The war that won't die

Alchemist of War - The Pity of War
November 6, 1998

Eighty years on, Brian Holden Reid reconsiders the Great War.

The 80th anniversary of the first world war this year has offered yet another opportunity to reassess what is probably (the Holocaust apart) the single most controversial and condemned event of the 20th century. Both of these books are by historians whose careers post-date the controversies of the 1960s.

Alex Danchev's biography of Basil Liddell Hart, surely the most influential single interpreter of the history of the first world war in the Anglo-Saxon world, offers some interesting perspectives on Liddell Hart's evolving view of that great conflict. Danchev has been given a daunting task, for the first world war was only one of a multiplicity of subjects that engaged Liddell Hart's unremitting energy after 1918. Since his death in 1970, Liddell Hart's life work as a military thinker has been the subject of increasingly critical studies which have done much to damage his reputation. Some of this criticism has not been persuasive because historians of the period have lacked the vital biographical context that would have provided the backcloth for balanced judgement on his professional activities. The contrast with Liddell Hart's fellow military pundit, Major General J. F. C. Fuller, is striking. Fuller has had the benefit of an authoritative biography for more than 20 years, and his reputation has continued to grow in stature. In some ways this is odd, because Liddell Hart was more moderate in expression and had a more attractive personality.

Danchev has now picked up the baton courageously, but the overall effect is not impressive. Throughout the book he seems ill at ease with the subject, strained and unsure of himself. Danchev's biography is rather short (only 258 pages of text) and slight in character, but it is not slighting - at least not wittingly. Yet surprisingly little new information is offered; this is hardly unexpected as whole swathes of Liddell Hart's life and career are ignored. There is virtually nothing on Liddell Hart's endeavours to reform the British Army; after all, he orchestrated the efforts of a large group of men in uniform who agreed with his notions; his "partnership" with Leslie Hore-Belisha, secretary of state for war, 1937-40, is covered in five inadequate pages. His interest in armour gets short shrift, and there is a complete absence of discussion of his efforts on behalf of the Royal Tank Regiment or the work he devoted to the publication of the RTR's regimental history, The Tanks, which many consider to be Liddell Hart's magnum opus. In addition, Danchev disregards his post-1918 relations with the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. In 1936 he complained that he had not been asked to write a single regimental history. Why was he unacceptable to the Koyli? There is no mention of the Royal Army Education Corps and Liddell Hart's intention of joining it. Throughout the text the term "Blimp" is used indiscriminately and is never subject to proper analysis.

Liddell Hart's civilian activities suffer from a similar hasty and superficial treatment. There is no sustained attempt to explore the intellectual milieu into which Liddell Hart entered in 1924 or to discuss the nature of the many friendships he made among the liberal intelligentsia (the 1930 Hellenic Travellers Cruise is not mentioned). His skill and techniques as a journalist (especially at The Times) are neglected. So are his financial skills as a freelance, professional writer - although the odd tantalising reference can be found to his earnings. Even more disappointing is the failure to appraise Liddell Hart's political attitudes. Danchev does remark that he was not a party man; perhaps, but what were his sympathies? This biography virtually grinds to a halt in 1950. What role did Liddell Hart play in educating the postwar Labour governments in the realities of strategy? There is virtually nothing on Liddell Hart's significant, pioneering contribution to strategic studies: nuclear strategy, Nato and the cold war.

Instead, we get rather too much on Liddell Hart's interest in costume and a predilection for the corset which had undoubted sexual overtones. The sexual attitudes of his subject are a legitimate area of study for his biographer; but when so much is overlooked elsewhere, they appear to have received undue prominence, and erode further the foundations of Liddell Hart's reputation as a serious and significant figure.

There are some instructive passages, especially towards the end of the book, and it can be said to illuminate three areas of Liddell Hart's life. First, Danchev provides a sensitive account of Liddell Hart's experiences on the Somme. Second, he offers a good description of his subject's turbulent first marriage. Third, basing his survey on the work of Azar Gat, he gives a sensible and balanced discussion of Liddell Hart's relations with the German generals. However, these disparate parts do not make for a pleasing whole. Given the great need for an authoritative study of Liddell Hart's life, it gives no pleasure whatsoever to report that this is one of the most disappointing books that I have read recently - in proportion to the opportunity presented to the author.

In terms of technique, Niall Ferguson's book is a complete contrast. He has written a terse, cogent and challenging survey of the Great War. He traverses an impressive range with authority and confidence. The dust-cover of his book, a black background marked by red poppies with the usual bewildered Tommies (no French soldiers in sight) gives the impression that this is another sentimental wallow in the "pity" of the Western Front. On the contrary, this is a hard-headed economist's study of the first world war, replete with an impressive array of tables and statistics. Here is a "revisionist" study with a vengeance; but what is it revising? The most challenging chapters come at the beginning. Ferguson begins by dismissing the "ignorance" and "fantasy" of the host of pre-1914 war fiction writers. He then proceeds to downgrade the importance of the pre-1914 arms races. There is, he avers, "no law of history that all arms races end in wars". Of course, he is quite right. When war broke out in 1914, he argues that enthusiasm for war has been greatly exaggerated. Throughout Europe, he maintains, military preparedness was patchy and incomplete. "Germany's leaders acted out of a sense of weakness". Once at war there was no uniform press reaction. Much propaganda was not officially sponsored but stemmed from bellicose individuals or autonomous institutions.

He brings a cool economist's look to the conduct of the war itself. Throughout the book, German policy is placed in the most favourable light. Although Ferguson believes that Germany's strategy in 1914 (revolving around the famous Schlieffen Plan) was a reckless gamble, his view of the German army's military performance is a very favourable one. He argues that Germany "achieved and maintained a higher level of military effectiveness in the crucial theatre (the Western Front) for most of the war". The possibility always existed that Germany could have won, despite the economic inferiority of the Central Powers.

Ferguson has much of interest to say on the conduct of the war. He appreciates that standing on the defensive does not automatically confer an immunity from heavy casualties. The defensive, in short, is not inherently economical, and thus waging a defensive battle on the Somme in 1916 strained Germany's resources to the uttermost. Ferguson acknowledges the great importance of the Western Front but claims that the method adopted (by the British) is not beyond criticism. He includes information on morale, and brings a lot of good sense to topics that are often distorted by ignorance and emotion. The "most surprising thing" Ferguson found about the Western Front was "that military discipline did not break down much more often, or earlier than it did". Two important points underpin Ferguson's discussion. First, men fought - and continued to fight in 1914-18 - because they wanted to, and because many enjoyed the experience. Second, "high casualty rates do not correlate consistently with collapses in morale". Not only does he show that war poets were atypical, he points out that on many issues they were not as "anti-war" as is commonly supposed. Ferguson offers refreshing treatment of these contentious issues, free from "presentist" assumptions - not least that men (and women) in the past reacted just as we would to the conditions of 1914-18.

But Ferguson's challenging analysis of the war raises a number of problems that are not adequately solved by his confident approach. His provocative account is not a sustained history but a series of related essays. He is intolerant of the inefficiencies of coalition warfare, and the reality that Britain and the United States started from a much less well-integrated organisational base than Germany. Mass involvement posed fundamental problems that the Germans did not have to overcome. There is a lot of material about Britain, a little less about Germany. There is hardly anything about France or the enormous importance of the French war economy to the Allies. Russia is considered to be the most successful war economy of all, yet receives little attention. The United States, unaccountably, also receives scant attention, and is omitted from Ferguson's discussion of the war's consequences.

At various points, there are strong echoes of the Alan Clark school of history that supposes that Britain would be unaffected if a military dictatorship asserted a considerable dominion over the industrial heartland of Europe. France as a great power would have been destroyed. It was not in British interests to see French power shattered; the British Empire was insufficiently continental to offer a viable alternative power base. Ferguson concludes that it would have been "infinitely preferable" if Germany had secured a continental hegemony without two world wars. That the military dictatorship of the Second Reich was comparable to the European Union seems a preposterous assumption. It was certainly not in the interests of the United States to see Britain pushed to the margins of European affairs.

In many ways, Ferguson's book shows how much modern scholarship has moved beyond the preoccupations of writers like Liddell Hart. Yet it also confirms the continuing influence of his formidable indictment of the wasteful conduct of the war on the Western Front. Ferguson's final, stinging verdict is that the Great War was "at once piteous, in the poet's sense, and a 'pity'... It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.'' Perhaps. Yet it is an even greater error to suppose in modern war - although, too, it is certainly a "pity" - that stupendous conflicts can be resolved by negotiated compromises of the kind advocated by Captain Liddell Hart and Dr Ferguson.

Brian Holden Reid is senior lecturer in war studies, King's College London.

Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart

Author - Alex Danchev
ISBN - 0 297 81621 7
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 369

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