Counting the Dead

September 1, 1999 Topics: Society Tags: World War I

Counting the Dead

Mini Teaser: Quantifying the Great War doesn't really get one very far.

by Author(s): Eliot A. Cohen

Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 563 pp., $30.

The war that roared into flame eighty-five years ago this August was surely the dominant event of this century. It consumed the lives of perhaps ten million soldiers (probably considerably more), smaller but nonetheless vast numbers of civilians, smashed the Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Russian Empires, and administered lasting shocks to their British and French counterparts. It created the conditions for the political success of communism and, ultimately, Nazism as well. In the bloody womb of its conduct and consummation sprouted the seeds of another, even more ferocious and pitiless global war that broke out less than twenty-one years after the first one ended, and that completed the wrecking of an entire system of world society and politics. It marked the entry of the United States onto the stage of world power even as it augured the collapse of the Powers of Western Europe.

The war stands, to the philosophically minded, as a warning that the progress of mankind cannot be conceived of as something smooth and inevitable. That a Europe which had known a general and fruitful peace for nearly two generations, during which time the suffrage spread, freedom of thought extended and science advanced, could erupt in mass slaughter still boggles the mind. Unthinking optimism about the capacity of modern man for decent adjustment of his differences surely died in the trenches, alongside the choking and blasted young men who fought there. Ever afterwards, those who believe that humans have, at last, escaped the coils of international conflict have had to make their arguments with a nervous glance over the shoulder at the shadow cast by the ossuary of Verdun - that warehouse of soldiers' bones that mocks the descendants of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss. The arguments and excuses - the participants were democratizing states at a particularly fragile point in their development, their uniquely poisonous nationalisms have ceased to exist, the military technology of the time alone permitted the slaughter - may all be partially true, but the hecatombs remain, and with them an ineradicable residue of anxiety about society and statecraft.

For Americans, perhaps, the war looms less large. It led to the deaths, by all causes, of some 116,000 soldiers, perhaps twice as many as perished in Vietnam and a third as many as died in World War II. For Europeans, however, no forgetfulness is possible. One cannot understand the politics of France after 1918, for example, without considering the fact that to be in one's late teens or early twenties in 1914 meant a one in four chance of dying in battle, and an even higher chance of suffering wounds. Total French deaths amounted to roughly 1.3 million out of a population total of under 40 million; this is a death toll more than ten times that of the United States, which had a population roughly two and a half times the size of France's in 1914. The sufferings of other European states, including Britain and Germany, were only marginally less. The British Empire, which mobilized a total of nearly 9 million, suffered roughly one-third that many casualties, of whom nearly a million died. Germany lost 1.8 million killed out of a population of 65 million; its soldiers also had less than an even chance of surviving the war unscathed. Serbia, with something under 3 million people in 1910, lost 127,000 dead and more than that wounded - at least 8 percent of the total population killed or maimed.

For a European in his forties like Niall Ferguson, the author of The Pity of War, the reality of war goes back only two generations, to a grandfather wounded in battle, and in some ways even to his own, as he recalls the inscriptions on the walls of the school that he attended. Small wonder that he, like thousands of historians before him, has tried to make sense of this war. He has done so in a book that has attracted tremendous popular acclaim, The Economist going so far as to say that "at one massive stroke he has transformed [the] dismal intellectual landscape" of previous writing about the war. That is a powerful claim for a book by a prolific economic historian who has not, until relatively recently, spent much time on this conflict. The book's attractions reflect the culture of contemporary, highbrow popular history: it dares to explore the history that did not but might have happened; it treats the dicta of conventional wisdom like so many soft pitches ripe for the smashing swing of the bat; it praises the losers and mocks the winners. It offers these entertaining constructions but undergirds them with a foundation of scholarly concrete, slabs of statistics and reinforcing bars of footnotes and bibliographic references.

At the heart of Ferguson's book are ten questions, among them, "Was the war inevitable?" "Why did Britain intervene?" "Why did the economically superior Allies not crush the Central Powers more quickly?" "Why did men stop fighting?" "Who paid for the peace?" The chapters largely, but not entirely, follow the outline implicit here. The author's professional background clearly exercises a disproportionate influence; nearly a third of the book consists of economic history, complete with some of the most recondite statistics imaginable. Nonetheless, a spirited style and an audacious prose carry the reader along, even as he wonders why, precisely, it was necessary to inform him that daily salaries in the construction sector in France declined by exactly 22.6 percent during the war, whereas the hourly wages (a different metric, of course) in the same industry in Britain fell by only 14.2 percent.

Unlike in the case of a novel, it is fair in a review of an historical study to give away the end. World War I was not a tragedy, but "an error" - "the greatest error of modern history", in fact. One might think that this is merely a rhetorical flourish, designed to leave the reader struck at the author's intellectual daring in reducing a global calamity to the same category as a missed turn-off on a summer driving holiday. In fact, however, this phrase informs the book, and it is worth pondering its meaning. By it, Ferguson appears to mean that the war was the result not of deep forces churning away in European society and politics, nor of willful, if reckless, decisions taken by powerful men, but a slip, a common mistake, a goof. It is a very different use of the word than occurs in Churchill's summation of the issue:

One rises from the study of the causes of the Great War with a prevailing sense of the defective control of individuals upon world fortunes. It has been well said, 'there is always more error than design in human affairs.' The limited minds even of the ablest men, their disputed authority, the climate of opinion in which they dwell, their transient and partial contributions to the mighty problem, that problem itself so far beyond their compass, so vast in scale and detail, so changing in its aspect - all this must surely be considered before the complete condemnation of the vanquished or the complete acquittal of the victors can be pronounced.1

Ferguson rejects the word "tragedy"; his failed statesmen were not the able but baffled and fallible men that Churchill knew; they were merely screwups.

Ferguson does have a villain, one of the least likely of all: Sir Edward Grey, Britain's foreign secretary, and the man who in his view is responsible for Britain's intervention in the war. Once Britain was in, the world was doomed to four years of agony and calamity. As the author self-consciously puts it: "To the economic historian, the outcome of the First World War looks to have been inevitable from the moment the majority of Asquith's Cabinet swallowed their Liberal scruples and opted for intervention."

Ferguson makes the case that had Britain not intervened in the war, the Germans would have won, and merely imposed upon their neighbors something like a European Union before its time. No years of slaughter, no bitter peace, no Weimar, no Bolsheviks, no Hitler, no World War II - all if one man had refrained from preaching to his doubting colleagues a silly idea, that one could not let Germany overrun Belgium and smash France. It is a tantalizing and horrifying thought, this notion that by shrugging off their military agreements, the violation of a Belgian neutrality, and several centuries of British support for a balance of power in Europe, British statesmen would not only have avoided a cataract of blood, but actually brought about something rather desirable.

It is an argument, however, that collapses upon examination. As Ferguson himself notes, the Germans (who, it will be remembered, inflicted upon France and Belgium a war that both countries were eager to avoid) behaved with a brutality that in its time was remarkable - even if it represents the small change of atrocity by our current, debased standard. In less than two weeks in August 1914 the Germans shot some 6,000 Belgian and French civilians in cold blood. These were not the bystanders whose maiming or death fall under the rubric of "collateral damage", but hostages and reprisal victims. In the diplomatic and military documents of the time one does not see the scarifying bent on mass murder that characterized German behavior thirty years later, but it is bad enough. "In this war it is a question for Germany, not only of her whole national existence and of the continuation of the German Empire, created through so many bloody sacrifices, but also of the preservation and maintenance of German civilisation and principles as against uncivilised Slavdom." Thus Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke to Gottlieb von Jagow, secretary of state, on August 4.2 To think that the Germany of 1914 would have been a kindly master of a crushed Europe - a Europe that could only have been subjugated at the point of a bayonet-is implausible, to say the least. To believe that the kind of smashing victory that Ferguson wishes his grandfather's and great-grandfather's generations had ceded to Wilhelm II and his advisers would have induced moderation in Europe's new master society is no less implausible. It ignores not only the unpredictable consequences of such an intoxicating victory in a nation's psyche, but the hard realities of the plans for annexation and domination that Germany had begun to draft by the fall of 1914 in the event of a decisive victory.

In this as in other cases, Ferguson's account of the onset of the war is distorted by British self-absorption. The war originated as a Continental conflict, at the heart of which was the desire of Austria to smash Serbia, which posed a mortal threat to the continued existence of the creaky Dual Monarchy, and the willingness of Germany to risk a general European war in 1914 rather than wait for what it expected to be worse circumstances later on. There is nothing novel in Ferguson's treatment of the crisis of July 1914; like his predecessors for half a century, he relies on Luigi Albertini's massive three-volume work on the origins of the war. But unlike Albertini, he pays scant attention to the decision-making where it counted, in Vienna, Berlin and, to a lesser extent, St. Petersburg. It was there, and not in London, that the war was bred. It is poor history, but worse moralizing, to pin on the anxious and divided counsels of Great Britain, which had no hand in the original crisis, the outbreak of this calamity.

Now, any historian who uses the word "inevitable" in connection with something as stupendous as World War I should arouse his readers' suspicions. But the key in the offending sentence quoted above is the word "to an economic historian." Ferguson is just that, which may account for the predominance of economic history and the paucity of military history in this account of a war. There are tables of every economic statistic conceivable here, but no maps; there are gruesome trench and camp scenes in the two collections of photographs in the book, but no shots of generals, politicians and headquarters.

The truth is that Ferguson cares rather little about how the war was actually fought; to explore that one would need, after all, to say something about who those generals and statesmen were, and why they did what they did. It is, in fact, those parts of the book that attempt to touch on military history that make a well-informed reader most uneasy. Circular arguments (e.g., "men fought because they did not mind fighting") are little more than cute and empty phrases. There are absurd attempts at quantification: "it cost the Entente powers $36,485.48 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Central Powers, [but] it cost the Central Powers just $11,344.77 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Entente." There are misleading representations of the conventional wisdom advanced in order to enhance the author's apparent boldness in knocking it down (that, for example, the dominant view of Western Front generalship is that military leaders on all sides were fools and incompetents, when for the last thirty years military historians have painted a far more complicated picture). And there is, finally, the advancing of palpably perverse arguments - that, for example, the German army had not been beaten in the field in November 1918, even though the months preceding the armistice saw mutinies in the field and at home, and the steady advance of British, French, Australian, Canadian and American forces to a depth of between forty and ninety miles from the front lines of 1914-18. This latter accomplishment, though trivial by the standards of other wars, was phenomenal in a conflict where men measured progress by the yard, and where a permanent advance of a mile or two was rare.

The author of The Pity of War quotes approvingly Bertrand Russell's dictum that the "objective of war economics" is "maximum slaughter at minimum expense", and he goes on to say that "by this yardstick" the Central Powers "won" the First World War. The ensuing argument concerns war finances, but it may be taken as well as a premise upon which much of the book rests. The Central Powers do seem, at some level, to have done a more efficient job of killing than their enemies did of killing them. But to understand why, one needs to explore questions barely touched upon here, such as the quality of general staff systems, in which the Germans in particular had a distinct and important advantage. One would have to mention as well the advantages accruing to those who fight a war on someone else's territory. Germany could afford to yield the ruined battlefields of France and Belgium for the tactical advantages of better ground; for France, in particular, there was no psychologically acceptable alternative for much of the war but a ceaseless onslaught alternating with an inflexible defense. The enemy had, after all, occupied a tenth of France and much of its most valuable coal and iron-producing districts.

One would have to, as well, explore the decisions and strategy, the tactics and operational planning, the technology and technique of war in 1914-18. The astonishing inefficiency of the American military, for example, cannot be explained without understanding the overwhelming preoccupation of General Pershing with creating a vast, autonomous American army that would fight its decisive battle in 1919, not, as eventually transpired, in 1918. One cannot come to terms with the failed Allied offensives of 1917 without a detailed examination of the German withdrawal to the so-called Hindenburg Line, which deprived potentially powerful British and French blows of their punch. One cannot understand the maldistribution of Entente forces in 1917-18 without unraveling the tangled policy and war-making that hurled British and French armies into the Balkans, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and that had created a chasm of confidence between statesman and soldier. And one cannot intelligently examine the question of whether the war could have been brought to an earlier end without meticulous scrutiny of the lost opportunities of the Dardanelles campaign of 1915. In short, one cannot hope to explain or understand a war without studying military history.

World War I cries out for a magisterial work of synthesis. There are entire libraries of books devoted to its study; there are massive studies of most features of the conflict in a dozen languages, mastery of at least half a dozen of which is probably necessary to comprehend the war fully. The truth is that, as a scan of the footnotes in this and similar books reveals, no historian can hope to master the multiple archives for a documents-based study of the entire war. He or she must, instead, read widely and deeply, in a project that must necessarily consume decades of a scholarly career. The desire to be daring and provocative runs contrary to what is needed in the study of military even more than of other kinds of history: empathy, sober judgment and good sense. These qualities may not scintillate, and they may attract little notoriety when rendered in writing, but they remain the bedrock of scholarship, particularly in the case of this, the harbinger and origin of so much of the twentieth century's ghastliness. The ghosts of World War I still haunt the third and fourth generations of their descendants. Not to understand why their war turned out the way it did would be the true pity.

Eliot Cohen is professor of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

1. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. I, 1911-1914 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924), pp. 5-6.

2. Immanuel Geis, ed., July 1914: The Outbreak of the First World War: Selected Documents (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967), p. 357.

Essay Types: Book Review