Edinburgh Book Festival: The Not-So-Great War?, Douglas Newton & David Olusoga, Review

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Douglas Newton & David Olusoga with Chairman Al Senter
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Douglas Newton and David Olusoga came together with Al Senter, in the Chair, to look at the other side of the Great War and in Newton's case a counter view of the decision making that led to the war.

As Al Senter said, Newton claimed that there was a headlong rush to declare war which was somewhat contrary to the view taken by Max Hastings in his presentation who felt that in spite of all the horrors of the war it was something that had to be done.

However, we had first a presentation by David Olusoga who, in his book 'The World War', presents a series of eyewitness accounts from the many millions of multiracial troops who became suddenly involved in the conflict.

Olusoga pointed out that men from every continent had been conscripted to take part in the war. Prior to the start of the war many people had imagined that the war would start as the result of an incident in Africa and no one thought that actually the touchstone would be a small and, as he described it, 'petty' incident in the Balkans. He said that the people accepted the reality that any war had the potential to become a global conflict and so the involvement of people from other continents was tacitly accepted.

Olusoga described how individuals from all parts of the world were sucked into the conflict; all parts of the British Empire, the French, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Ottoman Empires - even the Chinese were on the battlefield, digging trenches and burying the dead.

Olusoga spoke of the way that the western front became the focus while only scant attention was paid to what was happening elsewhere. He pointed out that the first shots of the conflict were actually fired in Africa and the last shots were also fired in Africa, after the Armistice. This dominance of the western front has had the effect of squeezing out all the other action that was taking place at the time.

Olusoga said his book was an attempt to redress the balance and to remind people of the wider context of the Great War.

He added that this involvement of so many different races was the start of the multi-cultural society that we see today. What we take for granted now with the mix of races that we see on the Paris Metro or the London Underground. On this theme Al Senter asked if there was a start here about who to select as the best fighters - a touch of racial psychology - selecting those who might perform best under fire and who might be more determined to win the fight. Olusoga said that this did indeed happen and there were handbooks which were given to officers which indicated how to select the best type of men for the job. This is really unsurprising as all armies weed out the most suitable men for combat from the rest.

In a fascinating vignette Olusoga told us of the pair of brothers, one of whom won the Victoria Cross while serving in the British Army, while the other defected to the Germans and it is rumoured was awarded the Iron Cross by Germany!

Douglas Newton presented his very different version of the progress to war in 1914. He began by giving a number of dates, 22nd August (the date of this talk) was the day that there was the highest death toll 27,000; 23rd August, was the date that Japan declared war on Germany. His theme was that there was a seemingly unstoppable feeling that the war was just and should be supported, however, Newton maintained that while Britain took steps to help and support this, we should not accept that there was no alternative. Britain, as he saw it , was not entirely to blame, but was not free of blame in the rush to war. He offered what he called 'six hard truths' about Britain's actions at that time.

The first was that Britain forced the pace over negotiations - Austria-Hungary had only just served an ultimatum on Serbia the previous week on Thursday, 23rd July and possibly Britain failed to give this time to take effect. However, with Russia mobilizing on 30th August this caused Germany to declare war on Russia two days later.

The second hard truth was that Britain had acted in a belligerent manner by keeping the British Grand Fleet together and also by sending a warning telegram that war was imminent to the rest of the Empire.

The third point was that the British Cabinet was not united over the decision to go to war and, Newton claimed, this showed that there was the nucleus of a 'War Party' at the top of British politics. He claimed that there were individuals in the Cabinet who actually wanted a war.

Moving to the fourth reason, Newton claimed that there was no real statement of intent and he claimed that many of the relevant documents had been sanitised and this, he said, indicated a situation where the country was 'bounced' into war. Asquith only allowed a debate of two and a half hours and the short White Paper on the decisions was published on 6th August.

The fifth point was that when the decision was taken by the Cabinet on Sunday, 2nd August to honour the British pledge to defend Belgium, four Cabinet members submitted resignation letters overnight on Sunday, 2nd August and the morning of Monday, 3rd August; these were Burns, Simon, Morley and Beauchamp.

The last of the six points is that there was a powerful movement to avoid war and some seventy per cent of the Liberal Party were thought to reject war stating that the British policy should be one of mediation. Events moved swiftly later that evening and as Newton states, "the rump of the Cabinet met together with the Privy Council - the latter body with not one elected man amongst them" and the decision was taken to go to war as Germany invaded Belgium. Newton reminded us that the Privy Council on this occasion consisted of only the King, Lord Allendale, Earl Granard and Earl Beauchamp.

According to Newton there was some astonishment that Britain should have an alliance with Russia, however, Grey who was Foreign Secretary had the view that if Britain was to abandon Russia then the British Empire would be indefensible.

This was an interesting approach by Newton, but one with which I have some difficulty. It is very easy to be critical of previous decisions when one is very remote from the pressures of the time and possibly the views of Douglas Newton fall into this category.