“There is not and never will be a ”˜definitive’ interpretation of the coming of war: each writer can only offer a personal view”, Hastings contends. The three under review describe in ever more detail what it was like, but only consider in the most broad terms what the war was about and why Europe’s people engaged so wholeheartedly in it. After reading them, one despairs of ever being able to break the distorting lens of the Second World War that prevents our understanding the First. Churchill’s legacy in particular, both as Britain’s successful later war leader and as a contentious popular historian of the war in which he did conspicuously less well, remains pernicious.
The war’s course and outcomes were rooted in the events of 1914 ”“ the French victory on the Marne, Serbia’s repulse of Austria’s invasion, Russia’s defeat at Tannenberg, the Royal Navy’s hold on the North Sea and the decision to expand the British army. There is much more to be said, although it remains to be seen what impact extensive historical revisionism on popular motivation and the military conduct of the war, which has been developing for several decades, will have on the history wars. It does not seem to be riding the crest of the first wave, and perhaps it will not be until the centenaries have passed that a more nuanced understanding of the war will be established. Should Great War historians despair? Boredom may set in, and publishers may feel they have done enough by 1918. Until then, the revisionist view will certainly vie for credibility and acceptance with the over-familiar story vividly retold here. Hastings and Mallinson both acknowledge its existence and dabble with it, but there is an obvious reluctance to waver from familiar paths.