The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

One Hundred Years Ago

Posted on | June 23, 2014 | 26 Comments

Anniversaries often slip my attention. A.O. Scott has a long essay in the New York Times about World War I, which began in August 1914, so that we are now living in the 100th anniversary of the last summer of peace before that bloody atrocity.

Scott points to a startling fact: On July 1, 1916, opening the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered 60,000 casualties in a single day.

We simply cannot imagine such a thing nowadays. Total U.S. combat deaths in the Iraq War were less than 5,000, with another 32,000 wounded. In the worst month of fighting in Iraq — November 2004 — there were fewer than 140 American troops killed.

Probably the best book about World War I is The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, which won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.



26 Responses to “One Hundred Years Ago”

  1. RS
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

    Tuchman’s book is indeed outstanding. I’ve been meaning to reread it.

    Back in 1999, the various news magazines were discussing who should be “Person of the 20th Century.” My vote was for Gavrilo Princep, the Serbian twerp whose murder of Franz Ferdinand started the ball on WWI. Everything that happened in the 20th Century after that June day in 1914 can be traced back to that moment.

  2. Adjoran
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    Tuchman’s book is the standard. Also, Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which details how all the fabled blunders appeared as they happened in the real world. Virtually every decision by every side was based on miscalculations.

    Imagine Nicholas II had declined to intervene on behalf of the Serbs. He might have pursued some limited reforms at home, there would not be the monstrous war to turn the bourgeoisie against him, no Bolshevik Revolution. But there would also have been no pact with Hitler for Germany to violate, so Hitler would have had only the one front to fight.

  3. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    And the way the Allies got around those atrocious numbers was restriction of information to the press. Just like they did during the Civil War and later in WWII. It was only after the war(s) that the full impact became available.

    I am not saying that is necessarily a good thing. Accountability leads to lower casualties. But too much accountability, or rather too much emphasis on casualties over goals, leads to paralysis.

  4. RS
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    In truth, the Serbs agreed to most of the Austrian demands–certainly enough for the Austrians to save face. Additionally, the absence of a Bismarck to advise Wilhelm II, didn’t help either.

  5. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

    But like the butterfly effect (in that any change, however small, will completely alter the outcome over time of a complex system), a tiny change back then would probably meant no Hitler. There may have been a subsequent conflict between France/England and Germany, but without the personality of Hilter as “Der Fuhrer” who knows how that might have turned out. I am guessing less horrific. But it is pure speculation, we just don’t know.

  6. Escher's House
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 4:56 pm

    Keep in mind that it is 150 years since the siege of Petersburg. Good to draw parallels there.

  7. Escher's House
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

    First, I believe that Martin Gilbert’s “First World War” is much superior to Tuchman.

    Second, Hitler would have attacked Tsarist Russia, just as surely as Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist Russia. And his rise to power was not dependent upon the Bolshevik revolution. (This is what I hate about alternative histories, an willingness to face the awful facts.)

  8. goddessoftheclassroom
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

    As the mother of two sons, 22 and 18, I am very conscious of “What if we were living 100 years ago?’ and what would lie ahead. As a matter of fact, I pointed that out to my 8th graders: if we were living 100 years ago, some of them would be going off to fight in 3-4 years.

  9. Zohydro
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    Hell, Hitler would have still been painting post cards in Vienna!

  10. Bob Belvedere
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    I hear that the series started by Max Hastings is, so far, very, very good.

    And don’t forget Winston Churchill’s take.

  11. Dana
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    My pet, and completely unprovable, theory is that if the Confederacy had either been allowed to secede peaceably, or had won its war of independence, World War II, at least in Europe, would never have happened.

    Why? Because the USA, considerably weaker without the CSA states, would not have entered World War I, and Germany would either not have lost the Great World War, or had an armistice on much less draconian terms. Thus, even if Corporal Hitler hadn’t been killed in that much longer war, Germany would not have been so ripe for the radical movements of the 1920s which brought the Nazis to power.

  12. WarEagle82
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 10:06 pm

    I started “A World Undone” by AJ Meyer earlier this month in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.

    This war shaped the 20th and 21st centuries and caused unimaginable suffering and grief.

    How different the world might have been if only the Austrian royal family had not so despised Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

  13. darleenclick
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

    Here, NYTimes May 13, 1918 – Casualty list

    Scroll to the bottom, MIA Ray Howard Aseltine. That would be my maternal grandmother’s older brother. He was actually captured by the Germans while on patrol between the trenches in Verdun. He and one other were the only survivors taken as POWs.

    Everyone assumed he was dead until he was turned out into the countryside after armistice. The horrors he went through and witnessed were pretty stark (somewhere I have a copy of a letter he dictated from a hospital bed to let his family know he was alive).

  14. CDM
    June 23rd, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    The ironic thing was that Archduke Ferdinand was considered to be a reformer, unlike his father, Franz Josef. In any case, if it wasn’t Gavrilo Princip, it would have been someone or something else. The Great Powers, particularly France and Germany, were looking for a once-and-for-all showdown.

    A great book describing the machinations leading up to WWI is Robert K. Massie’s “Dreadnought”, especially regarding the fraying of the once-close alliance between England and Germany, which was chiefly due to the antics of the borderline insane Wilhelm II.

  15. Adjoran
    June 24th, 2014 @ 2:04 am

    Yes, Churchill had a unique perspective on several wars!

  16. WarEagle81
    June 24th, 2014 @ 5:50 am

    Franz Joseph was Franz Ferdinand’s uncle.

  17. CDM
    June 24th, 2014 @ 6:08 am

    You are correct, sir.

  18. RS
    June 24th, 2014 @ 8:50 am

    Dreadnought is very, very good. It’s also on the “reread” pile next to my easy chair.

  19. Quartermaster
    June 24th, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

    The French were certainly spoiling for a fight. They remembered the humiliation of the loss in 1871 which wrested Alsace and Lorraine from them. Had Germany and France gone round and round, London would have been quite happy.
    The other side of that, however, that brought the Brits in was Wilhelm building a blue water Navy that was beginning to challenge the Royal Navy in numbers. The Brits did not like anyone on the continent challenging them on the sea and the building of a blue water navy by Germany made the imperialists in London very nervous.
    Wilhelm was anything but insane, nor were his “antics” close.

  20. Quartermaster
    June 24th, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

    If Russia had not intervened for Serbia, then it is unlikely that any of the other bad stuff would have happened. Without a German loss and the punitive Versailles treaty, the atmosphere that allowed the rise of the NSDAP would not have existed and there would be no Hitler or WW1 loss to avenge.

  21. Quartermaster
    June 24th, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

    One can go back and check the firestorm over the casualties at Tarawa to see what can happen in such situations. It didn’t paralyze us in going across the Pacific, but it gave very serious pause to the country and the military leaders in the Pacific.

  22. Quartermaster
    June 24th, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

    I remember a passage in MacArthur’s “Reminisces” about being given orders to take a hill or, as the CG told him “give me a list of 5,000 casualties.”
    In WW1, such a list could be produced in mere minutes. By comparison, we lost 400,000 in almost 4 years of WW2.

  23. wbkrebs
    June 24th, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

    At this point, allow me to recommend _The Myth of the Great War_ by Mosier. Mosier has a compelling analysis of the war not caught up in Allied post-war mythologizing. (And I would argue that the conventional view of the war, nicely expressed by the article Mr. McCain links is integral to the Progressive Techno-socialist political perspective.)

  24. wbkrebs
    June 24th, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

    There was scandal in Britain when educated Britons became aware of the casualty reports from the German Army medical service. Even today, there is a great reluctance to accept that casualty rates on the German side of the Western front were much lower than those on the Allied side.

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