- A Combat History of the Great War:An Interview with Peter Hart
In Our Second Interview with an Author of a Recently published book on World War I, senior editor Donald Yerxa asks Peter Hart to comment on his The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2013). Hart is oral historian at the Imperial War Museum in London. He is the author of a number of books on World War I, including The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (Pegasus, 2009); 1918: A Very British Victory (Phoenix, 2010); and Gallipoli (Oxford University Press, 2011). Yerxa interviewed Hart in November 2013.
There are a number of notions about the war that persist in the popular understanding and, to a lesser degree, in the academic literature. Would you speak briefly to some of these? First: World War I was a pointless conflict and a catastrophic mistake wherein millions of soldiers and civilians died for nothing.
I can understand that a pacifist viewpoint has a coherent philosophy that renders all wars pointless mistakes. However, although sympathetic to such viewpoints and generally anti-war, I am not a pacifist myself. During the Great War, all sides believed in the cause that they fought for. Looked at from a modern viewpoint, it is evident that many of the war aims were typical of aggressive imperial powers, but these were the motivations of governments and indeed often fashionable causes at the time. Many governments also “dressed up” the real reasons for conflict with popular causes—as, for instance, the British did over the German invasion of Belgium. Yet we cannot go back in time and rule what was and was not acceptable based on our 21st-century perspective.
Germany wanted to smash the growing military threat of France and Russia to leave her unchallenged in Europe. Germany also desired colonies in Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East commensurate with her military strength and wanted to be a naval power fit to challenge Britain. Austro-Hungary wanted to destroy Serbia and defy all nationalistic factions to freeze time across its ramshackle empire. France wanted military revenge on Germany and the return of Alsace-Lorraine. France was also hungry for more colonies in the Middle East and the Far East. Russia wanted to lead a Pan-Slavic movement centered on the cultural and political unity of all Slavs, a concept rendered problematic by the spirited objections of several of the existing Slavic states. Russia also wanted control of Constantinople and a sea route to the Mediterranean. Italy wanted to acquire various attractive parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and colonies in Africa. The British wanted no one country to control Europe but sought to maintain and expand their huge empire, defended all the while by the strongest navy in [End Page 39] the world. The United States was the least dogmatic of all. Only brought in due to German submarine warfare tactics, they later sought to hold the ring in peace negotiations.
These were not compatible objectives, and sabres had been much rattled in the previous decade. The outbreak of war in 1914 released an enormous wave of tension as the soldiers sought to resolve what the diplomats could not. These were important issues that had to be resolved. The question was whether war was the only way forward? Given the aggressive intent demonstrated by Germany’s statesmen and generals, the Allies had little choice but to fight if they were not to abandon longstanding policies.
Second: battle tactics were sterile.
That is a popular misconception. Unfortunately, each step forward in the attacking tactics seemed to be more than matched by effective defensive counters. Trenches had long existed in warfare, but the application of modern weapons technology and mass industrial production to the inherent strength of malleable earth fortifications made for a formidable defensive system. Line after line of trenches protected by barbed wire entanglements were linked by communication trenches that allowed the relief troops to approach under cover. The front line infantry could generate a veritable hail of bullets from their bolt-action rifles and heavy...