to fight, this did not equate to a blindly enthusiastic lust for war.
Dr Catriona Pennell is author of A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (OUP, 2012).
Russia secretly mobilised several days before it claimed to have done
Wrong, says Anthony Heywood
On 31 July 1914 (18 July by the Julian calendar, then in use in Russia) the Russian empire announced general mobilisation for war. This was three days after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia and a day before Germany declared war on Russia.
However, from the interwar period on, a number of historians have said that, in fact, Russia’s general mobilisation began in secret several days earlier. If true, this would have great ramifications on the debate about war guilt because if Russia was embarking on full mobilisation at this stage then Germany would have had little choice but to respond. Germany may not then have been primarily responsible for the war.
But did this really happen? I have been researching in the Russian archives and it is absolutely clear that there was no secret general mobilisation before 31 July. What was happening was what the Russians described as the ‘period preparatory to war’. This referred to a set of secret measures that were designed to facilitate mobilisation.
For example, summer camps were ended, the mobilisation transport plans were sent to army units, and training was intensified. But these measures did not mean mobilisation as such, and they did not automatically mean Russia was heading for war. Crucially, they did not include large-scale inter-district troop movements nor did they put the railways on a military footing. The Russian archives show that neither of these core features of general mobilisation occurred before 31 July.
French, German and other foreign nationals in Russia who saw troop movements taking place may have misinterpreted the dispersal of summer camps as mobilisation. However, since the misconception first arose, it has been propagated by those seeking to exculpate the German leaders of 1914. Given the evidence now available from Russia’s archives, this argument can no longer be upheld.
Anthony Heywood is chair in history at the University of Aberdeen, specialising in Russia and the Soviet Union.
British and German troops played a game of football on the front line
Wrong, says Dan Snow
The idea that British and German troops played an organised game of football on the front line during the Christmas truce of 1914 has been so pervasive because it’s a wonderful story: that people can play sport on a battlefield that, just a day before, was covered with high-explosive shrapnel and machine-gun bullets. Sadly, there’s virtually no evidence for such an organised match taking place.
What did happen is that there was a lot of talk about a football match being organised if the truce had gone on any longer – and, behind the lines, there were lots of balls being kicked around by troops, but not between the Brits and the Germans. Yet the idea of an international match is so powerful because it would seem to be an affirmation of what we have in common, of our joint humanity.
Football is also the working man’s game, the game of the troops on the front line, so it’s come to symbolise a particular myth of the First World War: this idea of the exploitation of the working man by the ruling elite.
In fact, the story of the Christmas truce is far bigger than one football match. Of course, there was fraternisation: there were all sorts of wonderful things going on, all sorts of affirmation of our common humanity.
I read a great article that argued that, if we’d had social media in 1914, the First World War would have stopped, because everyone would have known that everyone else was trucing. The trouble was that everyone thought that it was just them, and they thought, ‘ooh, this is a bit naughty’. If they had been aware that it was going on up and down the entire front then they would have realised that they were part of something much bigger and much more profound. Perhaps even revolutionary.
I think the scale of the truce, and the excitement of this chink of light in what could have been this extraordinary revolutionary moment, is really exciting. So don’t focus on the football match; focus on the fact that hundreds and thousands climbed out of their trenches and expressed brotherhood with those opposite them. It was an extraordinary moment in history.
Dan Snow is a historian and broadcaster. He has presented numerous history documentaries for the BBC and has produced content for the BBC’s online First World War hub bbc.co.uk/ww1
The First World War was the most unpleasant war to fight
Wrong, says Max Hastings
One of the things we should be striving to do in this centenary year is to win back a sense of perspective about the First World War. On a quantitative scale it is true that Britain lost more people than in any other war but it is a myth that this was the worst battlefield experience in history. Anybody who lived through the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, or had followed Napoleon on his catastrophic Russian campaign in 1812, would have laughed at the idea that the Somme or Passchendaele represented the worst thing men could do to each other.
And, for that matter, far worse things happened in the Second World War but they happened to the Soviets on the eastern front and therefore we don’t take them as seriously.
This myth has been hugely influenced by the poets who wrote about the First World War. What was unusual about this conflict was that it was fought by a new breed of citizen-soldiers who had not seen combat before and were stunned and appalled by the misery of the battlefield.
In previous wars you had had professional warriors who regarded it as part of their duty to make light of what they had gone through in their memoirs, even if they had – as in the Napoleonic Wars – fought over 30 battles requiring them to stand and face opposing armies 50 yards away and fire volleys at each other.
I am certainly not trying to suggest that the First World War was anything other than unspeakable, but it was not the worst thing that men have done to each other in wars, or indeed anything like it.
Sir Max Hastings is the author of Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (William Collins, 2013)
Machine guns were the deadliest weapon on the western front
Wrong, says David Olusoga
In Britain when we think about the First World War perhaps the most powerful image that comes to mind is that of massed ranks of infantry going ‘over the top’ to face the deadly German machine guns. The slaughter of those set-piece offensives has placed the machine gun at the centre of our vision of the war. Yet it was not the biggest killer on the western front; that dubious honour went to the artillery.
In almost all wars of the modern age, the vast majority of soldiers killed had been the victims of small arms – rifles, pistols and, before them, muskets. This was the key to land warfare and the appearance of the machine gun seemed to have made the dominance of the bullet over the shell even greater. Yet on the western front between 1915 and 1918 it was the artillery piece that was king. Seven out of ten British casualties were victims of artillery shells and the statistics were similar for the French.
None of the armies of 1914 had gone to war expecting a conflict dominated by artillery; they all planned for a war of manoeuvre and movement. But once the western front had stabilised in late 1914, the importance of artillery and high explosive shells increased enormously. Howitzers and mortars, once seen as specialist siege weapons, were manufactured in huge numbers and with each offensive the number and the calibre of the guns increased.
So why has this misconception come about? I think it is partly because many of those who were killed by the machine gun fell in tragic but dramatic offensives, calamities like the first day of the Somme, when the sheer scale of the bloodletting was so shocking that the events seeped into our national consciousness.
The death toll reaped by artillery, by contrast, was an incessant part of daily life. You did not have to be in an attack to be hit by a shell, you could be having breakfast deep in your trench. You could be miles behind the lines but still within the killing zone.
Churchill put it best. In a parliamentary debate in May 1916, he said: “What is going on while we sit here, while we go to dinner, or home to bed? Nearly a thousand men – Englishmen, Britishers, men of our own race – are knocked into bundles of bloody rags every 24 hours.”
David Olusoga is presenting The World’s War on BBC Two this month. The accompanying book of the same name will be published by Head of Zeus in early August
Shell-shocked soldiers were usually shot for cowardice during the First World War
Wrong, says Fiona Reid
The idea of young, frightened, shell-shocked men being court-martialled, denounced as cowards and then shot by their own comrades seems to sum up the brutal futility of the First World War. But is it true?
Certainly men were sentenced to death in the war. Capital punishment was legal in Britain and during the conflict 3,080 men were court-martialled and sentenced to execution: 346 of those executions were carried out, 266 of them for desertion and 18 for cowardice.
We cannot say what happened to shell-shocked men with such precision or brevity. Since the battle of Mons in September 1914 military doctors had recognised that soldiers were suffering from nervous disorders as a result of the fierce, industrial fighting. Mindful of the stigma usually attached to mental health problems, the War Office had insisted that these men “should not be treated like ordinary lunatics”.
Consequently, shell-shocked men usually experienced an array of medical treatments, sometimes close to the firing line, sometimes in hospitals at home. Some, despite the War Office commitment, were sent to lunatic asylums. Overall, there were about 80,000 recorded cases of psychological injury among British troops during the war and, by 1921, 65,000 men were receiving pensions for shell-shock and neurasthenia (nervous debility).
Clearly, most shell-shocked men were not shot, as the figures attest. But can we assume that those executed were all shell-shocked? It is possible that some of them were, as contemporaries recognised. Yet we cannot assume that all of those designated as cowards or deserters were mentally ill.
Men suffering severe trauma were removed from the trenches on medical grounds because they were both unfit and bad for morale. However those men who had shown courage in the past – those who had ‘done their bit’ – were considered sympathetically and more likely to be treated with medical care than punishment.
The real tragedy of the shell-shock story is not that men were routinely executed but that mentally wounded men lived in real fear of being sent to a ‘pauper asylum’ and that many of them spent the postwar years trying to live on scanty pensions with irregular and inadequate health care.
Dr Fiona Reid is the author of Broken Men: Shell Shock, Treatment and Recovery in Britain 1914–1930 (Continuum, 2010)
The First World War saw few civilian casualties
Wrong, says Heather Jones
The belief that the First World War was a soldiers’ war with few civilian casualties stems from the fact that soldiers’ lives were valued more than civilians. Soldiers could fight and were thus a valuable resource; they were also ready to sacrifice themselves for their country and they were male in a world that valued men over women – particularly in central and eastern Europe, where most of the war’s civilian casualties occurred.
We still do not know how many civilians died in total in the First World War. The conflict saw an estimated 500,000 excess civilian deaths triggered by malnutrition in Germany and over 1 million Armenian civilians deported to their deaths by the Ottoman empire. The German army shot 6,500 civilians during its invasion of Belgium and northern France in 1914, including women and children. The Russian state deported its Jewish population from its borderland, causing untold hardship.
The war also saw the widespread execution of civilians in occupied Serbia by the Central Powers, as well as civilians starving in the Ottoman empire because of the Allied blockade of the Mediterranean. Major cities were occupied: Warsaw, Brussels, Belgrade, Bucharest, Baghdad and even Tbilisi in Georgia. Civilians accused of civic resistance acts were executed in occupied Belgium.
The war at sea also saw numerous civilian casualties – most famously the 1,200 who drowned on the Lusitania – but such sinkings grew relatively frequent as the war went on. Then there was the war in the air. Who today remembers the children of Poplar, east London killed by the aerial bombardment of their school or the children in Karlsruhe killed when a circus tent was bombed by a plane?
The First World War destroyed countless civilian lives, and their memory should matter as much as the soldiers.
Dr Heather Jones is associate professor of international history at LSE and author of Violence Against Prisoners of War in the First World War: Britain, France and Germany, 1914–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 2011)
The Americans intervened too late
Wrong, says Nick Lloyd
Eurocentric accounts of the war are apt to be dismissive of the American contribution to victory. The Americans were too late, they say. It took them until the summer of 1918 to get a sizeable army into the field, and even then it was not decisive.
Their troops were inexperienced, ill-trained and lacking the extensive logistical support required. When they finally attacked in September 1918, in two large offensives at St Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, the offensives were characterised by poor tactics, heavy casualties and missed opportunities – in stark contrast to the effective ‘all-arms’ co-operation pioneered by British forces. Such has been the verdict of history on the US involvement in the First World War.
Yet, in truth, President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the war as an Associated Power in April 1917, in response to the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, was of enormous consequence.
American industrial strength had been supporting the Allied war effort for three years, but the full participation of US military and naval power not only ensured the Allies did not collapse, it meant they were also able to drive the German armies back in the late summer and autumn of 1918.
US forces may have lacked the experience and firepower of the British and French, but they showed an impressive ability to learn at speed. This forced German commanders into the stark realisation that they must sue for peace as soon as possible, knowing that if the war continued for much longer, then American combat power would be overwhelming.
Without US involvement the war may even have ended in a German victory, either in 1917 or 1918.
Nick Lloyd is author of Hundred Days: The End of the Great War (Viking, 2013)
German defeat in the war was an inevitability
Wrong, says David Stevenson
There’s an idea that’s been put forward recently that the economic advantages on the Allied side were so enormous that there wasn’t any chance that the Central Powers could have won the war.
However, I think that the Germans – if, perhaps, not capable of winning the war outright – could have forced some kind of compromise in which the Allies would not have achieved many of their objectives.
The Allies were, after all, in a real mess in 1917. The Russians were in the midst of a revolution that would take them out of the war. And the failure of a massive French offensive in April 1917 produced widespread mutinies in the army.
As for the British, they were experiencing a major financial crisis at the beginning of 1917, and didn’t know for how much longer they were going to be able to keep funding imports from the US. The Admiralty had no answer to the amount of shipping that German U-boats were sinking – by 1917, the Germans had twice as many U-boats as they had in the spring of 1916 – and was extremely worried.
What denied Berlin the opportunity to capitalise on these Allied weaknesses was its decision to implement a campaign of what was called unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.
Unrestricted submarine warfare essentially meant torpedoing merchant ships and passenger liners, whether they were Allied or neutral, without warning. The Germans had tried this before, but it was against most people’s interpretations of international law, and they’d been forced to abandon it on both occasions due to protests from the Americans.
Yet, in 1917, they introduced it again. It was a decision that was to have enormous consequences, for it precipitated America’s entry into the conflict. The Americans soon sent 35 of their destroyers to help convey shipping across the Atlantic – and, for the Germans, an opportunity to exploit British vulnerability and potentially alter the outcome of the war had gone.
David Stevenson is the author of With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (Penguin, 2012)
The ‘soldier-poets’ are the supreme interpreters of the First World War
Wrong, says David Reynolds
The writings of soldiers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (pictured below) are staples of the school curriculum. Owen has been called the most studied author in English literature after Shakespeare. From them we have derived a sense of 1914–18 as pointless, trench-bound slaughter, directed by boneheaded generals.
Yet over 2,200 people from the UK published some form of poetry about the First World War, from 1914–18. Of these, a quarter were women and four out of five were civilians; so ‘soldier-poets’ were very definitely a minority. Moreover, writers such as Sassoon and Owen were atypical soldiers – being young, unmarried officers, often with complexes about their sexuality and courage.
It was the poetry anthologies of the 1960s – imbued with the anti-war, anti-nuclear spirit of the time – that privileged a few of these soldier-poets as the true interpreters of the war. Only in the last 30 years have we developed a broader conception of Great War poetry.
And, as it happens, the soldier-poets weren’t unequivocally anti-war. Owen, for instance, knew the ecstasy as well as the agony of battle. He won his Military Cross for mowing down Germans with a machine gun: a point his brother Harold tried to conceal when publishing Wilfred’s biography.
Owen’s own writings testify to his ambivalence. His famous draft preface for a future collection of poems is usually remembered for these sentences: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” But a few lines later Owen expresses the hope that his book “survives Prussia”. He sometimes used that term as a shorthand for creeping militarism at home, but his essentially anti-German thrust is clear. Owen came to loathe war but, to the end, a part of him still felt that this struggle had meaning.
David Reynolds is the author of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon and Schuster, 2013)
This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
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