ON BOOKS: The literary fascination of the war that went all wrong

May 18 1963


ON BOOKS: The literary fascination of the war that went all wrong

May 18 1963



ON BOOKS: The literary fascination of the war that went all wrong

THE NEW WAVE of good books on the First World War amounts to something more interesting than the rediscovery in print of a subject that is both momentous and fascinating. It reflects more, even, than the possibility that the American Civil War may be almost exhausted as a field of amateur study. The new literature of 1914-1918 attacks the war from a peculiarly intellectual angle: it sets out to illuminate, for this generation of readers, the theories of the men behind the war as well as the war that actually happened.

Before 1914. theories of war played a fantastically large part in the organization of armies. Learned men in the war colleges of Germany and France worked for years on their war plans, and by 1906 the German plan to fight France was complete, right down to the railway schedules. The soldiers on both sides worked so hard, and thought so intricately, that they acquired confidence in their ability to predict just what would happen when finally the armies met. According to the Schlieffen Plan, Germany was to take it all in just about six weeks; according to the French Theory of Attack, the French army would never have to defend anything, would win all its engagements by constantly attacking.

The new writers, particularly Barbara Tuchman and Richard Watt, dwell in morbid fascination on the weird vanity of the pre-war planners. It was the planners’ confidence that their war would be relatively painless that encouraged Germany to fight; according to the plans, and the morality of the period, the Germans had no reason not to fight. Like the high-level strategists of today, who sometimes write as if they thought they could predict the course of a nuclear exchange, the planners of the First World War came to believe that men in action were as predictable as the figures on a chessboard. As it turned out, of course, they had simply no idea what they were doing.


The literary style of the First World War was established right at the beginning. On August 3, 1914, the day Germany declared war, the British foreign secretary said to a friend: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Sir Edward Grey's prophecy still haunts Europe, and the style of his words haunts the new First World War books. It is as if all of these books were only amplifications of what Sir Edward said; each of the writers tries to show through metaphor the tremendous impact of the war on civilization, and each tries to explain how it came about that the leaders of Europe — so old, so experienced, so brave — turned out the lights on their own civilization with such remarkable efficiency.

Barbara Tuchman opens The Guns of August, published last year, with a description

of the funeral procession for Edward VII in 1910. The passage ends with a sentence that can stand as representative of the new First World War literature: “The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

Mrs. Tuchman's books, and those of several others in this series, form part of the contemporary body of historical literature which is equally at home on the university reading list and the best-seller chart. They have style, grace, the charm and excitement of well-told anecdotes, and — in most cases — a strong base of scholarship. They differ from the books about 1914-1918 that our fathers read: they lack that sense of outraged astonishment which filled more personal books, like Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. In its place they share a cooler but perhaps no less profound sense of tragedy. They are not neutral — Germany remains a central villain — but they direct their indignation at the leaders on both sides who spent their peoples’ blood with wild extravagance.

If you can get as worked up about the subject as 1 have, you might like to read some of the recent books in this order:

(LiP THE FALL OF THE DYNASTIES ( Doubleday, 421 pages, $7.25). by Edmond Taylor, describes the careers of the Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, Ottoman and Romanov dynasties from 1905 to 1922. It is the most anecdotal of the books in this group, and the least likely to be used in universities; it is also the most entertaining. with one exception.

¡¡Gèr’ THE GUNS OF AUGUST (now a Dell paperback, 575 pages. 95 cents), by Barbara W. Tuchman, is a densely worked and magnificently reasoned account of the summer in which the war began; probably no other book says so much about what caused the war and how its opening battles were fought. ßjgr3 THE PRICE OF GLORY (Macmillan, 371 pages, $6.50). by Alistair Horne, is the first detailed popular account of the battle of Verdun, in 1916. in which the Germans attempted not to gain ground but simply to bleed the French army to death: and almost succeeded. Horne’s style is sharp and his research exhaustive, but The Price of Glory requires a reader whose devotion to the subject is beginning to approach fanaticism.

¡¡TW* DARE CALI. IT TREASON (MUSSOn, 344 pages, $7.50), by Richard M. Watt, is one of the most absorbing books in this pile. It movingly and convincingly describes the French mutinies of 1917. when the army which had defended France so heroically at the Marne and Verdun defied its officers, refused to attack the enemy, and eventually won itself a much more intelligent commander, Philippe Pétain, and a somewhat more humane war. Watt goes deep into the French society which produced the mutiny and shows how governments and armies affect one another.

IJjgP THE ZIMMERMAN TELEGRAM (Delta palerback. 244 pages, $1.95), also by Mrs. Tuchman, is my favorite among all the recent war books. It was first published in 1958 and is now reissued to capitalize on the reputation of The Guns of August. In 1917 the German

foreign minister sent to his ambassador in Mexico a message directing the ambassador to make an alliance with the Mexicans against the Americans; if Germany then won the war, Mexico would get Texas and a few other “lost territories." Zimmerman's telegram, decoded by the British, was turned over to the Americans and helped to bring them storming into the war.

jrjr~ 1918: THE LAST ACT (British Book Service. 318 pages. $8), by Barrie Pitt, describes in much detail, and the simplest possible style, the slow stages by which Germany was finally defeated and the war concluded.

EVEN WHEN i HAD READ Barrie Pitt's book, and discovered how it all came out, my interest in the subject was far from exhausted. My impulse now is to go on to some books I've missed (like Alan Moorhead’s Gallipoli and George Kennan’s Russia Leaves the War), and learn in detail what was happening elsewhere while Germany and France were bludgeoning each other to death on the Western Front. Watt has made me want to find out more about Clemenceau, and Taylor has reawakened my interest in the unlikely figure — both repellent and attractive — of the Emperor Franz Josef. Mrs. Tuchman has made me want very much to read her next book. Horne and Pitt, on the other hand, have left me totally satisfied with my present knowledge of trench warfare.

ON MAGAZINES: Canada’s career as an American Trouble Spot

LAST MONTH the Saturday Evening Post quoted Lester Pearson on one of the friction points in Canadian-American relations: “An American view of Canada that is benevolent ignorance.” At that point, Americans may still have felt slightly benevolent towards Canada, but ignorance was getting harder and harder to maintain. Not only did the papers and the TV networks cover the election with unprecedented zeal; the American magazines also threw themselves into a vast educational campaign, a quick course for their readers in Canadian politics, history, and sociology. It all proved

once again that the way to get attention is to make trouble. In 1957 a Toronto writer's article on Canadian politics was rejected by an American magazine on the grounds that Americans weren't much interested in the subject; in 1963 the same editor wrote to the same writer to ask him for some pieces on Canadian politics.

The American writers described Canadian affairs with both sympathy and alarm. Look headlined its piece Crisis in beautiful, bewildered Canada, showed some superb color photos, and then described thoughtfully, and at enormous (for Look) length, the background of the current problems. I'hc Saturday livening Rost titled its article Do They Really Ilute Us in Canada? and then answered the question: No, not really. The visiting magazine writers did their best to explain to their readers such unique institutions as the CBC, Réal Caouette, and baby bonuses — “In Canada,” wrote Homer Bigart in The Reporter, “politicians don’t kiss babies, but give them money.” Both the Rost and Look gave a heavy play to Hugh MacLcnnan and Bruce Hutchison as national philosophers. (Frank Lowe in the Montreal Star claimed that the American writers simply flew to Montreal and spoke to MacLcnnan, then flew to Victoria for a chat with Hutchison, then went home to write their pieces.)

No magazine went quite so far as an NBC commentator who said on election night: "Many Americans deplore rowdyism in our political behavior but Canada . . . remains much closer to a frontier tradition.” (This alarming comparison was followed by shots of violence at Pearson and Douglas rallies.) But the magazine writers clearly expressed dismay — in U. S. News and World Report, Quebec, “smoldering with unrest,” began to sound just like Iraq. In general the magazines came much closer to the truth about Canada than the American newspapers and TV commentators. For instance, no magazine made the selfcentred mistake (as several papers and TV men did) of assuming that the United States was the campaign’s great issue.


American journalists showed no affection for John Diefenbaker. He said in the campaign that they were against him, and he was right. Newsweek, of course, had reported in February that “Macmillan can hardly bear the sight of him, and President Kennedy dislikes him cordially.” Now the magazines, across the political spectrum, agreed with Macmillan and Kennedy — from the liberal Democratic Reporter (“incapable of decision”) through the liberal Republican Life (“shrewd but narrow”), through the nonpartisan Atlantic Monthly (“Washington, like London, is weary of the Diefenbaker regime, which has had a genius for annoying both capitals”) right over to the ultra-conservative National Review (“led a once-great party into a wilderness of suspicion and parochialism”).

They weren't quite sure about Pearson, but in the main they liked him — even the National Review, which has attacked him in the past, headlined its editorial after the election Relax. Yankee, and predicted better relations. Life called him “one of those Oxford-educated intellectuals" and said he was a welcome change. U. S. News and World Report went farther, calling him “an old friend of the U. S." Time went even farther than that, by saying that though Pearson sometimes opposed the United States, American diplomats didn’t mind it very much when he did it. Time's cover story on Pearson, published in all its editions, was a model of profile writing: clear,

understanding, and precise in its appraisals.

Only Life's editorial writer, with his customary daring, tried to sum up Canadians as a whole: he called us “Canada’s great mass of sensible, middle-class, troubled, but by no means neurotic, citizens,” and I don’t think 1 like that at all. It's my guess that only common courtesy kept the word “dull” out of that series of adjectives. I expect to find rather more pleasure in one American magazine story that hasn’t heen published yet: ¡dayboy is preparing a picture story on The Girls of Canada.