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war-230356_1280The end of the old order was marked most starkly in the face of one man: an elegant face, austere above the stiff collar, that had thought personal tragedy the worst that could happen and then, in the summer of 1914, found the whole world dying. In defining the epochs of British society, we stretch the time of Edward VII an extra four years, but it was the age of Foreign Secretary Edward Grey that really died with the outbreak of the First World War.

Grey was the pinnacle of amateur aristocratic statesmanship. He served as the guardian of Britain and the counsellor of Europe because it was his duty, and at weekends hurried with his wife to a tin hut in Hampshire where he read, and cultivated a garden, and fished, and bred ducks. After his wife’s death in an accident, Grey trudged on. When the Ottoman Empire was collapsing in a series of wars, Grey settled the affairs of half a dozen countries (and created a new one) over his tea-table.

In 1914 Europe’s status as the cockpit of global tension, and Britain’s imperial predominance, made her Foreign Secretary the first statesman of the world. Grey seems to epitomize a decency, a gentility, a courtliness that was destroyed by the war. (And perhaps the right balance for the turn-of-the-century gentleman: they threw him out of Oxford for general idleness, but let him back to get a polite third; he was five times British real tennis champion, slipping to runner-up for the three years when, to be fair, he was also Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.) He notoriously pronounced the death of Europe from Whitehall; he shepherded Britain into what he considered its rightful but regrettable participation in the war by means of a House of Commons speech of rare brilliance; looking at a photo of the old Grey now, one can see it darkening as one by one the lamps flickered out.

It was somehow appropriate that the war that forged in fire the twentieth century of mass, of machines, needed a last flurry of nineteenth century melodrama to ignite it. On the 28th of June 1914, in a territory whose name has flourished most as the basis for stereotypical mysterious kingdoms in romantic thrillers, the heir to a collapsing mediaeval empire – a man with an archaic title and elaborate moustaches and a plumed hat – was shot by one of a group of teenaged patriots with unreliable anarchist bombs and past-sell-by-date poison capsules. It seems an unlikely step from this bit of operetta to Verdun and Paschendaele. But the war was above all about rivalry, and pride, and the melodrama served satisfactorily as an affront to honour, a strategic slap of glove in face. The world had got so used to talking about war that it had ceased to think what war might actually be like.

The cost was staggering. Some ten million soldiers died. Two empires disappeared. It brought two revolutions, and arguably two civil wars (both the Irish and Russian might have been avoided on a different historical path). Its unprecedented movement of men around the world also brought the mis-named Spanish flu, which infected half a billion people and killed up to 100 million – five percent of the global population. Its icons of futility and suffering – trenches, machine guns, barbed wire – were not new; but the depth of the futility and the vast number trapped in it were.

Every student has joined the dots between the resolution of the first world war and the outbreak of the second. It shaped not only the course of the twentieth century, but also the movements that drove it – communism, fascism, industrialisation, and perhaps even democracy. It changed society, art, and even language.

Its lessons and its memories would resonate more subtly, too. As well as the soldiers in a natural position to command a generation later, the politicians in senior roles in the Second World War had generally served in the First (or were a generation older still, because a substantial chunk of the cadre that should have been leading their countries in the 1940s had died in the 1910s): Truman and Mussolini, Petain and De Gaulle, as well as Hitler and Churchill. Churchill’s successors Attlee, Eden and Macmillan had served. (27 men went up to Balliol with Macmillan; only one of them survived the trenches with him.) Future Prime Ministers of countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Hungary, Japan, Poland, South Africa and New Zealand fought.

Many famous gentlemen fought for their country. J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and E. M. Forster served; so did Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; and both A. A. Milne and Ernest Shepard. Ralph Vaughan-Williams was a 41 year-old stretcher-bearer, Maurice Ravel drove a truck, and Gustav Holst taught music to British troops. Cole Porter and Maurice Chevalier served. Jerome K. Jerome, Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney drove ambulances (there’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to famous people who drove ambulances). Humphrey Bogart served in the US Navy, his Casablanca co-star Claude Rains in the British Army, and their director Michael Curtiz in the Austro-Hungarian. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, whose Sherlock Holmes films now seem simple Second World War flag-wavers, had both served in the First: Bruce never fully recovered from taking eleven bullets in the leg at Cambrai; Rathbone won the Military Cross for intelligence work in no-man’s land. Dad’s Army legends John Laurie and Arnold Ridley had fought on the western front 60 years earlier (that’s why Ridley limped).

For them and for millions who went on to ‘normal’ lives, the war lurked as a ghastly shadow in their experience. A generation grew up with fathers who suffered permanent ill-health or psychological trauma. And three generations further on it still looms in our minds. While the Second World War seems like a war that had to be fought to stop something vile, the First World War defines futility and fatuousness: a war of muddled causes, and outcomes that did not do much good for anyone. And the sense of futility breeds a dangerous romanticism. The world changed for ever, and still we can’t quite say why.


Robert Wilton is a novelist, diplomat, and co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity. He also writes about the history of south-eastern Europe and international intervention, translates a little Albanian poetry and occasionally rows a gig. The third in his prize-winning series of historical novels, The Spider of Sarajevo (The Times’s ‘beautifully written elegant spy thriller’) was published in the city on the centenary of the assassination. Follow @ComptrollerGen.

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