David Stevenson, talks to us about the influences and inspirations behind his new book, 1914-1918.
What inspired you to write 1914-1918?
Before I began work on this book I had already been researching and writing about World War I for two decades, but publishing mainly for an academic readership. When Simon Winder of Penguin invited me to write what became 1914-1918, it appeared as a tremendous challenge (not to say a daunting responsibility) to condense my ideas into a one-volume survey and to communicate with a much wider audience.
As to how I got interested in the subject in the first place… well, when growing up in the Midlands and in London suburbia in the 1960s I was very conscious that my father’s and my grandfathers’ generations had fought in two world wars, and that my own might be engulfed in a third. But up to the age of about fourteen it was images of 1939-45 rather than 1914-18 that – through newsreel footage, television, books, and comic strips – dominated my understanding of what wars were like. When I first borrowed a history of the Great War from the public library and realized that the Western Front got stalemated after the opening round of fighting and moved very little until the last few weeks, I can still remember my reaction: ‘Was that all that happened?’.
Two influences changed that view (both of them rightly stressed in recent studies that have underlined how the 1960s marked a turning point in British perceptions of the war). One was A. J. P. Taylor’s The First World War: an Illustrated History, which is still, I am delighted to see, a fixture on Penguin’s history list, and still published in a format identical to the inimitable original. My father bought me a copy when I was in hospital with a broken leg, which gave me the enforced leisure needed to read it. Taylor’s trenchant prose and his disabused world-view were revelations: as was his implication that what had happened before could happen again, and the next time with nuclear weapons. The second influence was the marathon twenty-six-episode BBC television series on The Great War, which I watched on its repeat showing. John Terraine’s and Correlli Barnett’s scripts, the elegaic mood music, and Michael Redgrave’s sombre narration created such memorable juxtapositions of words and atmosphere that many of them remained familiar when I next viewed the programmes more than thirty years later.
Taylor and the BBC endowed the war with an intellectual and imaginative fascination that has never lost its grip. That fascination led on to me writing a doctoral thesis and five books. It also heightened my awareness of the living connection with the conflict through my mother’s father, John Howard Davies, who volunteered in 1914 and served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the South Wales Borderers. He became an officer and was twice wounded. He was a man of quiet dignity whom I greatly respected: his wife Enid, to whom he became engaged before his active service and whom he married after it, had equally painful recollections from the period, including of a false alarm that her fiancé was reported missing. I assume it is no accident that other recent writers on the war, such as Ian Beckett, Niall Ferguson, and Hew Strachan, also refer to grandfathers who fought in it. Personal memory – even at one remove – still lends the subject an immediacy and a self-evident importance that more distant historical events seem no longer to possess.
How did you organize a book on such an enormous subject?
The basic problem for any general book is to combine largeness of conception and of scope with sufficient depth and detail to avoid superficiality. I felt from the start that I could achieve the latter only by being deliberately selective and by omitting certain areas that other writers had already well covered (for example, Martin Middlebrook’s and Lyn Macdonald’s eyewitness testimonies). Although the book does offer an integrated account of the war as a whole, I have organized it round four big questions: Why did hostilities begin? Why did they escalate? How did they end? What was their impact? (The last of these, as the most open-ended, proved the hardest to deal with.) To an extent I have played to my strengths, which seemed to me two in particular. First, much of my previous work has focused on the interconnections between political and military developments, and I hoped to spotlight the political driving forces behind the war, which are often marginalized or misunderstood. Second, I wanted to write a genuinely international history, in which Britain and the British Empire were awarded proper recognition, but events in Continental Europe received full attention as being central to the conflict’s dynamics. On this score I have been much assisted by the fine work done by French and German historians and by my previous opportunities to do research for a year in the French archives in the 1970s and in the German and Austrian ones in the 1980s, followed up by further visits while writing this book.
Which other historians have influenced you?
First, most certainly, A. J. P. Taylor - even if I have ended up by qualifying many of his comments and sometimes getting irritated by his throwaway style. A good deal of my book is a sort of response to his, and had he been less provocative he would have been less valuable as a sparring partner. Second, the French historian Pierre Renouvin, who worked on World War I for four decades: although little of his work has been translated, it is a model of lucid organization and balanced judgement. Third, the equally eminent German historian Fritz Fischer, who lacked Taylor’s and Renouvin’s stylistic and presentational abilities, but whose analysis of Berlin’s objectives in his Germany’s Aims in the First World War shaped my view of the conflict more profoundly than has any other single book. Fischer insisted that the war resulted from deliberate choices by the German authorities, who bore the main share of responsibility both for starting it and for escalating and prolonging it. Although I see now that he overstated his case, fundamentally I have followed Fischer’s interpretation rather than Taylor’s, and especially his portrayal of the tragedy as resulting not simply from contingency, misunderstanding, and muddle but also from something darker and more purposive: as being (in the words of Clausewitz) ‘a continuation of political activity by other means’. If 1914-1918 encourages its readers to reconsider World War I – and maybe other wars too – from that perspective, I shall be well satisfied.