Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Nations at War: A Current History

My copy of Willis John Abbot's The Nations at War was published in early 1917, while the war was still being fought. In 1917 things were going badly for the Germans, but there was no guarantee that they would lose, and from the outside it seemed that the war might go on forever. The final page of the book has a photograph of General Pershing and a promise that the United States will sort things out.

In the far-distant future of 2015 we all know how the war ended. We won! Twenty million people went to their graves not knowing if it was worth it, and even after the war had finished thousands more died of their wounds. For every corpse there were roughly two survivors, some of whom spent the rest of their lives hobbling around with a cane or wincing in fear whenever there was a loud noise.

"For years wise men had said that there could be no general European war. Despite the menace of rival armaments they thought that the financial ties which bound all nations together were stronger than the political differences which tended to bring them into conflict."

The dead lie in cemeteries across France and Belgium, in Russia and Turkey, all across Europe. Some of them are buried here in England. I am sure they would have preferred to live a few more years; their families spent the rest of their lives hoping that they would come back.

There were several editions of Abbot's book. The first, credited to William John Abbot and Staff, covered the period up to April 1915. Subsequent volumes updated the action to August 1916, January 1917, and March 1918, by which time people were getting sick of the war. A final edition was published in 1919 as Pictorial History of the Great War.

Abbot was an American, and consequently The Nations at War has an unusual tone. I'm not used to reading books about Britain written by Americans - what do they care about Britain? But in 1917 Britain and the imperial powers of Europe ruled the world. London had until recently been the largest and richest city on Earth, essentially New York and Dubai rolled into one; the Royal Navy was larger than the second and third-largest navies, although Britain's unchallenged dominance of the oceans had come to an end with the rise of Japan and the military expansion of Germany. It was a very different world.

A hundred years later the media struggles to deal with the war. It was devised and fought by stodgy old white Europeans for political reasons that are nowadays unfathomable. By modern standards there are no good guys, just Empires fighting each other for the exclusive right to exploit the rest of the world. The soldiers were a mixture of callous officers and dumb Tommies. We like to think of ourselves as morally superior to the former and smarter than the latter. There were also some poets, who wrote the kind of old-fashioned poetry that rhymed. There really is no human angle to the war. Instead it tends to be remembered as a spectacle of masses of men being slaughtered for nothing, a kind of natural human disaster.

The only people interested in it nowadays are racist UKIP supporters. We live in a post-national era where people are defined by their sexuality and race; it is difficult to write about the Great War in terms of gender politics or multiculturalism, at least not without parroting tropes about women in the factories and Britain's Imperial soldiers. For the whitest of white Little Englanders the war ceased to have meaning more than half a century ago so I can't imagine how little the new-stock British know about it. You would have to be a bit peculiar to care deeply about it nowadays.

It's hard to draw any lessons from the Great War beyond don't follow leaders, which isn't the kind of thing you could imagine the BBC emphasising whenever The Queen lays a wreath at the Cenotaph, and in any case it wasn't Europe's royal families that caused the war, it was Germany's military-industrial complex and the military-industrial complexes of the rest of the Europe. Vague political entities, the product of a political landscape that no longer exists.

As far as I can tell William Abbot was a prolific author and minor politician who had a successful career writing for the Hearst press and latterly as editor of the Christian Science Monitor. He was not a famous man. The Nations at War seems to have sold well, judging by all the used copies still available, but it isn't famous today. I was only drawn to it by random chance. A trawl through Google's archives reveals that the copyright of Abbot's books was extended in the mid 1940s by Elsie V Abbot, who was presumably his second wife. Traces of the Abbots appear on the internet; I learn from the website of the Liberty Ellis Foundation that they crossed the Atlantic several times, first in 1909, last in 1925. One of the ships they travelled on was later sunk by a U-Boat.

Abbot married his first wife, Marie Amanda Mack, in November 1887. They had a son, Waldo, who was born in September 1888, so presumably Christmas of 1887 was a very merry period. Waldo went on to teach English at Michigan University. Sadly Marie Abbot died in 1903. Presumably Willis remarried at some time in the next six years. He published his autobiography, Watching the World Go By, in 1933, and died the following year. His first wife doesn't appear in his autobiography. He does however mention Elsie, who he meets whilst suffering with insomnia and a nervous condition. She turns him on to Christian Science and they live happily ever after. The absence of Willis' first wife seems mean, but perhaps he was absolutely devastated and didn't want to talk about it.

In 1914 he booked a trip to England, but before he sailed Franz Ferdinand was shot dead and Europe was plunged into crisis. He arrived in the midst of a grand fleet review by the Royal Navy - in reality a test mobilisation in case of war - and, following his journalistic instincts, he made his way to Paris, arriving in August 1914, just as the guns began to shoot. Having recently sold hundreds of thousands of copies of a lavishly illustrated book about the Panama Canal I assume the idea of making a similar book about the Great War came naturally. Americans never pass up an opportunity to make money, it's in their blood.

His autobiography concerns itself mostly with domestic politics. It has nothing about him and his life, but that was the style back then. I learn that he split with the Hearst press on account of William Randolph Hearst's attitude towards the sinking of the Lusitania - Hearst was pro-German and downplayed the sinking. Abbot devotes only a few pages to the war but there is a sense that, nearing the end of his life, he was disillusioned with the outcome of the conflict:

"I wonder how soon the United States will again enter a war with the professed lofty purposes which animated us in 1917. It was to be a war to end war, a war to make the world safe for democracy. To-day as one of its results, democracy is fast disappearing from the European continent. I was among those who sincerely believed in the righteousness of the United States in unsheathing the sword, but my reason at the bottom was that I could not see England beaten to her knees without the United States coming to the rescue. Then, as now, I held that Anglo-American solidarity would be the best guarantee of peace throughout the world".

Abbot lived long enough to see Hitler take power in Germany. His autobiography includes a brief encounter with Mussolini, who impressed him, but I suspect he would have been disgusted with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and the subsequent powerlessness of the League of Nations. Perhaps it's a good thing that he died when he did.

Was Anglo-American solidarity the best guarantee of peace in Abbot's day? Obviously it didn't stop the Second World War from happening, but that wasn't our fault. It's fashionable to contrast the rapacious imperialism and neoimperialism of Britain and the US with the placid tranquillity of China, but one day China will have wars. Everyone in this room is a murderer.

Do I have a connection with the war? My grandfather fought in it, but that's not special because hundreds of thousands of people fought in the war. He died when I was two years old. I know very little about him. He fought in Third Ypres and was blown up along with thousands of others. We lost two hundred and fifty thousand men at Third Ypres, but the Germans lost four hundred thousand, so I suppose we won. We won twice over because we had more men. The Great War was supposed to begin and end with a series of epic cavalry charges, but in reality it turned into a lengthy wrestling match between two fighters who were slowly bleeding to death. Over the course of four years our army bled them dry in the trenches and our navy starved their guts out. 'twas a very wicked thing.

Great wars are often remembered by their great victories. There were great victories in the Great War but they are forgotten nowadays. We won in the end, but what good came of it at last? And the cost. I'm not a sentimental man. It's easy to get teary-eyed about Harry Patch, but for most of his life neither you nor I cared about him. By the 1960s the old men of the Great War were an embarrassment, crotchety misers who stayed indoors and moaned about the good old days, their dreams that drip with murder.

Because I often wonder what effect the war had on the survivors. The British Army was mindful of shellshock, but in typical Army fashion there were strenuous attempts to play it down so that the soldiers would not have to be discharged and would not be eligible for a war pension. The Army and by extension the British State had no problem sending soldiers into harm's way, but were uneasy with the consequences. Two, three generations of European men were put through the meat grinder. Instead of going to college they were sent into battle; instead of learning a trade they learned how to attach a Maxim gun to a tripod, and instead of spending their evenings playing football they spent their time beating people's heads in with shovels in trench raids. It can't have been good for civil society in the post-war years. It seems to me that the rise of Fascism and Nazism and other -isms in the post-war years came about because a generation of middle-aged voters had spent their formative years following orders to kill each other. They craved an ordered, regimented society where there were clearly-defined enemies who should be killed. It was all they had known. Children with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

The most famous casualty was Corporal Adolf Hitler, who does not appear in The Nations at War. He was an insufferable mopey young man who enlisted in the German army at the beginning of the conflict and remained to the bitter end, although he spent much of his time as a messenger, away from the front lines. He was injured twice and ended the war recovering in hospital from a gas attack. Nothing could kill him. Did the war change him? My impression is that Hitler began and ended the war with essentially the same character. An arrogant man who learned to veil the contempt he felt for everyone around him.

The events of the war amplified his belief that there was a shadowy conspiracy acting behind the scenes to sabotage Germany's chances, and his later service as an informant led him into contact with the Nazi party. On that level the Great War directly contributed to the creation of Hitler's Germany, but the war does not seem to have altered his fundamental character. Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan were also wounded - Macmillan was permanently disabled by a hip wound, Attlee had his leg smashed by shrapnel - but they did not go on to become raving dictators, in fact Macmillan was famously mellow.

Atlee and Macmillan went to Oxford, whereas Hitler did not go to university at all. Again, it's fashionable to mock the cliquishness of Britain's top universities, without putting forth a convincing alternative, but I have no doubt that Oxford and Cambridge genuinely test the mind. Hitler strikes me as a man who never had to face up to an opinion he did not like; a man who would have benefited from having someone challenge his views. The problem with self-education is that you skip the boring bits and never have to deal with the things that make you uncomfortable.

Yes, but what about The Nations at War? Abbot was a journalist rather than an academic, and so the text is punchy, fast-paced, not given to reflection. The book has several illustrations on each page and I imagine that in 1917 it would have been a very impressive coffee table gift. I can't judge it as a work of history. The general course of events appears to be accurate but of course there is no historiography, no attempt to put anything in context.

The Great War has aroused a certain amount of historical revisionism, but not nearly as much as the war that followed; the Kaiser really did overstep the mark and the Allied forces could hardly stand back and allow Germany to occupy great chunks of France and Belgium. World War Two revisionists argue that Hitler had no choice but to attack Russia, because Russia was poised to attack Germany, or that Japan was unjustly driven to attack the United States in 1941 - as if Japan's invasion of China was no worse than the neocolonialism of the United States. In contrast I don't think anyone seriously believes that Imperial Germany was forced to attack Belgium and France in 1914. Their economy was doing very well. Their population was booming. They would have been better off simply waiting and using their economic power to slowly gain dominance over Europe. The Kriegsmarine might never have beaten the Royal Navy, but with Krupp steel the German merchant marine might have overwhelmed ours. Instead the Germans gambled on a shortcut and lost. In the words of Martin Gilbert, "a plan had been devised long before, which every German general knew in detail, to defeat France first, and to do so swiftly, before turning the full German military force against Russia. This plan was the brainchild of Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1905, who had spent twelve years perfecting it, so that it could not fail."

There are essentially four great controversies of the Great War. There is The Beastly Hun. There is Gallipoli. There is the whole Lions Led By Donkeys aspect. There is the Lusitania. And Admiral Beatty's overall performance and the battlecruisers and the pooh-poohing of Jellicoe and the shell crisis and the botched peace and a dozen other things lost to time. Surprisingly, Abbot doesn't dwell on the Lusitania. Perhaps he felt that his sympathies were too obvious. Abbot is clearly sympathetic to the British but tries to be neutral, and there is no overt criticism of the British leadership. It's okay for us to damn Haig and Kitchener because they are our bogeymen. It would be wrong for Abbot to damn them; he is an outsider. Perhaps he realised that. The book has nothing about the futile slaughter of Britain's Tommies; no word of braying, uncaring officers making plans in chateaus behind the front lines.

The initial advance into Belgium is described in terms uncannily reminiscent of the Second World War's Blitzkrieg:

"LiƩge furnished the first proof of the utter worthlessness in the face of modern artillery of the type of fort which the nations of Europe up to that time had been relying upon. Thereafter the few forts that were able to resist artillery were simply left for the time, while the invading army swept by into the desired territory, leaving a comparatively small detachment to prevent any offensive operations on the part of the garrison. ... The very first test of the great German and Austrian siege cannon forced the abandonment as worthless of that long line of ponderous fortresses that France had built along the German frontier and upon which the Republic had spent more than $1.5bn, or more than the whole South African War cost Great Britain."

Abbot writes about the German army's wanton destruction of property and the execution of civilians in Belgium, but there is general agreement nowadays that massacres and destruction did actually happen, and although Abbot pads the first half of the book with repetitious descriptions of refugees and ruined towns there's nothing about impaled babies or wicked German sawback bayonets. The American Civil War had been fought within living memory of the Great War, and I wonder if aged readers of Abbot's book, familiar with the burning of Atlanta, skipped these parts of the book. What did they care about some smashed houses in Belgium?

Chapter two ends with a repeat of an earlier paragraph, but I'm not going to complain about editing mistakes in a book published in 1917. They didn't have computers back then. The picture captions are occasionally suspect. A French 75 with a destroyed barrel has supposedly been hit by an enemy shell, but the barrel has obviously burst from within. Other photographs are obviously doctored (the artists loved adding Zeppelins and wheeling aircraft to naval scenes) but the captions make no mention of this. The Battle of Heglioland is said to have ended with the sinking of five German ships, when in fact only four were lost; the text contradicts this and gives a figure of three German losses instead. Minor stuff now.

I know slightly more about the naval war than I do about the fighting on land, although not much more. Abbot mocks the Royal Navy's refusal to get stuck in and attack the German fleet at anchor, but it's hard to see what else the navy was supposed to do. It was up to the Germans to beat the Royal Navy, not the other way around, and the Germans couldn't pull it off. Abbot's position as an American is particularly interesting in that news of the sinking of the "Live Bait Squadron" - three old cruisers torpedoed one after the other while loitering in the North Sea - was initially suppressed by the Admiralty, but leaked out when the U-boat Captain responsible for the sinking gave an interview about it to the New York World! The naval chapter ends with Jutland, which was in some ways that generation's Battle of Kursk; the Germans brought their A-game to the battle of Armageddon, and lost. Abbot cheats a little by quoting extensively from an obviously pro-British account in Scientific American. The coverage is broadly accurate but sketchy. The British battle cruiser losses are glossed over, one being blamed on a mine, and although Abbot very briefly suggests that the Germans had better armour he doesn't follow this through.

In my life I have seen several wars and battles on the television news. Initially they are confusing, and no-one is sure who won. Then something else comes along; a new James Bond film, or an economic collapse, or perhaps a celebrity says something rude on live TV. Months, years later there are books and magazine articles that reveal the true cost, the war aims, the plans. I saw it with the Iran-Iraq war and the Balkans, with Georgia, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan and Iraq (again). Abbot's problem is that the dust had not yet settled; he couldn't see the bigger picture, and so The Nations at War is full of reportage without meaning. Occasionally he hits something that resonates, however:

"The use of a suffocating gas in warfare had been anticipated for years by writers speculating on the new horrors which what we call civilization would bring to modern war. Novelists had long been describing it as a weapon which could not be met, and which would therefore make war impossible because of its very deadliness."


"After the first three or four battles, in which the element of surprise and novelty gave to these weapons an especial frightfulness, it is not recorded that their use ever produced any decisive advantage to the side employing them."

Historically, no great battles were ever won by gas, and it was used only sparingly in the Second World War. In that war and later wars it was instead used against defenceless civilians. The modern trend is for dictators to use it during the initial stages of their wars until the international community asks them to stop, at which point they fire a few more gas shells and then have them scrapped.

Abbot covers Gallipoli in chapter seven. In his words the Dardanelles campaign "failed, and failed disastrously." He blames the failure on a British arrogance in underestimating the Turkish defences, timidity in not pressing the attacks fully at the outset, and the decision to begin the attack with a purely naval force. His conclusions are still accepted today. Churchill only managed to win support for the Dardanelles campaign by convincing the War Office that Turkey could be defeated with ships alone. He envisaged destroying the Turkish forts with naval gunfire and then sailing up to Constantinople, at which point Turkey would surrender otherwise the Royal Navy would shell their capital.

What if the Turks decided to evacuate Constantinople instead? What if they fought back? What if they didn't surrender? I have no idea, and neither did Churchill. The navy was unable to destroy the forts, so Churchill persuaded the War Office to give him some troops as well. "The British troops were wholly without experience in war, the vast majority of them being men who six months before had been leading a peaceful life in Australia and New Zealand, five thousand miles away," which seems unfair, but Abbot obviously blames the War Office rather than the ANZACs. Abbot goes on to attribute the failure of the ground assault to the superior numbers of the Turks and their expert snipers (including "a pretty harem lady sniper" hidden in a "tastefully furnished" dugout). He praises the eventual British withdrawal, which was the only high point of the campaign from the Allied point of view. The British fled in the middle of the night, leaving much of their equipment behind in order to make the Turks think they were still there; some of the rifles were set up to fire after a delay, and in the end less than half a dozen British soldiers were killed out of the tens of thousands withdrawn. I think the lesson is that you should never embark on a military adventure unless you can amass a crushingly superior force first, and if you can't do that you should wait until you can. Otherwise you're gambling. Gambling is exciting, especially when the stakes are high, but people are not gambling chips and they should not be wasted.

Abbot covers the Eastern campaign in surprising detail, with maps and photographs. Several chapters are devoted to the battles between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. They read like a portent of the war to come, even when Abbot evokes wars of the past. "When the Germans began to march into Russian territory the retreating Russians adopted the method which caused the downfall of Napoleon a century before. The country was thoroughly devastated, railroads were torn up, factories and stores destroyed, such crops as were standing were thrown down and made unavailable as much to the people of the country as to the invader." Unfortunately for the Russians the T-34 and the self-propelled multiple rocket launcher had not been invented yet. Abbot ends with Austria-Hungary on the brink of collapse; he was not to know that Germany would however go on to beat Russia.

The book comes to an end with the battles of Verdun and The Somme. Abbot devotes several pages to Verdun but he waffles a lot, perhaps because it is difficult to write about a siege. Everybody in Britain who remembers a bit of the Great War remembers The Somme. "When the armies first settled upon [Bapaume] like a blight the land was covered with wheat fields, poppies, and beets." Twenty thousand British soldiers died between midnight and midnight of 01 July 1916. One-seventh of Britain's dead on the Western Front that year. For many of them it was their first great battle; Britain's regular army had been destroyed during the early part of the war, and it had taken some time to build up a new force of volunteers. Abbot skims over The Somme, which had only finished two months before the 1917 edition of his book came off the printing presses. For Abbot it was just the latest of a series of huge battles, by no means the last.

The final, final chapter seems to have been written in a rush. It starts with the Irish rebellion, which Abbot describes as essentially a romantic failure punished too harshly by the British. "[Roger Casement] showed so many evidences of an unbalanced mind that to spare him would have seemed only an act of ordinary humanity", which is perhaps a coded reference to the rumours of his homosexuality. The execution of Edith Cavell is thrown in, but again Abbot avoids the typical anti-German propaganda of the day, merely pointing out that she was shot with undue haste. The chapter goes on to squash together the Lusitania, Germany's U-boat offensive, Zeppelins, "the Great British armoured tank or caterpillar" - the caption-writer appears not to have seen one in action, and assumes that the trailing wheels are actually at the front of the tank - and finally America's entry into the war.

"No eagerness was shown for the war which Germany forced upon us in 1917. Against it were arrayed the great body of peace-loving people of the United States to whom the thought of war and its attendance destruction, brutality, and carnage is abhorrent. The parents of the land, only too well educated now in the atrocities of modern warfare, shuddered at the thought of giving up their sons to this ensanguined Moloch." Abbot is unimpressed with these peace-mongers. The U-boat sinkings and the Zimmerman telegram eventually change Woodrow Wilson's mind, and the book ends with "what may yet prove to be the most gigantic enterprise the United States has ever undertaken." There is talk of Theodore Roosevelt raising a private army of 200,000 volunteers under his personal command, although sadly President Wilson quickly forbade this. I have a mental image of Theodore Roosevelt riding a tank into battle. He would be sitting on the top, waving his hat. Incidentally, The Nations at War has impeccable old-school grammar and is full of words like blague and ensanguinated. There were no spellcheckers back then and no internet. How did they do it?

It's hard to write about the Great War without also writing about its sequel, the Second World War. Our perception of war has been tainted by the Second World War. It was not like other wars. The baddies were utterly unsympathetic; the morality of the war was uncomplicated, and although it was initially fought over a broken treaty, it eventually became a struggle against genuine evil, for perhaps the first time in human history. The Great War was touted as civilisation versus the barbarous Hun, but it's hard to imagine a swift German victory being any worse than four years of ruinous expenditure and mass death. Few people have such doubts about the Second World War. If the Kaiser had won he would presumably have asked for territorial concessions from France, maritime rights, restrictions on the French military, a transfer of colonial possessions, reparations and so forth. If the Germans had won in 1914 the Germans of today would barely remember the war. If Hitler had won in 1942 no-one would be permitted to forget it, and if Hitler had almost won Berlin would now be a swampy nature reserve too radioactive for human habitation.

Was it a good idea for Britain to get involved? We might have stood back and let Europe fight it out, perhaps lending naval support to France. When the Europeans had smashed each other to bits our position would be even more dominant. The government finally paid off the last of its war bonds earlier this year, and we still theoretically owe the Americans a fortune. There is the ongoing expense of all those war graves, which must be galling. I am sure that every year the government wonders whether it could sell some of that land to property developers. Not all of it, at least not all at once. The war pensioners are no longer a drain on the public purse, time solved that problem. Age withered them.

Britain raised a fortune to pay for the war. We could have invested that in something; we could have used the money to build a better future. Instead we used it to build an ocean of warships that were scrapped within a few years, and millions of artillery shells that are still being dug out of France, and all the infrastructure that transported those shells across the Channel and fired them through the air. In the end it was the United States that benefited from Europe's death wish. Abbot points out as much in his autobiography, in an imaginary dialogue with a British stranger on board an ocean liner:

"I wonder if you Americans, to whom wealth is coming so fast and in such lavish quantities just as the rest of the world is beggared, realize the responsibilities and the perils which attend that financial leadership. We have had it for a century, practically ever since the end of the Napoleonic wars. It made us twenty years ago the richest, and I'm sure you will forgive me if I say the most powerful, nation. Kipling's blague about our far-flung battle line, and our bearing of the white man's burden, may have been bad taste and worse poetry, but it was none of the less a statement of fact. ... The pre-eminently successful man stirs no affection in the hearts of the rivals whom he may have bankrupted - nor does the nation."

"You are tasting the sweets of great wealth now. Presently you will come to the bitter that invariably attends them. Already your people come home from out lands complaining that the United States is no longer popular. ... You are the inheritors of the jealousy and resentment with which the most powerful of nations is always regarded by the lesser ones. ... I believe a favourite phrase of your less diplomatic publicists is that Europe should be left to stew in its own juice. Don't be surprised if, when the decoction thus obtained is offered to you, you find it bitter."

"For years the world had been told that the cause of labor was international, that the workingman's struggle against capitalism was the same in France as in Germany, in Italy as in Austria. With this greater warfare in progress, involving the well-being of the workingmen of all the world, no working man would be deluded into taking up arms against his fellows who happened to speak a different tongue or render fealty to a foreign state."

As my dad was fond of pointing out, the fighting Tommy of the Great War was not allowed to vote. Until 1918 the poor, anyone under the age of 21 and all women did not have a vote. Britain is essentially a nation of property-owners plus some menial people who work in the fields, and although in theory much has changed since 1918 the government is still a bunch of landlords whose goal is to use their position in government to enrich themselves. If the soldiers of the Great War had had any sense, they would have turned around, marched out of the trenches and bayoneted their supposed superiors at GHQ and in the Houses of Parliament. The resulting revolutions would probably have floundered and fallen apart, just as the French revolution floundered - and perhaps a Napoleon-esque dictator might have grabbed power in Germany, but it would not have been Hitler.

This approach was successful in taking Russia out of the war. The Tsar had forced millions of Russians to die for him, so that his family might live in splendor; he was stunned and surprised when the Russians made him die for them. At the end of the war Germany's High Command was rattled by widespread mutinies and public unrest and was surely thinking of the Tsar's fate when they agreed to an armistice. The British authorities were also thinking of the Tsar's bullet-ridden corpse when they decided to give up on the 1918-1919 Baltic campaign, which proved to be a war too far. A nation's leaders should be scared of their subjects, or at least their own security guards, and ultimately the armed forces are a state's private security force. A thousand years from now the descendants of today's political elite will be nobodies, and as history has shown any attempt to preserve a bloodline over such a long time period results in an accumulation of bad genes. The people are the future, not Kings and Queens and Presidents and Tsars.

Of course, there followed a bloody civil war in Russia that killed millions and paved the way for Stalin's terror, and the unrest in Germany opened the door enough for Hitler to force his foot into the gap. I'm being juvenile. It's exciting to think of dramatic civil wars and bloody revolution as the solution to life's problems, especially from the safety of peacetime, when the problems are relatively trivial. One of the great debates posed by the Great War is the question of whether the world today is better off without the old Imperial powers, or if the destruction of a stable balance of power was the key tragedy of the Twentieth Century. If the pre-Great War consensus had held, would the world today be any worse? Was war inevitable, and if so, was a catastrophic world war the only outcome? Obviously the pre-war balance of power was not stable, but that was the result of Kaiser Wilhelm's stupidity and Germany's broken political system rather than the concept of a balance of power itself. But a balance is by definition at risk of being toppled, and if not the Kaiser and his warmongers, it would have been something else that caused it.

And yet the Cold War balance of power held, because the wars were kept to the peripheries and the stakes were a lot higher, and neither of the major powers were driven by the will of one man and his swollen, power-crazed testicles. The Imperial powers were held together with a failsafe that failed deadly.

Poppies at the Tower of London. One poppy per corpse. Presumably a field of white crosses would have been too distressing, not to mention non-inclusive.

On one level the Twentieth Century was a series of wars. It was the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. On a local level individual states and groups of states fought each other; beyond the geopolitical arena there were wars of ideologies, wars between advocates of centralised power and advocates of local governance. The centralised power of the Soviet Union rapidly industrialised the country and, when push came to shove, it kept the tank factories running. In politics and computing there is much to be said for the concentration of power in a single location, but there is also much to be said against it. When lunatics take over the control room, as in Germany in the 1930s, the machinery of a nation state can become a tool for evil.

Human history has been a gigantic swirl of control passing from the people to the centre, and out again as the centre becomes decadent, or as the centre recognises its own vulnerability; without experience of controlling their own affairs the people are lost when control breaks down, but they soon remember. History is an endless series of loops and cycles, hope that turns into terror, terror that fades into peace. In the far future, when every political system has been tried, and every human being has been given a chance to shape destiny, we will finally acknowledge that it is not white men, or men, or women, or black men (or women) that are broken, it is people. We are all broken and we cannot be mended. The machines we build to govern us will be filled with our fears and neuroses, their machines likewise.

It is often said that warfare is an extension of politics. In our time vast commercial interests war with each other over patents and access to foreign markets and the right to own standards. The New Empires of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon are currently engaged in a war for our future, while the dusty Old Empires of IBM and Cisco, BP and Shell, Volkswagen and Ford gaze from their retirement homes. On a fundamental level the Great War was fought for control of international trade routes, although I suspect by 1914 the idea of simply being in control was reason enough. Britain persisted with the pursuit of control even after the Empire was dead and only gave up when it ran out of money. By relying so heavily on finance from the United States to maintain our control, we eventually reached a point where the United States controlled us.

Writing in 1914, H G Wells described the Great War as the "war that will end wars". He was an idealistic man, and of course the Great War did not end wars. It was followed by war in the Far East and eventually war in Europe which spread to engulf the world again. The invention of atomic bombs made a general world war problematic, but in economic terms the Cold War was just as ruinous as the Great War. In theory the Cold War ended in 1989, but since then the world has been lurching towards war yet again, and in 2015 the prospects for peace in the future are not particularly good. It is a different kind of war, a revival of an ancient kind of war, the same kind of war, again.

Would nuclear war be disastrous? In the 1980s it was theorised that the dust from atomic explosions would blank out enough sunlight to ruin several years' harvest, and that the radiation and pollution would render the northern world uninhabitable. There is some debate as to whether Brazil, Africa, Latin America and large parts of China and India would get off lightly. In the 1980s the idea of a world without Europe and North America was horrifying - it would mean the end of all human civilisation - but nowadays it does not seem so bad.

Despite two great wars and numerous smaller conflicts and plagues and disasters the human population more than quadrupled over the Twentieth Century, to a current total of seven billion mortals doomed to die at some point. My assumption is that if the human population was slimmed back down to its 1900 total, then assuming we preserved all our knowledge of modern science and medicine, it would take far less than a hundred years to reach seven billion again. As human knowledge expands so does our capacity to record it; everything we have learned can be summarised and stored on a memory stick, indeed we are reaching a point when all the of the unprocessed data we record could be stored in a hard drive array the size of a container ship.

Our masters survey the world from their palaces. From their point of view their palaces are the entire world. "When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?" The Twentieth Century saw governments of disconnected elites expend the lives of their subjects time and time again, and although the subjects very briefly approached the levers of power, they never got to pull them. I suspect that if ordinary people controlled the world, they would have wars of their own. Ultimately we are doomed; there is no solution to the problem of war or human governance, and our masters in their palaces probably have the right idea. Live in splendor for tomorrow we die. It is better for us to enjoy ourselves while we have the time. The rest of the world can sort itself out, and if the war machines come, stay out of the road.