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The Trumpet, by Edward Thomas


Rise up, rise up,

And, as the trumpet blowing

Chases the dreams of men,

As the dawn glowing

The stars that left unlit

The land and water,

Rise up and scatter

The dew that covers

The print of last night’s lovers­

Scatter it, scatter it!


While you are listening

To the clear horn,

Forget, men, everything

On this earth newborn, 

Except that it is lovlier

Than any mysteries.

Open your eyes to the air

That has washed the eyes of the stars

Through all the dewy night:

Up with the light, 

To the old wars;

Arise, arise!


In a place of honor in the Oxford Examination Schools, there hangs a portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Ger­many, wearing the robes of the hon­orary doctorate of civil law bestowed on him by the University of Oxford in November 1907. Seven years after the kaiser received his degree, out of a total of seven Oxford honor ands in June 1914, five were German. The duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Profes­sor Ludwig Mitteis of the University of Leipzig, and the composer Rich­ard Strauss all received their degrees at the encaenia on June 25.

Special sessions of convocation were held to bestow honorary doctorates on the king of Württemberg and the German ambas­sador, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. At a banquet in the latter’s honor, the professor of German reminded his audience that the kaiser’s great-grandfather, King Frederick William III of Prussia, had also received an honorary doctorate of civil law exactly 100 years before. He welcomed the presence of so many German students in Oxford (58 German Rhodes Scholars had matriculated over the previous 10 years) and expressed the hope that thereby the two nations would be “drawn nearer to one another,” quoting the belief of Cecil Rhodes “that the whole of humanity would be best served if the Teutonic peoples were brought nearer together and would join hands for the purpose of spreading their civilization to distant regions.”

Three days after this encaenia, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated at Sarajevo. When the university reconvened three months later in October 1914, many of the young Germans and Englishmen who had rubbed shoulders at those celebration s had enlisted in the irrespective armies and were now doing their best to kill one another. The Examina­tion Schools had been turned into a hospital. The number of undergraduates in residence had dwindled by over half, from 3,097 to 1,387. (By 1918 it would be down to 369.) During the vacation over a thousand of them had been recommended for commissions by a committee established under the vice­ chancellor , and they were already serving with the army. As yet, only 12 had been killed; the slaughter of the First Battle of Ypres was still a few weeks away.

Several colleges had been taken over to house troops. Orga­nized games had virtually ceased, while the Officers’ Training Corps, to which all able-bodied undergraduates now belonged, trained for five mornings and two afternoons a week. As if this were not enough, the Chichele Professor of Military History, Spenser Wilkinson, advertised a course of lectures “for those who are preparing themselves to fight England’s battles.” The course was to begin with a description of ” the nature and properties of the weapons in use–the bullet, the shell, the bayonet, the sword and the lance.”

In one way it can therefore be said that the war came out of a clear sky. But these events do not indicate a profoundly pacific community taken totally by surprise and adjusting only with difficulty to astonishing and terrible new conditions. Everyone seems to have known exactly what to do, and to have done it with great efficiency. Arrangements to take over the Examination Schools and colleges had been made by the War Office two years earlier. The OTC was already flourishing: One undergraduate in three belonged to it, and 500 were in sum­mer camp at Aldershot when the news of the assassination came through. And insofar as such iconographic evidence can be legitimately adduced, group photographs of Oxford colleges and clubs show how the lolling dandies of the turn of the century, with their canes, blazers, and dogs, had given way soon after the Boer War to a new generation of muscular young men–fit, serious, short-haired, level-eyed–whose ci­vilian clothes already seemed to sit uneasily upon them. This generation may not have expected war to break out in the summer of 1914 but was psychologically and physically ready for it when it came. The challenge was expected, and the response full of zest.

In this respect Oxford was a microcosm, not only of Britain but of Europe as a whole. Europe was taken by surprise by the occasion for the war–so many comparable crises had been successfully surmounted during the past five years–but not by the fact of it. All over the Continent long-matured plans were put into action. With a really remarkable absence of confusion, millions of men reported for duty, were converted or, rather, reconverted to soldiers, and were loaded into the trains that took them to the greatest battlefields in the history of mankind. It cannot be said that during the summer weeks of 1914, while the crisis was ripening toward its bloody solu­tion, the peoples of Europe in general were exercising any pressure on their governments to go to war, but neither did they try to restrain them. When war did come, it was accepted almost without question-in some quarters indeed with wild demonstrations of relief.

The historian is faced with two distinct questions: Why did war come? And when it did, why was it so prolonged and destructive? In the background there is a further, unanswerable question: If the political and military leaders of Europe had been able to foresee that prolongation and that destruc­tion, would the war have occurred at all? Everyone, naturally, went to war in the expectation of victory, but might they have felt that at such a cost even victory was not worthwhile? This is the kind of hypothetical question that laymen put and historians cannot answer. But we can ask another and less impossible question: What did the governments of Europe think would happen to them if they did not go to war? Why did war, with all its terrible uncertainties, appear to be prefer­able to remaining at peace?

Clausewitz described war as being compounded of a para­doxical trinity: the government for which it was an instrument of policy; the military for whom it was the exercise of a skill; and the people as a whole, the extent of whose involvement determined the intensity with which the war would be waged. This distinction is of course an oversimplification. In all major states of Europe, military and political leaders shared a com­mon attitude and cultural background, which shaped their perceptions and guided their judgments. The same emotions that inspired peoples were likely also to affect their political and military leaders, and those emotions could be shaped by propaganda, by education, and by the socialization process to which so much of the male population of continental Europe had been subject through four decades of at least two years’ compulsory military service at an impressionable age. (It must be noted that the British, who were not subjected to the same treatment, reacted no differently from their Continental neighbors to the onset and continuation of the war.) Still, the triad of government, military, and public opinion provides a useful framework for analysis.

First, the governments. Although none of them could fore­see the full extent of the ordeal that lay before them, no responsible statesman, even in Germany, believed that they were in for “a fresh, jolly little war.” It was perhaps only when they had made their irrevocable decisions that the real magni­tude of the risks came fully home to them. But that is a very common human experience. The Prussian chancellor, Theo­bald von Bethmann Hollweg, in particular saw the political dangers with gloomy clarity: A world war, he warned the Bavarian minister, “would topple many a throne.”

There had indeed been a certain amount of wild writing and speaking over the past 10 years, especially in Germany, about the value of war as a panacea for social ills; and the remark­able way in which social and political differences did disappear the moment war was declared has tempted some historians to assume that this effect was foreseen and therefore intended: that the opportunity was deliberately seized by the Asquith Cabinet, for example, to distract attention from the intractable Irish problem to Continental adventures, or that the German imperial government saw it as a chance to settle the hash of the Social Democrats for good. One can only say that minute scrutiny of the material by several generations of historians has failed to produce any serious evidence to support this view.

Rather, the opposite was the case: Governments were far from certain how their populations would react to the coming of war, and how they would stand up to its rigors. A whole generation of English publicists had been stressing the social consequences of even a temporary blockade of the British Isles: soaring insurance rates, unemployment, bread riots, revolution. The French army, for 10 years the butt of left­ wing agitation, hardly anticipated an enthusiastic response from conscripts recalled to the colors, and the French security services stood by to arrest left-wing leaders at the slightest sign of trouble. It was only with the greatest reluctance that the German army forced military service on the supposedly unreliable population of the industrial regions. The Russian government had within the past 10 years seen one war end in revolution, and for at least some of its members this seemed good reason to keep out of another.

It was one thing to enhance the prestige of the government and undermine support for its domestic enemies by conduct­ing a strong forward policy, whether in Morocco or in the Balkans. It was another to subject the fragile consensus and dubious loyalties of societies so torn by class and national conflict, as were the states of Europe in 1914, to the terrible strain of a great war. Governments did so only on the assump­tion, spoken or unspoken, that the war, however terrible, would at least be comparatively short–no longer, probably, than six months, the length of the last great war in Europe in 1870. How could it be otherwise? A prolonged war of attrition, as Count Alfred von Schlieffen had pointed out in a famous article in 1909, could not be conducted when it required the expenditure of milliards to sustain armies numbered in mil­lions. The only person in any position of responsibility who appears to have thought differently was Horatio Herbert, Lord Kitchener, a British imperial soldier who had served outside Europe throughout his career and who had never, as far as we know, seriously studied the question at all.

But whether the war proved to be short or long, it was for all governments a leap into a terrible dark, and the penalties for defeat were likely to be far greater than the traditional ones of financial indemnities and territorial loss. So we inev­itably come back to these questions: What appeared to be the alternatives? And in the event of victory, what appeared to be the probable gains? Why, in the last resort, did the govern­ments of Europe prefer the terrifying uncertainties of war to the prospect of no war?

Let us begin where the war itself effectively began, in Vienna. Was not the prospect that lay before the statesmen of Vienna, even if this crisis were successfully “managed,” one of continuous frustration abroad and disintegration at home? Of a Serbia, doubled in size after the Balkan Wars, ever more boldly backing the claims of the Bosnian irredentists, while other South Slavs agitated with ever greater confidence for an autonomy that the empire would never permit them to exer­cise? What serious prospect was there of the empire hanging together once the old emperor had gone? A final settling of accounts with Serbia while Germany held the Russians in check must have seemed the only chance of saving the monar­chy, whatever Berlin might say; and with a blank check from Berlin, Vienna could surely face the future with a greater confi­dence than had been felt there for very many years. No wonder Count Leopold von Berchtold and his colleagues took their time drafting their ultimatum: They must have found the process highly enjoyable. A successful war would put the monarchy back in business again, and keep it there for many years to come.

What about the government in Berlin? Was this the mo­ment it had been waiting for ever since the huge expansion of the army resulting from the famous Council of War in December 1912? The controversy about this has consumed many tons of paper and gallons of ink. But if one asks again what the imperial German government had to lose by peace and gain by war, the answers seem very clear. One of the things it had to lose by peace was its Austrian ally, which would become an increasingly useless burden as it grew ever less capable of solving its internal problems or protecting its own (and Ger­man) interests in the Balkans against the encroachments of Russia and Russia’s proteges.

Another thing Germany stood to lose was her capacity to hold her own against a dual alliance in which French capital was building up a Russian army whose future size and mobility appeared far beyond the capability of any German force to contain. It would not be too anachronistic to suggest that the shadow of Russia’s future status as a superpower was already rendering out of date all calculations based on the traditional concept of a European balance. If war was to come at all–and few people in the imperial government doubted that it would–then it was self-evidently better to have it now, while there was still a fair chance of victory. By 1917, when the Russians had completed the great program of rearmament and railway building that they had begun, with French funding, in 1912, it might be too late.

And, for Germany, there was a lot to be gained by war. The domination of the Balkans and perhaps the Middle East; the final reduction of France to a position from which she could never again, even with allies, pose a military threat to German power; the establishment of a position on the Continent that would enable Germany to compete on equal terms with En­gland and attain the grandiose if ill-defined status of a world power–all this, in July 1914, must have appeared perfectly feasible. In September, when the program of her war aims was drafted, it looked as if it had almost been achieved. Even in a less bellicose and more self-confident society than Wilhelmine Ger­many, the opportunity might have seemed too good to miss.

In Vienna and Berlin then, there seemed much to be lost by peace and gained by war. In St. Petersburg, the ambitions for Balkan expansion and the ” recovery” of Constantinople, which had been checked in 1878 and 1885, were far from dead, but they can hardly be considered a major element in Russian political calculations in July 1914. More serious were the costs of remaining at peace: abandoning Serbia and all the gains of the past five years; facing the wrath of the pan-Slavs in the Duma and their French allies; and watching the Central Pow­ers establish and consolidate an unchallengeable dominance in southeast Europe. Even so, these costs were hardly irre­deemable. Russia had been humiliated before in the Balkans and had been able to restore her authority. She had no vital interests there that, once lost, could never be recovered. Above all, she had nothing to lose in terms of military power by waiting, and a great deal to gain. Of all the major Euro­ pean powers, Russia’s entry into the war can be categorized as the least calculated, the most unwise, and ultimately, of course, the most disastrous.

As for Paris and London, a successful war would certainly remove–as it ultimately did–a major threat to their security. But the advantages to be gained by war did not enter into their calculations, whereas the perils of remaining at peace evident­ly did. The French government took little comfort from the long-term advantages to be gained from the growth of Russian military power and paid little heed to the consequent advis­ability of postponing the issue until 1917. It was more con­scious of its immediate weakness in the face of the growing German army. In 1914, after the increase of the past two years, German peacetime strength had reached 800,000 men, its wartime strength 3.8 million.

Thanks to their new and controversial Three-Year Law, the French could match this with 700,000 men in peace, 3.5 million in war. But with a population of only 60 percent of the Germans’, that was almost literally their final throw. Comple­tion of the Russian reforms was three years away. In the long run Russian strength might redress the balance, but in the long run a large number of Frenchmen could be dead and their nation reduced to the status of Italy or Spain. So the French government saw no reason to urge caution on St. Petersburg, and even less reason to refrain from supporting its ally when Germany declared war on her on August 1.

To the British government, composed largely (although by no means entirely) of men to whom the whole idea of war was antipathetic and who were responsible to a parliamentary party deeply suspicious of militarism and of Continental in­volvement, there appeared nothing to be gained by war. In­ deed, perhaps more than any of its Continental equivalents, the British government was conscious of the possible costs, but was equally conscious of the cost of remaining at peace. She had no demands to make on any of the belligerents, no territorial aspirations, no expectation of economic gain. So far as the British government was concerned, Norman Angeli’s famous book The Great Illusion was preaching to the converted. But if the Dual Alliance defeated Germany unaided, the two victors would regard Britain with hostility and contempt. All the perils of imperial rivalry that were temporarily dispersed by the Entente with France in 1904 and the British accords with Russia of 1907 would reappear. If, on the other hand, Germany won and established a Continental hegemony, Britain would face a threat to her security unknown since the days of Napoleon.

Leaving aside any consideration of honor, sentiment, or respect for treaties-and let us remember that that generation of Englishmen did not leave them aside but regarded them as quite central–every consideration of realpolitik dictated that Britain, having done her best to avert the war, should enter it on the side of France and Russia once it began.

When the statesmen of Europe declared war in 1914, they all shared one assumption: that they had a better-than-even chance of winning it. In making this assumption they relied on their military advisers, so it is now time to look at our second element in the triad: the soldiers.

The first thing to note about the soldiers–certainly those of western Europe-is that they were professionals, and most of them professionals of a very high order. Those of them who were wellborn or socially ambitious certainly shared the feudal value system so excoriated by Professor Arno Mayer in his book The Persistence of the Old Regime. Those who were not probably had more than their fair share of the prevalent philosophy of social Darwinism and regarded war not as an unpleasant necessity but as a test of manhood and of national fitness for survival. In all armies, then as now, there were incompetents who through good luck or good connections reached unsuitably high rank; but a study of the military literature of the period strongly indicates that the military professionals–especially those responsible for the armament, training, organization, and deployment of armies-were no fools, worked hard, and took their jobs very seriously. And they, too, shared certain assumptions.

The first was that war was inevitable. The now much-quoted statement made by General Helmuth von Moltke (namesake of his famous uncle) at the so-called Council of War in December 1912, “I hold war to be inevitable, and the sooner the better,” can be paralleled with comparable expressions by responsible figures in every army in Europe. They may have differed over the second part of the sentence–whether it was better to get it over with quickly or wait for a more favorable moment-but from 1911 onward it is hard to find any military leader suggesting that war could or should be avoided any longer.

The change of mood in the summer of that year, provoked by the 1911 Agadir crisis over conflicting French and German interests in Morocco, was very marked. In France a new political leadership appointed a new group of military chiefs, who belatedly and desperately started to prepare their ramshackle army for the test of war. The Dual Alliance was reactivated, Russian mobilization schedules were speeded up, and the Great Program of Russian military mobilization was set afoot. In Germany the agitation began that contributed so powerfully to the German army’s massive increase in military strength. In Britain the government gave its blessing to the army’s plans for sending the British Expeditionary Force to France, and Winston Churchill was sent to the Admiralty to bring the navy into line.

The extent to which war was generally regarded as inevita­ble or desirable by the public as a whole is still difficult to gauge–although if the “distant drummer” penetrated into the summer idylls of A.E. Housman’s poetry, it is reasonable to suppose that less remote figures found the sound pretty deafening. Certainly the evidence is overwhelming that the question in military minds was not “whether” but “when.” They saw their job as being not to deter war but to fight it.

The second assumption, which they shared with the states­ men they served , was that the war would be short. It required exceptional perspicacity to visualize anything else. Ivan Bloch in his work La Guerre future, published in 1898, had forecast with amazing accuracy that the power of modern weapons would produce deadlock on the battlefield and that the result­ing attrition would destroy the fabric of the belligerent societ­ies. Bloch’s thesis was widely known and much discussed in military periodicals. But since he was saying in effect that the military was now faced with a problem it could not solve, it was unlikely that many soldiers would agree with him.

In 1904-1905 Russia and Japan had fought a war with all the weapons whose lethal effects were so gruesomely de­scribed by Bloch, and Japan had won a clear-cut victory that established her in the ranks of the major powers. The effect on Russia had been much as Bloch described, but revolution and defeat always stalked hand in hand. The war had indeed lasted well over a year, but it had been fought by both belligerents at the end of long and difficult supply lines. In Europe, where lines of communication were plentiful and short, and armies at hair-trigger readiness, the pattern of the German wars of unification seemed much more relevant: rapid mobilization and deployment of all available forces; a few gigantic battles­ battles, indeed , that might be prolonged for days if not weeks as the protagonists probed for a flank or a weak point in the enemy defenses; and a decision within a matter of months. Because that decision would be reached so quickly, it was important that all forces be committed to action. There was no point in bringing up reserves after the battle had been lost. It was even more pointless–if indeed it occurred to anyone­ to prepare an industrial base to sustain a war of materiel that might last for years. The idea that any national economy could endure such an ordeal seemed absurd.

This shared assumption-that the war would inevitably be short-led to another: that the best chances for victory lay in immediately taking the offensive. With the wisdom of hind­sight, it is easy for subsequent generations to condemn the suicidal unreality of this idea; but in the circumstances of the time, it appeared reasonable enough. An offensive held the best hope of disrupting or preempt ing the opponent’s mobili­zation and bringing him to battle under conditions favorable to the side taking the initiative. As in a wrestling match, which has to be settled in a matter of minutes, to yield the initiative was to court defeat. The French had remained on the defensive in 1870 and been defeated. The Russians had remained on the defensive in 1904- 1905 and been defeated. Those who had studied the American Civil War–including all of the students of the British Army Staff College at Camber­ley–concluded that the only hope of a Confederate victory had lain in a successful offensive; and that once Lee passed over to the defensive after the Battle of Gettysburg, his defeat had been only a matter of time. The lessons of history seemed to reinforce the strategic imperatives of 1914.

And let us not forget what those strategic imperatives were. The Germans had to destroy the French power of resistance before the full force of Russian strength could be developed. The Russians had to attack sufficiently early, and in sufficient strength, to take the weight off the French. The Austrians had to attack the Russians in order to take the weight off the Germans. For the French alone a defensive strategy was in theory feasible, but the precedent of 1870 made it understand­ably unpopular, and the national mood made it inconceivable. The doctrine of the offensive was certainly carried to quite unreasonable lengths in the pre-1914 French army, but that in itself does not mean that a posture of defense would have been any more effective in checking the German advance in 1914 than it was in 1940.

Finally we must remember that the stalemate on the west­ern front did not develop for six months, and that on the eastern front it never developed at all. The open warfare of maneuver for which the armies of Europe had prepared was precisely what, in the autumn of 1914, they got. It resulted in a succession of spectacular German victories in Eastern Eu­rope, and given bolder and more flexible leadership it might very well have done the same in the west. The terrible losses suffered by the French in Alsace in August and by the British and Germans in Flanders in November came in encounter battles, not in set-piece assaults against prepared defensive positions; and they were losses that, to the military leadership at least, came as no great surprise.

For this was the final assumption shared by soldiers throughout Europe: that in any future war, armies would have to endure very heavy losses indeed. The German army, for one, had never forgotten the price it paid for its victories in 1870, when the French had been armed with breech-loading rifles that, in comparison with the weapons now available, were primitive. Since then the effects of every new weapon had been studied with meticulous care, and no professional soldier was under any illusions about the damage that would be caused–not simply by machine guns (which were in fact seen as ideal weapons of a mobile offensive) but by magazine­ loading rifles and by quick-firing artillery hurling shrapnel at infantry in the open and high explosives against trenches. Their effects had been studied through controlled experiment and also in action, in the South African and Russo-Japanese wars. The conclusion generally drawn was that in the future, infantry would be able to advance only in open formations, making use of all available cover, under the protection of concentrated artillery fire.

But whatever precautions they took, sooner or later troops would have to charge with the bayonet across open ground, and they must then be prepared to take very heavy losses. This had happened in Manchuria, where the Japanese were general­ly seen as owing their success not simply to their professional skills but to their contempt for death. European social Dar­winians gravely propounded the terrible paradox that a na­tion’s fitness to survive depended on the readiness of its individual members to die. Avoidance of casualties was seen as no part of the general’s trade, and willingness to accept them was regarded as a necessity for commander and commanded alike. Into the literature of prewar Europe crept a term that was to become the terrible leitmotiv of the coming conflict: sacrifice-more particularly, the supreme sacrifice.

That may have been all very well for professional soldiers, whose job it is, after all, to die for their country if they cannot arrange matters any less wastefully. But the people who were going to die in the next war would not be just the professional soldiers. They would be the people: men recalled to the colors from civilian life or, in the case of England, volunteering to “do their bit.” Would these young men, enervated by urban living, softened by socialist propaganda, show the same Bushi­do spirit as the Japanese? This question was constantly pro­pounded in military and right-wing literature during the ten years before the war. Kipling, for one, surveying the civilians of Edwardian England in the aftermath of the Boer War, very much doubted it, and the writer taunted his fellow country­ men in a series of scornful philippics:

Fenced by your careful fathers, ringed by your leaden seas,

Long did ye wake in quiet and long lie down at ease;

Till ye said of Strife, “What is it?” of the Sword,

“It is far from our ken”;

Till ye made a sport of your shrunken hosts and a toy of your armed men.

In Germany Heinrich Class and Friedrich von Bernhardi, in France Charles Maurras and Charles Peguy, all expressed the same doubts about the capacity of their people to rise to the level of the forthcoming test. But the astonishing thing was that when the time came, they did so rise. Why?

This brings us belatedly to the third element in the triad, the people. Without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the peoples of Europe, there would have been no war. This is the most interesting and most complex area for historians to investigate. We know a lot–almost to excess–about the mood of the intellectuals and the elites in 1914, but what about the rest? There are now some excellent studies of local and popular reactions in Britain, largely based on the superb sources at the Imperial War Museums. Jean-Jacques Becker had done pathbreaking work for France in his study 1914: Comment es Francais sont entres dans la guerre (Paris, 1977), but elsewhere there remains much research to be done or, where done, brought together. My own ignorance forces me to treat this vast subject briefly and impressionistically, and I hope that others will be able to correct some of my misconceptions and fill some of the yawning gaps.

What does appear self-evident is that the doubts many European leaders felt about the morale of their peoples proved in 1914 to be ill-founded. Those who welcomed war with enthusiasm may have been a minority concentrated in the big cities, but those who opposed it were probably a smaller minority still. The vast majority were willing to do what their governments expected of them. Nationalistically oriented pub lic education; military service that, however unwelcome and tedious, bred a sense of cohesion and national identity; con­tinuing habits of social deference–all of this helps explain, at a deeper level than does the strident propaganda of the popu­lar press, why the populations of Europe responded so readily to the call when it came. For the “city-bred populations” so mistrusted by right-wing politicians, the war came as an escape from humdrum or intolerable lives into a world of adventure and comradeship. Among the peasants of France, as Becker has shown us, there was little enthusiasm, but rather glum acceptance of yet another unavoidable hardship in lives that were and always had been unavoidably hard; but the hardship fell as much on those who were left behind as on those who went away. The same can no doubt be said of the peasants of central and eastern Europe.

Probably only a tiny minority considered the idea of war in itself repellent. Few military historians, and no popular histo­rians, had yet depicted the realities of the battlefield in their true horror, and only a few alarmist prophets could begin to conceive what the realities of future battlefields would be like. Their nations, so the peoples of Europe had learned at school, had achieved their present greatness through successful wars-the centenaries of the battles of Trafalgar and Leipzig had recently been celebrated with great enthusiasm in Great Britain and Germany–and there was no reason to think that they would not one day have to fight again. Military leaders were everywhere respected and popular; military music was an intrinsic part of popular culture. In the popular mind, as in the military mind, wars were seen not as terrible evils to be deterred but as necessary struggles to be fought and won.

I have touched on the social Darwinism of the period: the view, widespread among intellectuals and publicists as well as among soldiers, that struggle was a natural process of develop­ment in both the social and natural orders of the world, and war a necessary procedure for ensuring survival of the fittest, among nations as among species. It is hard to know how seriously to take this. Its manifestations catch the eye of a contemporary historian if only because they are, to our gener­ation, so very shocking. But how widespread were such views, and to what extent were proponents like F.N. Maude, Sidney Low, and Benjamin Kidd regarded as cranks?

The same applies to the much-touted influence of Nietzsche and Bergson among intellectuals–the creed of  liberation from old social norms, of heroic egotism, of action as a value transcending all others. How widespread was their influence? Did it make the idea of war more generally acceptable than it otherwise would have been? Intellectuals tend to overrate the importance of other intellectuals, or at best attribute to them an influence that becomes important only among later generations. Webern and Schoenberg may have been composing in prewar Vienna, but the tunes that rang in the ears of the 1914 generation were those of Franz Lehar and Richard Strauss.

And if there was a “war movement,” there was also, far more evident and purposeful, a peace movement, derived from older liberal-rationlist roots. It was stronger in some countries than in others; then as now, it flourished more success­fully in Protestant than in Catholic cultures, at its strongest in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Britain (not to mention the United States), weakest in Italy and Spain. It was indeed the apparent strength and influence of the peace movement, espe­cially at the time of the Hague Conferences, that provoked so much of the polemical writings of the social Darwinians and caused so much concern to nationalistic politicians.

In imperial Germany the peace movement had an uphill struggle; but if Heinrich Class and the Pan-German League were thundering out the dogmas of the war movement, the far larger and more important Social Democratic party rejected them. So did the overwhelmingly dominant Liberal-Labour coalition in England and the left wing led by Jean Jaures that triumphed at the polls in France in the spring of 1914. Social Darwinism may have been not so much the prevailing zeitgeist as a sharp minority reaction against a much stronger and deeply rooted liberal, rational, and progressive creed whose growing influence seemed to some to be undermining the continuing capacity of nations to defend themselves.

But the events of 1914 showed these right-wing fears to be misplaced. Everywhere the leaders of the peace movement found themselves isolated: small and increasingly unpopular minorities of idealists, intellectuals, and religious zealots. Events made it clear that whatever their influence among intellectuals and elites, both the peace and the war movements were marginal to the attitudes of the peoples of Europe. Those people did not reject war. Nor did they regard it as the highest good, the fulfillment of human destiny. They accepted it as a fact of life. They trusted their rulers and marched when they were told. Many did so with real enthusiasm; perhaps the more highly educated they were, the greater the enthusiasm they felt. None knew what they were marching toward, and any romantic notions they had about war shredded to pieces the moment they came under artillery fire. But they adjusted to the ordeal with astonishing speed and stoicism. It was indeed because they adjusted so well that the ordeal lasted as long as it did. MHQ


This article originally appeared in the Winter 1990 issue (Vol. 2, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Europe 1914

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