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The lessons of ‘a common European tragedy’

The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 

by Douglas Newton 

(Verso, £20)

“THERE is really only one story worth telling about the Great War: it was a common European tragedy, a filthy, disgusting and hideous episode of industrialised killing ... It was unredeemed by victory. The uplifting element of the story lies in the struggle to avert it.”

So ends Douglas Newton’s enthralling narrative of the final days before Britain charged headlong into the 1914-18 war, days marked by panic, manipulation, deception, recklessness, high-handedness and low political cunning.

Too often portrayed as an event of national historical triumph and unanimous enthusiasm for war, the book shows it to have been anything but unanimous or enthusiastic. 

Of the 19 Cabinet members in the Liberal government, probably 11 were opposed to intervention. Apart from a couple of resignations they eventually acquiesced but acquiescence does not amount to enthusiasm. Their opposition to going to war has been air-brushed out of history.

Britain has been portrayed as a guiltless defender of small nations against the might of Germany. But the writer Wilfrid Blunt provided a different perspective, exposing the stomach-churning hypocrisy of English honour in support of “Russia the tyrant of Poland, Finland, Persia and all northern Asia; France, our fellow brigand in North Africa … and Belgium, with its abominable record in the Congo.”

While Newton describes attempts to avert war as probably the briefest chapter in British diplomatic history, Germany was not without blame. It was responsible for diplomatic blunders of which a tiny minority in Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s Cabinet took full advantage.

Bull-headed and trigger-happy, Winston Churchill forced the pace by moving the First Fleet to war stations at Scapa Flow on July 28 1914 without consulting anyone except the compliant Asquith. At that moment, Germany was not mobilising in the west but it would inevitably see it as a provocative move and a positive signal of support to France and Russia. As allies, those two countries moved in step and Britain had the power to restrain them but chose not to. 

Through a series of mixed messages the French-Russian drive towards war was given impetus by the manipulation and deception of a small group within the Cabinet composed of Asquith, Churchill — First Lord of the Admiralty and Foreign Minister — and Sir Edward Grey who, by a selective release of information, stampeded Britain into war.

The Liberal Party was divided. Not so the warmongering Tories, well supported by a sympathetic gung-ho press with The Times to the front, who greased the slippery slope to the carnage as they peddled the line that there are worse things than war — national dishonour, for one.

Written with clarity and passion and meticulously researched, this book memorably conveys the tension of the days leading into war and reveals how a small band of reckless and determined public school-educated warmongers can spark a war with dire consequences for over half a century. 

As such, The Darkest Days is the antidote to historians and politicians who would elevate the tragedy that was the first world war into some great moment of national history.

Was war unavoidable in 1914? We can never know but Britain played its part in bringing it on.

Reckless brinkmanship and a careless disregard for human life contrived to bring about one of history’s great catastrophes. 

In our time we see the tragedy of Iraq which, though not quite on the same scale, is a reminder of how a few fanatics with no concern for consequences can manipulate a country into war with horrifying results. When will we ever learn?

Gwyn Griffiths

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