At a time when there are no more living protagonists to report firsthand, the centenary years of the First World War from 2014 to 2018 are destined to provide numerous memories and analyzes of the course of the conflict. This absence of first-hand memories may now allow us to view these events more impartially, through an undistorted historical lens that allows us to sift through details to identify salient points, and even learn lessons. On the other hand, it might just allow us to ignore or just overlook essential points that, once appreciated, might be the way we interpret the whole.
In the mid-1960s, of course, World War I—if that’s an appropriate word—celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. At the time, there were many living survivors of the conflict, most of them in their sixties and seventies, and thus still quite capable of expressing their own opinion, criticism or praise when confronted by published accounts.
Now may therefore be the perfect time to revisit an apparently popular work which, despite its title, offers nothing short of a rigorous, considered and extremely serious account of the conflict. The book in question is AJP Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History. Yes, there are many photos, but this is much more than a picture book. Yes, the intention was to bring the history of the war to a large audience, but AJP Taylor’s text never appeals to its readers. The descriptions, while often concise, are admirably detailed. The analysis is both relevant and rock-solid. And, most importantly, Taylor brings a professional historian’s perspective to official figures, positions and policies, all of which are critically examined and, where appropriate, rigorously evaluated.
The sheer size of the butcher shop just wavers. Twenty thousand Britons died on the Somme in one morning. Men progressed so slowly through the mud of Paschendale that they sank into it and, motionless, formed static target practice for machine guns. Sufficiently baffled, the reader must then be prepared to be shocked when Taylor points out that all this carnage was no less than the main pillar of Allied military strategy. The commanders believed in the power of simple arithmetic. Britain, France and Belgium together, especially if Russia joined in, would ultimately triumph over the more limited numbers of troops that could be supplied by Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was just a matter of numbers. If we killed them all, the logic went, we still have some men left. This was the level of intellect used by the commanders in planning, while lower ranks, it was believed, would simply do as they were told. No wonder the German High Command described the British as “Lions led by donkeys”. It seems that little has changed in British society to this day.
Not that German commanders were any better… Indeed, the ruling class as a whole seemed particularly backward in coming forward. They repeatedly showed themselves to be able to point out places on maps, places they didn’t know or had ever visited, where offensives would be planned and fought, places where young men would be slaughtered to achieve exactly nothing. A reader of such a history today cannot help but conclude that some of these very famous political and military figures, if they had lived today and practiced such a profession, would have been tried as war criminals and tried for what they called their own people. have done to them, not for what they have done to the enemy.
For example, no one initially realized that gas used against an enemy on the battlefield can also be harmful to their own forces. How about men ordered over the top to be killed only by shrapnel in mind because their own cover artillery fired at the wrong distance, causing friendly fire to burst behind their own lines? How about the landing of troops in Salonika, in a place where due to the location of the country they would never be able to make any progress? The troops concentrated there were, in effect, in a concentration camp of their own making. And then there was Gallipoli, the result of yet another ignorant finger on a map.
But AJP Taylor’s book is also a pictorial history, and sometimes the pictures tell more than words can. For example, there is a photo of a group of laughing guys holding shovels and garden forks. The caption tells us that these are members of Eton College doing their part. The irony is horrifying. In the text, Taylor does not claim that the upper and upper middle classes did not suffer from the war, but he is clear everywhere that those who followed this strategy of feeding battlefields with cannon fodder were the very people who barely suffered. one of the consequences of the way the war was conducted. French troops mutinied over a lack of faith in their masters and thousands were accused of treason.
The First World War: An Illustrated History by AJP Taylor is a must read for anyone with even a passing interest in the centenary of the war. What AJP Taylor’s remarkably clear and insightful analysis continues to tell us is that, even now, we should not be complacent. Perhaps it is now impossible to deliberately send millions of young men to their deaths, an unnecessary slaughter. But a sober assessment of contemporary conflicts must conclude that warfare today is largely waged against civilians who cannot fight back and, as seemingly impotent observers, we continue to watch conflict continue to claim the lives of people who frankly don’t really care about what set of asses. rule them. A hundred years later, the donkeys clearly still have it – strength, that is.