An Injury to Civilization

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Review of Jack Beatty, The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began (Walker & Co., 2012), vii + 392 pgs., hardcover, $30.

The 100th anniversary of World War I—the Great War, the War to End All Wars—is next year. A steady stream of new and reissued books on the war has already been flowing for the past couple of years. I have read a few of them, and will probably read a few more. Of those that I have recently read, one stands out for the unique approach it takes to 1914, the year the war began.

The Lost History of 1914 has been out now since early 2012. Many reviews of the book can be found online, although I deliberately did not read any of them once I made up my mind to review the book. I say this because I originally had not planned to do so. Because I review so many books and read so many other books for research purposes, I wanted to try to just sit down and read The Lost History of 1914 without taking notes, highlighting sentences, and writing comments in the margins.

It didn’t work. There is so much in the book that illustrates the complete and utter folly of World War I that I felt compelled to write something.

This will not be a review in the traditional sense. And neither will I pass judgment on how the book stacks up against other books that relate to the beginning of World War I. I will leave this to the professional historians. What I do want to briefly focus on is about twenty-five things from the book that I thought were interesting, informative, or illustrate the folly of the war.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first six each concern events in a different country: Germany, Russia, England, America, Austria-Hungary, and France. There is also an introduction, a brief unnamed concluding chapter, acknowledgments, notes, and an index. The book is greatly enhanced by many photographs and a variety of images.

The author, Jack Beatty, is a news analyst for NPR’s On Point. Although he has written or edited five other books, I had not heard of him until I picked up The Lost History of 1914. The book’s jacket says that the author “grew up listening to his father’s memories of serving in World War I as a sailor on a ship torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay.”

Here, in the order in which they appear in the book, are the things I want to highlight about the book. The significance of them should be apparent so my comments will be brief.

Page 20, Beatty notes of the French in 1914: “About half of all recruits, and quite a few junior officers, were unaware that France had lost territory to Germany in 1870.”

Page 53, Beatty quotes a Serbian historian on Austria’s annexation of Bosnia: “The crisis of 1908-9 contains all the elements that were to recur in 1914 and were the direct cause of the Great War.” And then he adds: “A second baleful legacy of the crisis was a promise by the chief of staff of the German army to his Austrian opposite number that if Austria attacked Serbia and Russian mobilized against it in response, Germany would mobilize against Russia.” This was contrary to Bismarck’s earlier opinion that the Balkans was “not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”

Page 66, Beatty reminds us that Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II, and Great Britain’s King George V were “royal cousins.” This because Wilhelm and George were grandsons of Queen Victoria and the tsar’s wife Alexandra was both the queen’s granddaughter and the second cousin of Nicholas. One would think that these “royal cousins” could have worked out their differences instead of destroying European civilization.

Page 77-78, Beatty notes that “starting with the mobilization of the army in August, Russia banned the sale of liquor in all but first-class restaurants.” This led to the deaths of hundreds from drinking various concoctions, 28 percent of the government’s income gone from taxes not collected, peasants diverting grain from the production of bread to vodka, and “bread riots” in St. Petersburg that began the Russian Revolution in 1917. Prohibition is always destructive to life, liberty, and property.

Page 89, Beatty writes of England: “Starting in early 1906 the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, authorized secret ‘military conversations’ with the French that bound the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to the French army and, in a degree, Britain to France, tighter than anything contemplated by the Entente cordiale of 1904 between them—tighter even than the formal military alliances between France and Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Through its spy in the Russian embassy in London, Berlin learned of these and subsequent security initiatives in Anglo-French and Anglo-Russian relations; Parliament and public remained in the dark.”

Page 91, Beatty postulates that if a revolt in Ireland had necessitated the sending in of the BEF, it could not at the same time had been sent to France. Quoting Niall Ferguson: “If the BEF had never been sent, there is no question that the Germans would have won the war.” and again, if Germany had won in 1914, “Hitler could have lived out his life as a failed artist and a fulfilled soldier in a German-dominated Central Europe about which he could have found little to complain.” Beatty then cites Richard Ned Lebow: “If Germany had won, there almost certainly would have been no Hitler and no Holocaust.”

Page 124, Beatty relates that on August 3, 1914, Sir Edward Grey made “the government’s case for war on grounds of interest, honor, and the maintenance of the balance of power against German hegemony in Europe.” He did not make it on grounds of defense against an attack or an actual threat of attack.

Page 131, Beatty notes that Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913 with an exalted view of his mandate: “Remember that God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.”

Page 249, Beatty chillingly remarks: “World War I was never bloodier than between August 1914 and January 1915, when over a million men died in battle.” Here the depravity of those in government responsible for sending men to war is on full display. Any sane man would have immediately stopped this carnage long before it reached the million-man mark.

Page 251, Beatty refers to the work of retired U.S. Army officer and German-trained historian Terence Zuber on the “Schlieffen Plan.” On the basis of evidence discovered in the East German archives, Zuber contends that “the Schlieffen Plan was not Germany’s strategy in 1914.” Schlieffen’s memorandum was “an elaborate ploy to increase the size of the German army.” The German generals “invented” the “Schlieffen Plan” after the war “to rescue the mystique of Prussian militarism from the disgrace of defeat.”

Page 267, Beatty mentions that “an average of nine hundred Frenchmen and thirteen hundred Germans died every day of the war.” Again, how could any sane man let this carnage continue year after year? We should applaud draft dodgers and soldiers on either side who refused to fight or deserted instead of vilifying them as cowards. They are the only sane men in this war.

Page 272, Beatty writes: “Britons did not learn until after the war of Allied catastrophes like the loss of three hundred thousand French soldiers in August 1914 nor of the annihilation of three Russian army corps at Tannenberg.” Yet, “the Defence of the Realm Act, which banned the publication of information useful to the enemy, including weather reports and chess problems, was superfluous.” The press censored itself, publishing only “selective truth” and leaving out the “horrors.” The press did the bidding of the regime. Nothing has changed.

Page 273-274, Beatty notes that although 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day of the Somme, the Daily Chronicle reported: “It is, on balance, a good day for the British and French.” It was, in fact, the “worst day in the history of the British army.”

Page 274, Beatty quotes from a 1917 letter of Lloyd George to a friend: “The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear. . . . If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and they can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censors would not print the truth.”

Page 283, Beatty quotes British Prime Minister Asquith: “If [the BEF quits the field] the French will be left uncovered, Paris will fall, the French Army will be cut off and we shall never be able to hold our heads up in the world again. Better that the British Army should perish than that this shame should fall on us.” The callous disregard of human life by government officials should make every young man flee from military service. But alas, such is not the case.

Page 287, Beatty notes that Lloyd George was found “searching for Gallipoli on a map of Spain.” Then as now, war is how many people learn geography.

Page 300, Beatty notes that Asquith was originally against Herbert Hoover’s efforts to feed starving Belgium, calling it “a monstrous idea.”

Page 311, Beatty exposes the depravity of Kaiser Wilhelm when he reports that the kaiser “proposed that the ninety thousand Russian soldiers captured at the battle of Tanenberg in September 1914 be driven onto a bare waterless strip of land in the Baltic Sea and starved to death.”

Page 312-313, Beatty reports that under Britain’s “starvation blockade” of Germany, the German people lost 525,000 tons of “human mass.” As always, children suffered the worst: “Their limbs swelled with hunger edema. Rickets softened their bones, their jaws broke, their teeth fell out.” Births fell by half between 1914 and 1918.

Page 315, Beatty points out that the Allies continued the “starvation blockade” after the Armistice that ended the war. Indeed, suffering was greater “under the continued blockage than prior to the Armistice.” Germany had the gold to pay for food, but French Premier Georges Clemenceau “claimed the gold for France as a down payment on German war reparations.”

Page 317, Beatty notes that the children of Germany “crushed between the ‘hammer’ of the Allied armies in France and the ‘anvil’ of the blockade at home” later “constituted the core of the Nazi Party.”

Page 321, Beatty uncovers once again the depravity of the German kaiser, who had the “bizarre idea” to render areas of Belgium and France “free of human beings.”

Page 322, Beatty notes that Churchill told an American journalist in 1936 that had the war ended in early 1917, “There would have been no collapse in Russia followed by Communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by Fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Germany.”

Page 323, Beatty writes: “U.S. entry into the war renewed the lust for conquest (and revenge) on the Allied side.” This is another great evil of the United States getting involved in World War I. Wilson, of course, should have heeded the advice of earlier U.S. presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison to avoid entangling alliances and stay out of European wars.

Page 324, Beatty finishes the book with the truest thing that Wilson ever said about World War I: “An injury . . . to civilization . . . which can never be atoned for or repaired.”

World War I was folly on scale never before seen. The 110,000 or so American soldiers who died on the battlefields of Europe died for absolutely nothing. They died not while helping to liberate, but while helping to destroy, European civilization, even as the U.S. government was punishing dissent and destroying civil liberties in America. Even without the beginning of the income tax and the Federal Reserve, Woodrow Wilson is one of the most loathsome men to ever occupy the office of U.S. president because of his push for American intervention in World War I. The war should have been the war to end all wars. The Lost History of 1914 is an important book because we must never forget the folly that was the Great War. As the philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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