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BookStory Q&A: Renowned scholar David Stevenson on WWI

An image of author David Stevenson

Author David Stevenson

This November marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. But according to David Stevenson, who holds the Stevenson Chair of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science, events that happened in 1917 — not 1918 — changed the tide of the global conflict.

Stevenson traces this history in his new book, 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, which was BookStory’s March selection.

BookStory’s Melissa Gismondi caught up with David Stevenson about the book and how WWI is remembered — or forgotten — in our time.

This is your seventh book about WWI. How did writing those books shape the story you tell in 1917?

The earlier books dealt in different ways with three questions: why WWI started, what kept it going and how it ended. I actually began with the course of the war — by examining the French government’s political objectives and war aims — before going back to the origins and forward to the 1918 armistice.

In the latest book, I’m returning to the middle period of the war, but from an international and global perspective rather than a European one. Additionally in this book, I try to integrate diplomacy and war aims with military strategy.

You say “the conflict was constructed.” What do you mean by that?

I mean that governmental and political decision making continued to shape the course of the war long after its outbreak – the statesmen did not give the generals and admirals a free hand.

In fact, a number of key 1917 operations such as France’s Nivelle Offensive and Britain’s Passchendaele campaign were preceded by long and painful deliberations, not least because by this stage in the war political leaders could have no illusions that success was assured or that casualties would be low.  

The book includes a long “List of Principal Personalities.” How did the personalities of powerful figures like Kaiser Wilhelm II or Woodrow Wilson shape the decisions they made?

Wilhelm II was a striking personality but he was supervising the tasks of government less actively by 1917. He didn’t follow policy closely and was overawed by the army leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Nonetheless, he had to authorize key decisions, such as the unrestricted submarine campaign (February 1917) and the peace feeler to Britain (September).  Wilhelm had a short attention span and was often inconsistent, torn between pacific and more belligerent impulses.

It’s easier to generalize about Woodrow Wilson, who was much more actively involved in foreign policy, and drafted many key dispatches and speeches on his own typewriter. He set a more consistent direction than Wilhelm.  He was appalled by the war and had no desire to involve the U.S., but also felt he was unable simply to acquiesce in Germany’s submarine attacks. In the end the Germans forced him a choice between doing nothing and bringing the U.S. into the war. His ambitions for a new international order (League of Nations) made it easier for him to choose the latter course, and by spring 1917 he rightly believed that Congress and U.S. public opinion would support him.

As you suggest, Wilson’s decision to bring the U.S. into the war in April 1917 is noteworthy because he’d once campaigned on a promise to keep the country out of the conflict. People often point to the Zimmerman Telegram, which Germany sent to Mexico, as a key development. But you say Wilson had already made up his mind by the time the text of the telegram was released in January 1917.

Take us through Wilson’s thought process — how did he come around to joining the war?

Wilson privately acknowledged during the 1916 election campaign that he might not be able to keep the U.S. out of the war if Germany renewed its campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, meaning torpedoing without warning, of neutral as well as Allied ships, and of passenger liners as well as merchantmen.

Since the Lusitania sinking in May 1915 he had repeatedly tried to prevent such submarine attacks, threatening in April 1916 that if the Germans persisted he would break off diplomatic relations. As we would now say, he tried to draw a “red line”, and in spring 1917, the Germans crossed it.

Wilson took a strong line over submarine warfare partly for moral and humanitarian reasons, partly because a portion of U.S. public opinion demanded action, and partly because he considered the U-boat campaign illegal, as well as being a challenge to U.S. interests.

He also took the view that U.S. diplomatic credibility — and therefore U.S. influence on the eventual peace settlement — depended on his taking a firm line. However, he knew he couldn’t involve the U.S. in the war without public support, and the Zimmermann Telegram was one of a number of events in spring 1917 that persuaded him he could now count on that support.  

You close the book with the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which sets the stage for the final year of the conflict. It’s clear that the Revolution helped pave the way for the Soviet Union, but why was it a pivotal moment in WWI?

Mainly because the revolution was followed by a ceasefire (December 1917) and a separate peace (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, March 1918). This enabled the Germans to move half a million troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, and to attempt a series of win-the-war offensives in March to July 1918.

In fact, the offensives led the U.S. to step up its trans-Atlantic troop shipments while the German army suffered a million casualties. For these reasons the military balance shifted decisively against the Central Powers from summer 1918.

The Bolshevik Revolution was also very important diplomatically. The Bolsheviks published the annexationist secret treaties concluded by the Allies with the tsarist regime. This threatened the Allies with a public relations disaster, and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points address in January 1918 was designed to limit the damage by setting out a more idealistic programme of war aims.  

You advise the Imperial War Museum in London on their First World War Galleries, which chronicles the conflict through the stories of people in Britain and the British Empire. Is there a particular person whose story really resonated with you?

I could mention many, but perhaps the economic historian, R. H. Tawney, who taught at the London School of Economics, like me. Although recently married, he volunteered for active service and wrote moving letters to his wife from the Western Front. He also wrote an extraordinarily powerful account of the British attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), in which he himself was wounded and much of his unit was wiped out.

Popular perceptions of WWI seem to be defined by things like trench warfare and U-boats. What do you think people today fail to understand about the conflict?  

When I was part of the advisory team to the Imperial War Museum’s WWI galleries, their market research suggested that why the war started was the question that the U.K. public still found most mysterious and wanted to understand. But the war’s ending is also poorly comprehended. How was it that in spite of terrible attrition battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele, the Allies nonetheless found themselves the victors in 1918?

A large part of the answer (as I have suggested above) lies with the Germans’ own mistakes. But in addition the U.S. contribution — financial, economic, and diplomatic as well as naval and military — was indispensable, and I still find a reluctance in Britain to acknowledge that fact.

Film has an enormous impact on how we understand historical events and there’s no shortage of cinematic representations of WWI. This year, Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, will release a documentary that uses restored, hand-colorized footage from the war, housed in the Imperial War Museum’s archives. 

As a historian who’s spent a lot of time with archival material from WWI, what are your thoughts on this? Can films help us grasp some of the sensory aspects of the war we might otherwise miss?

We’re so used to seeing monochrome photographs and archive footage that it’s easy to forget that the war was fought in color. Viewing films can absolutely help to overcome that and make our impressions more vivid and alive. It can also help us with the sounds. Historians have made some brave attempts to reconstruct the soundscape of the first day of the Battle of the Somme – the combination of artillery bombardment with machine gun fire is both deafening and eerie.

The BBC’s 50th anniversary series, The Great War, had a big impact on me — as on many others. The viewing figures were in the millions. It had a powerful narrative drive and included a lot of veterans’ testimony, though it took liberties that would not be accepted today, such as including clips from the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front without acknowledging them. Apart from that the PBS series advised on by Jay Winter in the 1999s [also called The Great War] and the more recent one advised by Hew Strachan [The First World War] both did a good job.

Many of us look to history to explain our current circumstances. What lessons should resonate with us about WWI?

Many aspects of the current international political situation are disturbingly reminiscent of the world before 1914. The obvious lesson is don’t start wars. I wish I could be an unconditional pacifist but studying other conflicts (WWII as well as WWI) still makes it difficult to argue that in no circumstances can the use of force in international politics be justified. Even so, it has to be an absolute last resort, not least because weapons are more destructive now and because one thing the study of previous wars should tell us is to expect the unexpected.

You’ve spent several decades studying WWI. What are you still hoping to learn about the conflict?

There’s still more to be discovered about the home fronts. I’m working now on the engineering workers’ strike of May 1917, the biggest industrial stoppage in Britain during the war, and an event that interrupted the delivery of guns to the Western Front. It raises different questions from the history of diplomacy and strategy, but questions that remain highly relevant. In recent years many historians have concentrated (and very valuably) on the cultural aspects of the war’s history, but fundamental aspects of its economic history cry out for reappraisal.    

And finally…here’s a question from a BackStory listener and a BookStory reader. Julie asks, given that WWI, in many ways, sets the stage for WWII and later organizations (such as the League of Nations and the United Nations), do you feel that Americans have forgotten our role in WWI?

I understand that for many Americans, WWI is overshadowed by the Civil War and the Second World War, in which American casualties were much higher. But I am still a bit surprised that the centenary commemorations in America seem to have been on a much smaller scale than in Britain and France.

American combat deaths in 1917-18 were comparable to those suffered over a much longer period in Vietnam (though it may be because the U.S. fighting was concentrated into six months between June and November 1918 that it had less of an impact). In the U.K. the government-led commemorations and the media interest have been much greater, and the authorities have tried hard to ensure that the memory of the conflict is passed on to the upcoming generation.  

*This interview has been edited. 

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