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What War Destroys

July 2024
5min read

If the study of military history teaches anything worth knowing, its principal lesson is that modern war never means what the people who are fighting it thought that it was going to mean. This is not merely because it involves infinite physical destruction, but because it turns loose social forces that get completely out of hand. It brings results that were neither foreseen nor desired. It means profound change.

For war disrupts the ground on which people were standing when they took up arms. It erases the status quo —which one side or the other, if not both, believes itself to be fighting to preserve. The very process of fighting creates the certainty that nothing is ever going to be the same again.

This bears with especial weight on the military men themselves, for they are the men whose routine decisions bring about these changes. Their profession compels them to strive for immediate, tangible results, and the profound intangibles that will grow out of the things they do when they try to gain those results are likely to be invisible to them. By their training, they tend to be the most conservative of living mortals; in wartime, without in the least realizing it, they are apt to become the world’s most ruthless radicals.

All of this is brought to mind by a reading of Cyril Falls’s meaty book, The Great War . Mr. Falls, a British military critic, undertakes to examine the generalship of the leading soldiers in the First World War, and his book can be taken as a classic case history of the way in which professional soldiers of high competence, striving earnestly to do one thing, managed in the end to do something everlastingly different.

More than any other war that readily comes to mind, the First World War was under the firm control of the soldiers themselves. From the moment the ultimatums were exchanged in August of 1914, the civilian powers all across Europe turned everything over to the generals. To a very large extent, the generals acted as they saw fit, with a minimum of interference by emperor, king, prime minister, or parliament. Here was a soldiers’ fight. How did the soldiers do?

The Great War, 1914–1918 , by Cyril Falls. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 447 pp. $5.95.

Mr. Falls, taking the narrowest of purely military viewpoints, considers that a good many of them did very well indeed. The two great captains of 1918, he believes, were the French Foch and the British Haig. They had military skill, great qualities of leadership, indomitable will power: “Both were men of unconquerable souls.” Ranking closely behind them he puts the German Ludendorff, although he confesses that Ludendorff was “without their virtues of character.” Joffre receives better marks than he is often given, and the Austrian Conrad von Hötzendorf similarly gets a high rating. The Russian Brusilov comes in for praise, as does Prussia’s Falkenhayn; and not many British writers have been as warm to the American Pershing as is Mr. Falls.

In substantial detail, Mr. Falls studies the battles and the campaigns in which these and other generals played their parts. He is dealing, of course, with a scene that is a little too big for any single book. The First World War was a stupendous, sprawling convulsion, and to describe it in fewer than five hundred pages calls for more compression than the traffic ought to be asked to bear. Nevertheless, within limits, this book does what it tries to do; it offers a solid, thoughtful, informed analysis of the war in strictly professional terms.

And the only trouble is that those terms are altogether too narrow. As technicians, the great generals of the First World War may indeed have been very able men, serving to the best of their considerable abilities the countries that had trained them, and the breakthroughs, the stirring defenses, the encirclements and so on, which they achieved at various times, will no doubt be studied in the textbooks for years to come. But what finally came of all of this?

What came of it was something the governments that employed these great soldiers would have run from, screaming, if they could have seen it in advance. For what these governments really wanted out of the First World War was the continued existence of a society that had room for a Russian empire, an Austro-Hungarian empire, a German empire, a British empire, a France trailing the memories of the Little Corporal, and so on: a stable society, in which rival empires might indeed gain this or that advantage, but which preserved the old order and permitted no room for any substantial change. And what they got was the end of everything they had lived by.

These empires were, as Mr. Falls insists, ably served by their military servants. But look at what happened. The Austro-Hungarian empire vanished in thin smoke, literally obliterated, its bits and pieces surviving quite separately—more happily, perhaps, than they were before, but not seeking and getting that happiness in any way which a servant of the empire could have countenanced. The Russian empire-well, no comment that could be made here would do justice to the upheaval that came about. The German empire broke, passed into the hideous tetanic spasm that brought about Hitler and a second war, and exists today in divided fragments which disturb the peace of all mankind by their separate existence. Italy got Mussolini, humiliation, and an existence as a vacation spot. France fell into the position of a second-class power, alive today by sufferance and the aid of many non-Frenchmen. And the British empire, which Sir Douglas Haig fought so hard to maintain? Sir Douglas assuredly would not recognize it, and would not want to recognize it, as it is today.

In plain language, these professional soldiers, trained to the hilt and given their heads, managed to bring on wholesale revolution, overturn, and permanent change more rapidly and decisively than anything that could have been accomplished by what they believed they were fighting against. They won battles and campaigns and lost everything they were fighting for. In his own way, each man was trying to preserve what we can now call the pre-1914 way of life, and precisely because they fought so long and so hard they made the pre-1914 way of life one with the dodo and the great auk.

Great technicians these men may have been; great captains they assuredly were not. They could see nothing but victory, and they were willing to buy victory at the most inconceivable price. They made unendurably excessive demands on their people; they tried to buy military triumph at prices that left all of Europe bankrupt. Knowing all that could be known about the military arts, they knew nothing whatever about the human societies that had to pay for the exercise of those arts. They gave mankind a Somme and a Verdun, a Masurian Lakes, a Passchendaele, and a Caporetto—and looking back at this distance we can only say that something essential had been left out of their training. Never were learned men so ignorant.

It appears that once or twice the generals themselves sensed this. Falkenhayn apparently wanted the war to end in “a good peace,” and he dimly felt, as Mr. Falls remarks, that this would involve “a correct calculation of the extent of the victory needed to obtain it.” But this was beyond most of them. Thinking only of victory, they could not think of what victory might cost. So the war went on and on, destroying lives, the accumulated riches of the past, habits of thought, social organizations—and in the end the soldiers, who imagined that they were defending the established order, fought mankind’s way into a situation where a new order had to be built from scratch.

Today’s world contains many frightening things; among them, a superweapon whose mere existence gives all of us a bad case of nerves. But it may be that a much more frightening thing than the weapon itself is the narrow professional who looks only at the weapon and who has never been taught to think about what may happen after the weapon has been used.

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