Korean War a century later, Bailey admires those magnificent men in their flying machines most of all. His account of the VCs (all posthumous) won by Britain’s top three air aces – Albert Ball, Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock – makes it clear that air combat was even more deadly for its participants than trench warfare was for the subalterns. We would like to imagine the typical VC holder as quiet and modest, but they could be loud-mouthed and brash too. One such was James Neville Marshall VC, MC (and bar), whose extraordinary exploits were even acknowledged by the Belgians with a Croix de Guerre. A stern disciplinarian, Marshall was known for obvious reasons as ‘Marshall of the ten wounds’ and regarded himself as the bravest man in the British Army. Few contradicted him. He was the commanding officer of Wilfred Owen, who thought him a bully. Both died in the final battle of the war, exactly a week before the Armistice. And both, sensitive poet and ex-horse dealer, lie in the same row of the same cemetery, shot through the head leading their men across the Sambre–Oise Canal under heavy machine-gun fire – an attack so foolhardy that even Marshall had asked for it to be called off.
As the subalterns of the Great War rapidly discovered – and as their generals learned rather more slowly – courage alone cannot defeat technology. The war was arguably the conflict in which technological advances (poison gas, the radio, the tank, the plane) finally became dominant – forcing their human creators into the back seat. In Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways (Atlantic Books 310pp £20) contemporary railway expert Christian Wolmar explains how the technology of the train transformed conflict from the American Civil War to the Cold War. A J P Taylor called the outbreak of war in 1914 ‘war by timetable’, and it is certainly true that Germany’s scheme for a knockout blow against France, the Schlieffen Plan, depended on railways rushing troops to the front via inflexible timetables ar ranged with Teutonic thoroughness. Once the trench lines had stabilised, the railways became not so much the sinews as the arteries of war – clanking draughts of fresh blood to the front, and sucking back, with agonising slowness, both the wounded and the lucky ones going home on leave.
As the last hours of peace trickled away in 1914, the Kaiser, snatching too late at a straw of peace, asked his commander-in-chief, Helmuth von Moltke, whether it was possible to stop the trains, halt the Schlieffen Plan in its tracks and send the soldiers against Russia instead. An exasperated Moltke explained that it was too late – the troop trains, steam up, had long left the stations. Humanity as a whole, to quote Sylvia Plath, had ‘boarded the train there’s no getting off ’. To order these books, see LR Bookshop on page 22
THE ROAD TO WAR THE TRIUMPH OF THE DARK: EUROPEAN
INTERNATIONAL HISTORY 1933–1939
By Zara Steiner (Oxford University Press 1,130pp £35)
The Triumph of the Dark is the sequel to The Lights that Failed (2005), which covered the period from 1919 to 1933: together they are a whopping 2,000 pages long. The author clearly sees the two volumes as a single whole, and has written them as such; she herself observes that the concluding section of the first, a recapitulation of what she calls ‘The Hinge Years’, is the necessary introduction to the second. If an abridged version is ever published, it is tempting to suggest that Steiner’s magisterial essays, ‘Europe Reconstructed?’ (1918–29), ‘The Hinge Years’ (1929–33), and the conclusion of this volume, which might be called ‘Slouching Towards Berchtesgarten, or The Second Hecatomb’ (1933–39), should be brought together as the Steiner interpretation.
In the meantime, we have the whole nine yards. Steiner’s opus is part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe, commissioned by Alan Bullock, who did not live to see its completion. Its predecessor in the series, A J P Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848–1918, achieved classic status. Generations of students were swept along by its scintillating prose; its very title became something of a cliché. Taylor is a hard act to follow. Will Steiner’s history imprint itself on her contemporaries like that of her illustrious predecessor, as Tony Judt’s Postwar surely will for its respective period? Leaving aside the question of length or manageability – among other things, Taylor’s was a brilliant feat of compression, distilling sixty years of European diplomacy into a mere 600 pages – there are some obvious disparities of stance and style. Taylor was writing diplomatic history (‘what one clerk said to another clerk’, in G M Young’s phrase), and proudly so. Steiner has tried to write international history, as she says, ‘not restr icting my narrative to the exchanges between foreign offices’: not only clerks, or commissars, or crowned heads, but an attempt to embrace what whole peoples thought and felt and did.
The temper of the text is different. Steiner is cooler and calmer than Taylor, less emphatic and epigrammatic, not as boisterous, mischievous or contentious; she is robust but restrained. The prose is more staid and so is the interpretation. Furthermore, Steiner has a deep-seated, almost Actonian sense of humility as she contemplates the panjandrums of the past. The hallmark of her history is a
LITERARY REVIEW November 2010