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14-18 UNDERSTANDING THE GREAT WAR
By Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker
HILL AND WANG Copyright © 2000 Éditions Gallimard
All right reserved.
Battle, combat, violence:
a necessary history
The violence of war inevitably takes us back to a history of the body. In war, bodies strike each other, suffer and inflict suffering. So the reticence of historians over the violence of warfare is connected to the reticence that has long attended a genuine history of medicine (military medicine even more so). Here again Corbin is right when he notes that any history of bodily suffering engages historians. They expose themselves not only to their readers - far more, certainly, than is the case with other kinds of history (with the possible exception of the history of sexuality) - but also to the specific pain associated with the subject matter. Propriety, together with an understandable need for personal security (not to mention academic security), are at the root of the widespread, long-standing reticence of many French historians who have chosen to study the violence of warfare.
`Annales historians' in the narrow sense of that term tended to discredit the study of actual warfare, of battle, and caused damage with their hostility to `histoire-bataille', or battle history. Actually, the battle history that the Annales founders decried was anythingbut an actual history of what went on in battles. And Marc Bloch himself, one of the founders of the Annales, was a marvellous historian of combat in both world wars. But in any case, the violence of warfare belongs only outwardly to what Fernand Braudel somewhat condescendingly described as `history that is restless' for it touches on the essential in the history of mankind. If the aim of historians is to start with people, and to undertake a 'history from the bottom up', as the Annales school believed, who can deny that for the men who have lived through wars and survived them, wars and their violence have been the most important experiences of their entire lives? One should note the immense need for self-expression that warfare has always aroused, from the Napoleonic wars to more recent conflicts. It was in order to recount their experiences of war, describe its violence, or at least try to say something about it (the great majority never succeeded in verbalising it) - or just to leave behind a humble trace of it, if only for their descendants - that, from the late eighteenth century on, so many warriors took up the pen, sometimes for the first and last time in their lives. And to neglect the violence of war is to neglect all those men who in growing numbers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries endured that immense ordeal.
Of course, military history has always existed, in every country. But all too often military historians consider it indecent to deal with the problem of violence in combat or to study it as such. Battles and warfare are discussed only from the tactical or strategic angle; military events are viewed only from a social or political standpoint. On the whole, the reality of war is kept at bay. As a rule, French historiography of warfare has been unconcerned with the violence of the battlefield, the men in the arena, the suffering they endure, he perceptions of the men who try to survive and, in a nutshell, the immense stakes that are crystallised in the combat zone.
Avoiding these issues is an error. The violence specific to warfare is a prism that refracts many otherwise invisible aspects of the world. Entire societies can be seen anew, but one must be willing to look closely. In paroxysms of violence everything is stripped naked - starting with men, their bodies, their fantasies and desires, their fears, passions, beliefs and hatreds. The meaning they attribute to the violence of warfare and the result they hope it will bring, the motivations that allow them to kill their fellow men and endure the terror of confrontation - these pertain to something essential - something we shall call their 'representations', though the term is too vague. In the end, what happens in combat is inseparable from these representations, for soldiers always fight with their whole selves.
It is not just combatants who can be seen with uncommon clarity through the violent practices of warfare; entire societies emerge in the background, with all their technical, demographic, economic possibilities and, sometimes, their 'desire to live together'. We also see political power anew, the legitimacy of which is often rooted in the actions of its representatives on the battlefield. For war is a staging of the political, it renders visible things that are ordinarily hidden from view - the power of some men over others, their power to make men kill one another in a combat fury of extreme brutality. This brutality - and here is the whole problem - is usually widely accepted and borne by all the ordinary combatants charged with implementing it.
In short, by paying too little attention to the violence of war, an essential vector of historical understanding is overlooked and we deny ourselves access to many phenomena of memory-building and recollection, and to the profusion and variety of literary and artistic creation that has accompanied warfare. The history of combat violence is therefore a necessary history.
In countries other than France, schools of history with different traditions of national historiography have less false modesty. American and British historians developed an often remarkable military history as early as the 1920s and 1930s, and they have none of the mental blocks that hamper many of their colleagues elsewhere. A certain pragmatism in the study of history, combined with a kind of instinctive suspicion of abstractions and grand systems of thought, allows them to broach the violence of warfare without inhibition. John Keegan, for example, is still not well known to historians on the French side of the Channel. Yet he is among those who has delved deeply into the wide-ranging problem of warfare. Plainly challenging Clausewitz and his overrated dictum that war is 'the continuation of policy by other means', he states a deep truth: war is first and foremost a cultural act.
In his major work, The Face of Battle, Keegan daringly focussed exclusively on violence, in defiance of the discipline's most established rules of caution; he aimed for a diachronic comparison among the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, investigating the attitudes, behaviour and systems of representations prevailing in each. Not only his approach but the content was original, for what interested Keegan was precisely what no one had usually been interested in: behind the words used in the conventional accounts, he asked, behind the meaningless expressions everyone used, what exactly is happening on the battlefield, in the opaque sphere of interpersonal violence? Indeed, he tried to focus, to use one of his other expressions, on a 'history of flesh'. He therefore did not hesitate to borrow, for instance, from zoology (and its notions of 'flight distance' and 'critical distance') to explain human behaviour in attack and retreat during combat: the oft-recounted behaviour of Napoleon's Imperial Guard at Waterloo, in its last charge against the unflinching British squares, is reinterpreted in this light. This is audacious. No need to add, of course, that Keegan never 'recounts' a battle. He dissects it and pries open its mystery, meticulously describing different types of confrontation, as determined by the combatants' weaponry. As a result, our vision of armed confrontation and its violence is radically altered. In fact, his isn't a history of battle in the usual sense but an anthropology of combat.
Equally revealing of the great gulf that still exists between different approaches to history is the intellectual shock provoked by another study, the American classicist Victor Davis Hanson's attempt to understand the violence peculiar to the clash of phalanxes in ancient Greece. To gain an understanding of classical infantry warfare, he didn't hesitate to burn grain, vines and olive trees in order to see in fact what the destruction of the territory of one Greek city state by another might mean, and to show its true significance in political, not just economic terms. Nor did he hesitate to make his students bear replicas of Greek weapons and armour in order to understand better the range of possibilities at the moment of a charge, to define some of the technical and physical predicaments more clearly. Then the ancient texts could be re-read in the harsh, if not cruel light of this experimentation.
It is striking how much historians, though they profess to be discussing war, are cut off from areas of relevant knowledge. Weapons, for example - how they are used, how they work, and what effect they have - are outside the competence of most of them, while military historians who may be learned about weaponry don't know how to apply their knowledge. So one cannot exaggerate the value of having at least some concrete knowledge of the instruments of violence; tactile contact with them is not a superfluous historical experience. Objects lead to objections, as the etymology hints; they stand in the way of the most established historical certitudes.
Taking the First World War as an example, we can see that familiarity with the infantrymen's guns, with the truncheons and daggers used in the trenches that were manufactured according to the needs and requirements of combat, even touching and handling pieces of shrapnel, is just as essential as a close acquaintance with the terrain and a more than passing knowledge of battleground topography. Modern historians should not cut themselves off from the expertise of archaeologists, whose discoveries (salvaged in digs done during highway construction for example) can contribute greatly to the knowledge of certain battle practices. A vast store of empirical knowledge is available for study and often within immediate grasp.
For instance, there is a highly specialised expertise (which would merit historical studies of its own) among military collectors and battlefield enthusiasts. But this generally reliable erudition, which has spawned journals, specialised books, meetings of devotees and networks of buyers and sellers - a very useful body of knowledge for professional historians, which they would be hard put to find elsewhere - is almost completely cut off from academic scholarship. This reaction on the part of `scholarly' historians stems from distrust, indeed denial, mixed with a touch of arrogance. With chilling humour, Keegan recounts how he once offended the curator of a war museum:
I constantly recall the look of disgust that passed over the face of a
highly distinguished curator of one of the greatest collections of
arms and armour in the world when I casually remarked to him
that a common type of debris removed from the flesh of
wounded men by surgeons in the gunpowder age was broken
bone and teeth from neighbours in the ranks. He had simply
never considered what was the effect of the weapons about which
he knew so much, as artefacts, on the bodies of the soldiers who
But historians of war may be no more aware of these things than the curators of military museums.
Thresholds of violence in the Great War
Reticence in discussing violence is particularly unfortunate in the case of the Great War, for one important characteristic of this four-and-a-half-year conflict is its unprecedented levels of violence - among combatants, against prisoners and, last but not least, against civilians. To grasp these many-sided forms of violence is an indispensable prerequisite to any basic understanding of the 1914-18 conflict, and to any interpretation of the mark it left on the Western world. To understand the Great War is to try to understand that. We have to start with the fighting.
We shall not try here to describe this in detail, if indeed such an endeavour is possible, but simply to point out the salient factors. The Great War brought into being a new kind of armed confrontation and thus became a historical watershed, representing a complex rupture with the circumstances and conditions of warfare as they had been known before that had huge consequences for the rest of the century.
Already in 1914, at the beginning of war, battle was much more violent than it had ever been before. And then military and civilian suffering gradually intensified the violence over the duration of the conflict. This progressive intensification lent its own dynamic to the conflict; in the very first days and weeks of the war the practices of war took a brutal turn, not only on the battlefields but also for prisoners and civilians. Even for the ordinary soldier, the enormous explosion of violence that occurred in the summer of 1914 immediately and scathingly refuted all the predictions that had been made in the years prior.
The death toll of the Great War is well known: around 9-10 million, nearly all soldiers. Looking at the total mobilisation figures, we find that the smaller nations were proportionally most affected, given the techniques of warfare used in the Balkans already in 1912-13; the treatment of the wounded and of prisoners, as well as the inadequacies of medical procedures, greatly contributed to the losses. (Serbia lost 37 per cent of its soldiers, Turkey close to 27 per cent, Romania 25 per cent, Bulgaria 22 per cent.) Among the great powers in the war, France holds the worst record in proportional losses: 16 per cent of its mobilised men were killed (against 15.4 per cent for Germany). But late in the war not all the men who were mobilised actually fought. If we count only the French troops who were engaged in fighting, the proportionate losses are much greater: 22 per cent of the officers died and 18 per cent of the soldiers. In the infantry itself, the most exposed branch, one out of three officers was killed and one out of four privates.
Excerpted from 14-18 UNDERSTANDING THE GREAT WAR by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker Copyright © 2000 by Éditions Gallimard
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