Saturday, July 12, 2014

'The War That Ended Peace' / 'Poilu'

Reviews by Bill Doughty

Two recent books about World War I offer different perspectives -- one from a broad sweep of world history and the other from inside narrow muddy trenches and a "lunar landscape" battlefield.

Margaret MacMillan, Oxford University professor of history, presents a comprehensive look at events leading up to and through what writer H.G. Wells said would be "the war to end war." Macmillan's "The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914" shows how peculiar personalities and poor choices led to death and destruction in Europe 100 years ago.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright endorsed this book, which has been compared with the classic "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman. Albright said: "'The War That Ended Peace' tells the story of how intelligent, well-meaning leaders guided their nations into catastrophe. These epic events, brilliantly described by one of our era's most talented historians, warn of the dangers that arise when we fail to anticipate the consequences of our actions. This is one of the finest books I have ever read on the causes of World War I."
MacMillan's book has been compared with Tuchman's "The Guns of August."
MacMillan introduces us to characters like Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bernhard von Bülow, Adm. Jacky Fisher, Alfred von Tirpitz, Nicholas II, Edward Grey, Leopold von Berchtold, Raymond Poincaré, and both Helmuth von Moltkes (elder and younger). She asks rhetorically whether these men were to blame for causing the clash of nations.

"Or was no one to blame? Should we look instead at institutions or ideas?" The history of WWI must be painted on a canvas of imperialism and seen through the lens of extreme nationalism.

MacMillan goes back decades before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the days of Napoleon and War of 1812 through the rise of Japan and overreach of Russia, Germany and Britain to explain how nations competed for resources and refused to respect other's territories.
"Where today the international community sees failed or failing states as a problem, in the age of imperialism the powers saw them as an opportunity. China, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, all were weak, divided, and apparently ready to be carved up."
A key influence for all major nations in an era of colonial expansion was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's 1890 classic, "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History." Mahan's book showed leaders the role of navies in world commerce and led to a race by Germany and Britain to build ships.
"A strong navy protected the key highways for trade and communication across the oceans, and, equally importantly, enabled the seizing and holding of colonies. Its battle fleets could serve as a deterrent, especially if they were situated in key strategic locations. 'The fleet in being,' as Mahan and others called it, did not necessarily have to fight; it could be used to put pressure on a hostile power in peacetime and make that power think twice before risking its own fleet, even if it were bigger. In war, though, it was the duty of the battle fleet or fleets to destroy the enemy in a decisive battle."
Inspection in the trenches of WWI.
Of course, when war came in 1914, much of the fighting was on landlocked battlefields in France and Germany.  Churchill called the peace before the Great War "exceptional tranquillity." The tranquillity was destroyed by what MacMillan concludes was "a failure of imagination" and "lack of courage" to prevent war.

MacMillan's perspective is global and general. For Corporal Louis Balthas, whose contemporaneous diaries (translated by Edward M. Strauss) are published in this year's "Poilu," the view is muddy and personal -- in and around the trenches -- facing the German "Boche" and "millions of tiny sharp-tongued mosquitoes," and "legions of famished ticks and lice," along with  countless rats and fleas.

I wanted to read this book because my grandfather fought for Germany in the war against the French before emigrating to the United States in the 1920s. I remember the stories he told me of the trenches and being wounded by a French poilu. I still have the old picture book we read together in 1964 about "the Great War," and I treasure the perspective he shared, learning that war and peace were more nuanced and complicated than I had imagined.

Barthas, a barrel maker drafted into the war, writes about the petty tyranny of despotic authority. He shows examples of heroic stoicism, shared humanity between warfighters, and random luck in battle, such as when a soldier's tin of coconut candy, which his girlfriend insisted he carry, ricocheted a bullet near his heart and saved his life.

He describes fear, fatigue and simple gratitude.
"As we left the village, an old lady came up to us, carrying something in her apron. They were some eggs which she handed out to us. As I passed by I managed to snatch one. It's a small thing, an egg, but we were very touched by it. This poor old lady was giving up something necessary for her, to give us this offering. How a gift is made is more important than the gift itself."
Barthas, like Vonnegut, Hemingway and Orwell, writes about the consequences and ironies of war. Like most warriors, he said he fights to preserve peace.

Back home from the war in 1919, he concludes:
"Returned to the bosom of my family after the nightmare years, I taste the joy of life, or rather of new life. I feel tender happiness about things which, before, I didn't pay attention to: sitting at home, at my table, lying in my bed, putting off sleep so I can hear the wind hitting the shutters, rustling the nearby plane trees, hearing the rain strike the windows, looking at a starry, serene, silent night or, on a dark, moonless night, thinking about similar nights spent up there ... Often I think about my many comrades fallen by my side. I heard their curses against the war and its authors, the revolt of their whole being against their tragic fate, against their murder. And I, as a survivor, believe that I am inspired by their will to struggle without cease-fire nor mercy, to my last breath, for the idea of peace and human fraternity."
Both of these books provide deep insights about the First World War and about war, in general, reinforcing the nation's Maritime Strategy, which encourages a cooperative global fraternity and stresses: "preventing wars is as important as winning wars."

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