WHEN I had made good progress on this history I confided to a few friends what I was doing. They differed in age and interests, but all asked in virtually the same words: ‘What’s your thesis?’ I was taken aback. I had not started with a thesis consciously in mind. I was, as I always had been, intensely interested in the subject. Having devoted to its study some twenty years of my life, not counting my modest participation in it, I could not doubt that I knew more about it than most. I hoped that a fair number of survivors would welcome a condensed account in what I trusted would be readable form and that younger people would echo Southey’s young Peterkin with before long I felt gratitude to those who had asked the question. They had helped me to clear my own mind. I began to realize that there had always been a thesis at the back of it. I wanted to show what the war had meant to my generation, so large a part of which—and so much of the best at that—lost their lives in it.
I wanted to commemorate the spirit in which these men served and fought. The modern intellectual is inclined to look with impatience upon the ardor with which they went to war. To him it is obsolete. If so, I must be obsolete too. Looking back, the intensity—and I dare add the purity—of that spirit still moves me deeply. I speak particularly of the combatants, including leaders and staff. In the circumstances of that war a large proportion of men in uniform might almost as well have been company directors, clerks, grocers’ assistants, or street cleaners at home, for the most part useful, but martial only in appearance and not always even that.
I find in the soldier’s other virtues besides courage and self-sacrifice. Though their ardor became blunted, their comradeship never died. Then, though barbarity enters into all wars, they were in general remarkably free from this wickedness which soils the name of a patriot. They were called to the colors as volunteers or conscripts on a scale greater than had ever been known; yet, though this was a war of nations in which the scum was swept along beside the finest elements and the far larger average, it was not where Britain was concerned a savage or cruel war. Its most abominable episodes, such as the Armenian massacres perpetrated by the Turks, do not match the cold cruelty of the Second World War.
|Title: The First World War|
Author: Cyril Falls
Length: 448 pages
Publisher: Pen and Sword Military; Reprint edition (February 19, 2015)