GREAT WAR – The Countdown to Global Conflict – Review by Mark Barnes

It’s April, and the Great War anniversary books are coming thick and fast a full three months before the actual centenary. I’ve seen souvenir pullouts in newspapers and heard about a sheaf of special issue magazines about to vie for your hard earned currency. As I’ve said before, you have to take care with all of this stuff, because if you aren’t you’ll be defaulting on your mortgage, or worse, having to cancel your TV channel subscriptions before you know it.

Luckily, you’re safe in the hands of Haynes with what appears to be the start of a series if similar books, unless I am mistaken. Being a lifelong newspaperman a book like this one taps straight into my cerebral sock drawer with its clever mix of contemporary news items and photographs. The combination is well managed and looks good. To be honest, I don’t find the pictures particularly inspiring, but this is not a photographic essay, as such, and the importance is in the linear nature of the history and the way it is presented.

The book takes us back to the turn of the century and looks at many events, big and small, which either directly ratcheted up or contributed to the right royal mess which became a hot war by the 4th of August, 1914. There many simplifications of this time and not a few bewildering labyrinths to befuddle the unwary. I’ve reviewed some very good full narrative books on the subject, and my best advice is read them; but this one makes a significant and entertaining contribution to the full story and I am impressed with it.

The slow death of the Ottoman Empire led to various states carving off the bits they wanted and some began to fall out amongst themselves after the feast. This situation formed part of the downward spiral which led to the posturing and brinkmanship we readily associate with the crisis that ended with the war to end all wars.  We get all the Ruritanian dottiness we expect from the Kaiser and all those other monarchs about to be swept away by their smug arrogance.  Meanwhile, the ominous arms race fought on the shipyard slipways of Britain and Germany had all the ingredients for an unsavoury meal. The nitrous oxide fuelling this saga was the truly remarkable HMS Dreadnought which was built in a year and made obsolete whole fleets as soon as it got wet. The sequence of unfortunate events is played out like a slow motion train crash and you watch it chuff away on its merry way knowing there is no happy ending to this particular away day.

The perspective of this book comes from the archive of the Daily Mirror. It is a tried and tested concept we have already seen from Haynes and what I like is the free admission of the author that the simple nature of much of the coverage reflect the paper’s demographic – the working people of Britain. Had you wanted something a little less simplistic, you would have to hold out for one the broadsheets of the day being reproduced in the same style. The Mirror was the paper of the shipyard workers building Britain’s new battle fleet, not the Oxbridge educated top tier who were juggling with how to pay for it.

Patriotism and confidence in the invincibility of the British Empire was as strong in the minds of those ordinary workers in those days as it was with the political class who lead them to war. You can see the train running away to explode down in the old mine just as easily through the prose of the Mirror’s writers as you could with anything grander. It was the age before radio, let alone rolling news and people relied on the press for their window on the world.

The country looked across to the Continent, bemused – almost disbelieving that their neighbours could descend into madness. They played by different rules and standards in those days, alien to us now. Treaties and promises were serious things. Britain went to war to honour one it had made to Belgium in 1839. The Kaiser’s generals, more pragmatic aside from being ruthless, could not get their heads round that fact. It would be their undoing. The Prussian elite and the equally guilty Austrians would have their war and change the world forever.

I worked at the Daily Mirror in the mid 1970s. It was my second job. I was sixteen years old and had a nondescript role as a junior clerk. The Mirror of those days was still a working man’s paper, part of a proud company that looked after its employees. This would all change for the worst. But thankfully its archive has survived so that books like this could be made.

The Haynes-Daily Mirror partnership shows that the road to war is as awful and fascinating as the conflict itself. I hope we do see a series of these books. They bring a touch of realism to a century old saga that seems more than a bit crazy from this distance. Current events show that the sort of politics practiced in 1914 are not dead. History provides lessons. Perhaps it’s a good time to put some of our modern leaders back in the classroom?

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

The Countdown to Global Conflict
By Ian Welch
Haynes Publishing
ISBN: 978 0 85733 205 9


Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.