Reviewed by: Nigel Jones
Author: David Reynolds
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price (RRP): £25
Among the brigade of books on the First World War issued ahead of the centenary of the conflict’s outbreak, David Reynolds’s thoughtful and informative volume stands out for its fresh approach, international reach, great learning, and easy, accessible style. This ambitious project – which distinguishes him from his many rivals in the same field – aims not to describe the course of the war, its battles, strategy and personalities, but to examine its effects across the turbulent 20th century that passed after the guns stopped firing in the dank November of 1918.
Asked to assess the consequences of the French Revolution, the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai is famously said to have replied that it was too soon to say. It is this long view that Reynolds strives to emulate by looking in depth at the very varied subsequent histories of the countries that fought the war. Sometimes, indeed, he becomes so involved in these stories that he forgets that his brief is to connect such histories to the war, and wanders off on lengthy by-ways and digressions – for instance, on Irish politics in the 1930s – which, while often fascinating and informative in themselves, have little obvious relevance to the events of 1914-18.
Reynolds inevitably recalls his theme and returns to the subject in hand, of course, and is such a stimulating historian that he holds our attention whatever he writes about. Indeed, anyone seeking a potted history of the victors and vanquished of the war – Britain, Ireland, the United States, Germany, Italy and Russia – could do a lot worse than make this book their first point of reference.
Adopting such an over-arching, magisterial and international approach, while welcome as an antidote to British insularity, lays Reynolds open to the danger of substituting insularities of his own. His interest in Ireland, for instance, makes that tiny island loom too large relative to its global importance. And, somewhat surprisingly for a Cambridge history professor with such in-depth knowledge of Ireland, the few, forgivable, errors in this wide-ranging text include one real Hibernian howler: the IRA certainly did not “blow Michael Collins’s head off in an ambush”, as a glance at Sir John Lavery’s painting of Collins lying in state with his head still firmly attached will attest.
As well as taking the long view, Reynolds also goes well out of his way to paint the broad picture. There are, therefore, chapters not only on postwar politics and economics, but on the war’s cultural consequences, including the ways in which the inhuman savagery of trench warfare lent pictorial art in Germany and Britain a new, and embittered, note.
The main message of Reynolds’s book – and it certainly needed saying – is that Britain’s view of the war has become hopelessly skewed by seeing it solely through the prism of the war poets, with their extended lamentations over individual tragedies. Its history, in short, “has been distilled into poetry” and we no longer see the big picture as our vision has been fatally splattered over with large dollops of mud and blood.
Boldly, Reynolds reminds us that the war even had positive consequences for Britain. The immense effort that had won the war, he argues, helped forge a sense of national cohesion, which staved off the worse effects of the 1930s slump. It also – along with a consumer boom in the south of England – ensured that politics remained in the safe, if boring, hands of rather middle-of-the-road politicians such as Stanley Baldwin and James Ramsay MacDonald, rather than the extremist demagogues in Europe who brought the continent to a second, even more catastrophic mass conflict just 20 years after the first.
The game of consequences that Reynolds traces doesn’t end in 1945, either. He follows the echoes of the First World War through to later conflicts both great and small, from the Cold War on to reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He also explores the rather less bloody academic war between the military historians who insist that the First World War was just and necessary, and the satirists who say that it was all, in Wilfred Owen’s word, ‘futility’.
This is one of the most fruitful and thought-provoking books that I have read on the subject since Paul Fussell’s 1975 classic The Great War and Modern Memory. It is highly recommended.
Nigel Jones is the author of Peace and War: Britain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, 2014)