Comparing WWI & WWII

Event Recorded on October 7, 2013

According to historian Sir Max Hastings, some Westerners tend to view the Second World War as less catastrophic than the First World War. One of the reasons for this perception, he argues, is that the Russian people bore the brunt of the casualties and devastation during the Second World War.

This lecture was based on a discussion of Hasting's Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.

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What distinguished the Second World War from the First wasn't that Britain and its allies had better or more humane commanders in the later conflict, but that between 1941 and 1945, the Russians accepted almost all the sacrifice necessary to beat the Nazis—27 million dead—and were responsible for 92 percent of the German army's total war loss. Although, heaven knows, it didn't seem so to those who were around at the time, the Western allies paid only a small fraction of the blood price of winning World War II. By contrast in 1914-18, the British and French people paid a much heavier forfeit, double that of 1939-45 for us, more than triple for France.

In the early weeks of the 1914 war, battles were fought utterly unlike those that came later, and indeed more like the clashes of Napoleon's era than those of the 20th century. Every nation launched almost immediate offensives, save the British, whose little expeditionary force was still in transit when the armies of France first clashed with those of Germany.

The most costly single day of the entire 1914-18 conflict was the 22nd of August, when the French lost 27,000 dead.

Many people associate 1914-18 with wire, trenches, mud, and tin hats. Yet those early battles weren't remotely like that. In the late summer of 1914, France's army advanced to the attack across virgin countryside wearing red trousers and blue overcoats, led by bands playing—yes, bands—flags flying, and officers mounted on chargers wearing white gloves and waving swords.

In one clash on the morning of the 22nd of the August, in thick fog, French columns marched north through the village of Virton, just inside Belgium. Cavalry trotting ahead approached a farm at the top of a steep hill and met enemy fire. A day of chaos and blood ensued. The Germans started to advance, ordered by their officers to identify themselves in the murk by singing national songs. Their opponents likewise struck up "La Marseillaise," which proved the last tune that many of the choristers ever sang.

Suddenly, dramatically, the mist lifted. The French infantry, cavalry, and artillery batteries found themselves exposed, in full view of the German gunners on the hilltop. A slaughter followed. The infantry tried to renew their advance uphill in short rushes. French field service regulations assumed that in 20 seconds attackers could run 50 yards before an enemy could reload their rifles. They were wrong. A survivor of Virton observed bitterly:

The people who wrote those regulations have simply forgotten the existence of such things as machine guns. We could distinctly hear two of those 'coffee-grinders' at work; every time our men got up to advance, the line got thinner. Finally, our captain gave the order, ‘Fix bayonets and charge!' It was midday by now, and . . . devilish hot. Our men, in full kit, started running heavily up that grassy slope, drums beating, bugles sounding the charge. We were all shot down. I was hit and lay there until I was picked up later.

That evening, a survivor, stunned by his experiences, stood motionless, muttering again and again, "Mown down! Mown down!"