The Long First World War

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The long First World War John Roskam reviews The Great War by Les Carlyon (Macmillan Australia, 2006, 880 pages)

History is usually about 'what happened next'. Events are important, not only because they happened, but because they lead to something else. And so it is with the First World War. Strictly speaking, The Great War begins at the battle of Fromelles in July 1916 and concludes with the Armistice in November 1918. However, in a broader sense, the story of The Great War actually ends in 1945.

What is described in The Great War takes on significance because we know what happened after the fighting stopped in 1918, and after the Treaty of Versailles, and after the Nazis' rise to power. Carlyon offers an understanding of much more than just the experiences of the Australians on the Western Front during the First World War. He offers a clue to the puzzle of the 1930s.

It's commonplace to be told about how the politicians of the inter-war period did everything they could to avoid the horrors of another war-however diplomatic histories don't provide an explanation for appeasement. Nor do they provide an explanation for the near unanimous support for the policy in Britain, France and Australia. (It shouldn't be forgotten that both Menzies on the conservative side and Curtin on the Labor side of politics were firmly 'pro-appeasement'.)

The attitude of the liberal democracies to Hitler's Germany up until 1939 is explained by what occurred between 1914 and 1918. Nearly a century later, the scale of the human sacrifice is still difficult to contemplate. One million dead from the British Empire, 1.4 million dead from France, and nearly two million dead from Germany. Double these number were wounded. More British, Australians and French died in the First World War than in the Second.

In Australia, 324,000 volunteered for the war from a population of five million. Sixty-one thousand were killed and 155,000 were wounded. Expressed in terms of today's population, it is the equivalent of 1.3 million Australians serving in the armed forces during a war, with 240,000 of them being killed, and 620,000 being wounded. From the end of the war up until the 1930s' another 60,000 died from war wounds and war-related illnesses. In the 1920s, war pensions comprised more than ten per cent of total Commonwealth government outlays.

Many of those who survived turned to alcohol and violence and, as Carlyon says, these consequences 'may explain why many Australians in the thirty years after 1918 did not see the war, and Gallipoli in particular, in the romantic lights that have flickered around it in the new century'.

What's shocking about the First World War (and there's no other word for it) is not only the number of soldiers dead and wounded. It is the way in which casualties were inflicted. It is descriptions of war and death that are the greatest achievement of The Great War. There's not a great deal in the book about the strategies of the generals or the statecraft of the politicians, while the origins of the war take up just a few pages, Carlyon's skill is his ability to capture the tragedy of the war from the perspective of the soldiers themselves. For example, there's much discussion of mud. 'Mud' has its own entry in the index. …