Books by Macdonald, Lyn

Macdonald, Lyn. 1915: The Death of Innocence. London: Penguin Books, [1993] 1997. ISBN 0-14-025900-7.
I'm increasingly coming to believe that World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century: not only a cataclysm which destroyed the confident assumptions of the past, but which set history inexorably on a path which would lead to even greater tragedies and horrors as that century ran its course. This book provides an excellent snapshot of what the British people, both at the front and back home, were thinking during the first full year of the war, as casualties mounted and hope faded for the quick victory almost all expected at the outset.

The book does not purport to be a comprehensive history of the war, nor even of the single year it chronicles. It covers only the British Army: the Royal Navy is mentioned only in conjunction with troop transport and landings, and the Royal Flying Corps scarcely at all. The forces of other countries, allied or enemy, are mentioned only in conjunction with their interaction with the British, and no attempt is made to describe the war from their perspective. Finally, the focus is almost entirely on the men in the trenches and their commanders in the field: there is little focus on the doings of politicians and the top military brass, nor on grand strategy, although there was little of that in evidence in the events of 1915 in any case.

Within its limited scope, however, the book succeeds superbly. About a third of the text is extended quotations from people who fought at the front, many from contemporary letters home. Not only do you get an excellent insight into how horrific conditions were in the field, but also how stoically those men accepted them, hardly ever questioning the rationale for the war or the judgement of those who commanded them. And this in the face of a human cost which is nearly impossible to grasp by the standards of present-day warfare. Between the western front and the disastrous campaign in Gallipoli, the British suffered more than half a million casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) (p. 597). In “quiet periods” when neither side was mounting attacks, simply manning their own trenches, British casualties averaged five thousand a week (p. 579), mostly from shelling and sniper fire.

And all of the British troops who endured these appalling conditions were volunteers—conscription did not begin in Britain until 1916. With the Regular Army having been largely wiped out in the battles of 1914, the trenches were increasingly filled with Territorial troops who volunteered for service in France, units from around the Empire: India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and as the year progressed, Kitchener's “New Army” of volunteer recruits rushed through training and thrown headlong into the killing machine. The mindset that motivated these volunteers and the conclusions drawn from their sacrifice set the stage for the even greater subsequent horrors of the twentieth century.

Why? Because they accepted as given that their lives were, in essence, the property of the state which governed the territory in which they happened to live, and that the rulers of that state, solely on the authority of having been elected by a small majority of the voters in an era when suffrage was far from universal, had every right to order them to kill or be killed by subjects of other states with which they had no personal quarrel. (The latter point was starkly illustrated when, at Christmas 1914, British and German troops declared an impromptu cease-fire, fraternised, and played football matches in no man's land before, the holiday behind them, returning to the trenches to resume killing one another for King and Kaiser.) This was a widely shared notion, but the first year of the Great War demonstrated that the populations of the countries on both sides really believed it, and would charge to almost certain death even after being told by Lord Kitchener himself on the parade ground, “that our attack was in the nature of a sacrifice to help the main offensive which was to be launched ‘elsewhere’” (p. 493). That individuals would accept their rôle as property of the state was a lesson which the all-encompassing states of the twentieth century, both tyrannical and more or less democratic, would take to heart, and would manifest itself not only in conscription and total war, but also in expropriation, confiscatory taxation, and arbitrary regulation of every aspect of subjects' lives. Once you accept that the state is within its rights to order you to charge massed machine guns with a rifle and bayonet, you're unlikely to quibble over lesser matters.

Further, the mobilisation of the economy under government direction for total war was taken as evidence that central planning of an industrial economy was not only feasible but more efficient than the market. Unfortunately, few observed that there is a big difference between consuming capital to build the means of destruction over a limited period of time and creating new wealth and products in a productive economy. And finally, governments learnt that control of mass media could mould the beliefs of their subjects as the rulers wished: the comical Fritz with which British troops fraternised at Christmas 1914 had become the detested Boche whose trenches they shelled continuously on Christmas Day a year later (p. 588).

It is these disastrous “lessons” drawn from the tragedy of World War I which, I suspect, charted the tragic course of the balance of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. Even a year before the outbreak of World War I, almost nobody imagined such a thing was possible, or that it would have the consequences it did. One wonders what will be the equivalent defining event of the twenty-first century, when it will happen, and in what direction it will set the course of history?

A U.S. edition is also available.

November 2006 Permalink