Thursday, October 31, 2013

What I'm Reading: Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson


"One would need to return to the Dark Ages or the depredations of Genghis Khan to find a war as devastating. By point of comparison, over the previous century, during which it had expanded its empire to five continents, the British Empire had been involved in some forty different conflicts around the globe--colonial insurrections mostly, but including the Crimean and Boer wars--and had lost some forty thousand soldiers in the process. 

"Over the next four years, it would lose over twenty times that number.  

"In the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, France had suffered an estimated 270,000 battlefield casualties; in the present war, it was to surpass that number in the first three weeks.  In this conflict, Germany would see 13 percent of it's military-age male population killed, Serbia 15 percent of its total population, while in just a two-year span, 1913-1915, the life expectancy of a French male would drop from fifty years to twenty-seven.  

"So inured would the architects of the carnage become to such statistics that at the launch of his 1916 Somme offensive, British general Douglas Haig could look over the first day's casualty rolls--with fifty-eight thousand Allied soldiers dead or wounded--it remains the bloodiest single day in the history of the English-speaking world--and judge that the numbers "cannot be considered severe."

"The effect of all this on the collective European psyche would be utterly profound. Initial euphoria would give way to shock, shock to horror, and then, as the killing dragged on with no end in sight, horror to a kind of benumbed despair.

"In the process, though, the European public would come to question some of the most basic assumptions about their societies.  Among the things they would realize was that, stripped of all its high-minded justifications and rhetoric, at its core this war had many of the trappings of an extended family feud, a chance for Europe's kings and emperors--many of them related by blood--to act out old grievance and personal slights atop the heaped bodies of their loyal subjects. 

"In turn, Europe's imperial structure had fostered a culture of decrepit military elites--aristocrats and aging war heroes and palace sycophants--whose sheer incompetence on the battlefield, as well as callousness toward those dying for them, was matched only by that of their rivals. 

"Indeed, in looking at the conduct of the war and the almost preternatural idiocy displayed by all the powers, perhaps its most remarkable feature is that anyone finally won at all."


french sojourn said...

In the first world war there were only three villages in the entirety of France that did not lose someone.

The loss was multi-generational,I always shutter when I hear someone say they were decimated.
It would have been a godsend had they only been decimated-to have been reduced by 10%.

Just one of those words so often misused.
Great post, will check it out on the Kindle.

Steve Stubbs said...

It was a European war. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) TWO THIRDS of the population of Bohemia was wiped out. And that conflict was started by the same family, the Hapsburgs, who started the first World War.

European incompetence did not go unnoticed by the United States, which entered the war as a separate belligerent with the right to make a separate peace. The US was not legally one of the Allies. Had the US not intervened, WW1 would still be raging today.

Also, you mention Lawrence of Arabia. The motive of the British and the French was to start a war with Turkey, “the sick man of Europe,” overwhelm the obsolete Turkish army, and seize the Ottoman Empire for themselves. As we know, Ataturk had other ideas and the British took a terrible drubbing at Gallipoli. Lawrence’s goal was not to liberate the Arabs but to arrange for them a chance of masters. Santa Claus he was not. The British did not enter the war because they were moved with pity by all the German atrocities in Belgium.

The upshot of this fascinating story is that Europe, sooner or later, will revert to type. It was just a few years ago that there were concentration camps and genocide in Bosnia.

dylan said...

Dear Ms Reid

I began this from the library, and they would not let me renew because there was a waiting list. So I didn't get very far, but far enough to come to one conclusion - what a peculiar and extraordinary little fellow that Lawrence was.


Terri Lynn Coop said...

Sigh . . .

So lyrical.

In one of my seemingly innumerable history classes in school, a favorite professor called the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as the the day the world we know today, for better or worse, was born.

Kind of reveals the stuff being defined nowadays as "the greatest disaster in history," for the hyperbole that it is.

This needs to get in my Kindle.