Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 31, 1999
Head: Explaining World War I
Sect: News; International
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who have died in war. About 10 million people died in the First World War between the years 1914 and 1918; about 20 million were wounded. My guest Niall Ferguson has written a new book about World War I, how it changed the nature of war and changed the world.
He teaches Modern History at Oxford and is also the author of "The House of Rothschild." Ferguson is British, and he says that the First World War was worse for his country than the second. For example, more British soldiers were killed in World War I than World War II.
I asked him for other examples.
NIALL FERGUSON, AUTHOR, "THE PITY OF WAR: EXPLAINING WORLD WAR I": Well, I think one could make a general statement which would probably be true of all the European states, namely that the First World War was a bigger shock. When the Second World War came along there was a very clear memory of what war was like.
No one had any illusions about the enormous loss of life that would arise in the event of a major European war. Whereas in 1914, it's clear that only the real specialists, the military planners, the people who understood what heavy artillery could do, really grasped in 1914 what a European war meant.
And I think for that reason the trauma, the sazura (ph) is that much greater. The difference between prewar and postwar is somehow greater in the case of the First World War than it is in the case of the Second World War when everybody knows that they're letting themselves in for hell when war breaks out.
GROSS: Before we get to some of your theories about the First World War, would you just describe a little bit about what the Western front was like, what the trench warfare of the day was like?
FERGUSON: Well, trench warfare was a kind of return to siege warfare in one sense, namely from a very early stage, really from the early days of 1915, the positions on the Western front were pretty much fixed. Very little territorial change occurred until the spring of 1918, and in the rest of 1918 the war became a war of movement again.
So, for most of the war the front is very static, much more than on the Eastern front where there's much greater mobility. And that means that the common experience of combat on the Western front was that you sat in a hole in the ground and you hoped that the shells wouldn't hit you.
Most people, the majority of people, are killed by artillery shells; they're not killed in action by bayonets or rifles. And indeed going over the top into action on an offensive is an exceptional experience.
So, it's very sedentary war, and it's an extremely nerve wracking war. Because I think it's safe to say that the experience of being bombed, of being shelled for hours at a time in these massive artillery bombardments which were on the Western front, was probably one of the worst experiences a human being could have in the 20th-century.
Even if you survived it your nerves were completely shattered.
GROSS: Well, would you describe one of the battles that had massive casualties?
FERGUSON: Well, the -- from the British point of view, the most notorious battle is the Battle of the Somme with Passchendaele as a close second. The Battle of the Somme happened in 1916; in the summer of 1916 a massive army has been accumulated and is sent towards German positions over the relatively flat battlefield of the Somme.
Not a particularly good place to fight a battle, but chosen because it was close to the French, and the French seemed to need some support. And, for reasons which are intimately borne out by the lack of British preparation for the war, the fact that there simply hadn't been a big British army in 1914, that almost everybody who goes over the top in 1916 has been very hurriedly trained.
And because the army itself does not really have a theory of how you fight this kind of war, they march pretty slowly and steadily towards German machine gun placements which have more or less unscathed by the preceding bombardment.
Now, the effect of the bombardment, which the British Commander Haig firmly believed would shatter German resistance, was simply to warn the Germans what was going to happen next.
The German had dug themselves in deep, when the shells stopped up they came from their placements, took up their machine guns and they simply mowed down the advancing British soldiers. And the casualties on the first day alone numbered tens and tens of thousands; numbers killed in the whole of the Battle of the Somme, which lasted for several months, from Britain were greater than the number of Americans killed in the whole Vietnam War.
GROSS: That's pretty amazing figures. The First World War resulted in a lot of terrific literature, much of it antiwar literature. You quote Ernst Junger's (ph) diary of a German frontline at Gilmont (ph) in August of 1916.
And he writes, "among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in we found them in layers stacked up one on top of another. One company after another had been shoved into the drum fire and steadily annihilated."
You also have a lot of pretty gruesome photographs in the book from World War I. But the photograph I actually found most shocking was a photograph of Scottish troops wearing kilts. And I'm thinking wow, this is like fighting trench warfare in a skirt. It astounded me.
FERGUSON: It astounded the Germans too. One of the things that German writers about the war, men like Unerov (ph), and commented upon was the particular aggressiveness and ferocity of the Scottish regiments who were instantly recognizable by their kilts.
The kilt was only abandoned as frontline dress relatively late in the war when it was realized that when poison gas was released Scottish soldiers suffered disproportionately because the gas got under their kilts and inflicted terrible burns. But for most of the war, the Scottish Highland regiments wore the kilt, and the Germans called them "devils in skirts" or "the women from hell."
Because, A, they were very distinctive in the way that they dressed. They were also distinctive in the way that they fought.
And it's clear that the Scottish regiments not only suffered the highest casualties of any army in the war, but also probably inflicted pretty hefty casualties on the Germans. They were renown for the ferocity of their conduct in action.
And it's clear that, for example, Scottish regiments were involved in the incidence of prisoner killing, which I detail in one of the chapters of the book.
This is important because my grandfather was in one of these regiments, and I suppose I would never have written the book had it not been for the realization that as a teenager my own grandfather had been in C Fourth Highlanders (ph). And had been one of those young men that you see in the plates in the books sitting in a trench waiting to go over the top and kill Germans.
GROSS: Do you know if he wore a kilt when he was in battle?
FERGUSON: Yes, he did. I still have it.
GROSS: Did you talk with him about that?
FERGUSON: I was very young when he died. I was about four or five when my grandfather died, so I don't have clear recollections of the kind of conversations that I would have had loved to have with him now were he still alive.
But he talked enough with my father about it for me to have a reasonably good idea of what his war was like. Unlike the famous war poets and war novelists, nothing survives of my grandfather's war on paper, just a box full of a couple of medals and a small Bible.
But the memories he passed down through my father to me were enough for me to reconstruct more less what he went through.
GROSS: What's one of those memories that your father shared with you?
FERGUSON: It seems pretty likely that my grandfather was there when the Germans launched their final all-out offensive in the spring of 1918, which very nearly won the war, because he described the experience of seeing the advancing German infantry and preparing to be sent into action against them. And feeling absolutely certain that this was it because the Germans at this point seemed quite unstoppable.
And at the very last minute a neighboring unit was sent over instead of his unit, and he was pretty sure that that decision had saved his life. And that's one of the kind of stories that is etched on my memory from my days as a small boy.
GROSS: How do you think World War I affected your family's feelings about war?
FERGUSON: I think it had a very profound effect on Scotland because of this very high mortality rate. My own school was dedicated as a war memorial after the war was over. And so I went to school everyday passing the war memorial which had these, in these huge letters, "say not that the brave die."
And I always used to think to myself well, hang on, they did die; brave or not brave. And I certainly, as a schoolboy, was strongly attracted to the anti-war message of poets like Wilfred Owen whom I was encouraged to read by my teachers.
And I think my own family certainly were liberals with a pretty strong pacifist streak. There was certainly no appetite for another war, or any more war, in my family.
And when my other grandfather had to go and fight in the Second World War, he ended up fighting the Japanese in Asia, it was with no great enthusiasm and a deep sense of resignation. And I think, for me, coming to terms with this family memory is part of the reason for writing the book, not least because I began to realize that the anti-war literature wasn't really the whole truth. In some ways it's a rather unrepresentative take long on the front-line experience.
I mean, you mentioned Ernst Junger, but Ernst Junger is not an anti-war writer. When you read Junger's account of being on the Western front it's constantly referring to the exhilaration of military experience, of the front experience. And for people like Junger, or more notoriously, for soldiers like the young Adolf Hitler, the First World War wasn't just a hellish experience.
That at the same time that it was hellish, it was also a supreme test of their manhood, of their inner strength. And the friendships and comradeship of the front was something which lived on their imaginations after the war.
And that was one of the surprises I suppose I had when I started to do the research for the book.
GROSS: My guest is Niall Ferguson. His new book about World War I is called, "The Pity of War." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Niall Ferguson. His new book is called, "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I."
Now, in your book, and this is probably the most controversial theory that you offer in the book, you say that you think the war was the greatest error in modern history and that England was heavily to blame. You think England shouldn't have gotten fully involved in the First World War.
FERGUSON: Well, I think it was very likely that a European war was going to break out in 1914. For reasons I try to detail in the book, the Germans were deeply worried about Russian armaments; felt that they were losing their position of strategic advantage. And that if they didn't do something pretty soon they were going to slip into the second division of great power status.
So a war on the European continent in 1914 was highly likely. And in some ways the surprising thing was simply that it hadn't broken out before.
The question that was still open as late as the 2nd of August 1914, was whether Great Britain, and I'd rather call it that than England, whether Great Britain with it's enormous international empire would also become involved in such a war. And what I try to argue in the book is, A, that there was no binding obligation to become involved despite what politicians subsequently claimed.
And, B, that it would have been in Britain's best interest to have stayed out. In other words, to have let the Germans win a continental war against France and Russia. So I'm really making an argument about the British national interest. Of course, one implication of that is that America probably would have stayed out too.
But that means the war never really becomes a world war because it's British intervention which turns the European war into a world war. And it is also British intervention which ensures that the war lasts as long as it does. The tragedy, in a sense, of British intervention is that it is enough to prevent the Germans from winning the war, but it is not enough to win the war decisively for Britain, France and Russia.
And ultimately the United States has to come in to finish the job off four and a quarter years later. After the death toll has risen as high as we've said already, towards 10 million. And this surely was the greatest error of 20th-century history, when you consider all that followed from this ghastly slaughter.
GROSS: Do you think that if Great Britain had not entered the war that Germany would have won, but the war would have been contained?
FERGUSON: Well, Germany would certainly have won a war against France and Russia, plus Serbia and Belgium. There's no question that without British reinforcements and without British financial support, sooner or later the French resistance on the Western front would have crumbled.
And I think the only question is when. I don't think it would have crumbled by Christmas 1914, as some of the more optimistic Germans hoped, because we know that the Schlican Plan (ph), the plan that Germans used which envisaged encircling Paris in a very swift victory, was unrealistic.
But I think by, certainly, the beginning of 1916, if not earlier, French casualties would have been so huge that they really would have been unable to continue. It would ultimately have been unable to sustain their defense of northern France. Now what does that imply?
Well, it certainly implies a more limited war. If Britain is not involved the war doesn't have the potential to escalate at sea in the way that it does once Britain intervenes.
It almost certainly means there will be no more in Africa. It almost certainly means there will be no war in the Middle East; no invasion, or attempted division of Turkey.
So, for all those reasons I think it would have been a war much more like the war of 1870 when Germany went to war with France. It would have been like a combination of that war with a war against Russia, the sort which nearly broke out in the late 1870s. A much more limited war, fundamentally a European war. And one which probably would have been over by the spring of 1916.
GROSS: World War I was started in part when the Archduke of Austria- Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. Talk a little bit more about Serbia's role in the early days of World War I.
FERGUSON: Well, the First World War has changed many many things in the world, but Serbia is not one of them. From 1912 to '14 Serbia is making trouble in the Balkans; 1989 to '99 Serbia is making trouble in the Balkans, and in much the same way.
I mean, you only have to back to the first Balkan war of 1912 to read accounts of Serb soldiers charging through Kosovo committing atrocities, burning down villages, raping the women, mutilating the men. So, at least in one corner of Europe it's a case of "plu ca cange, plu ca celementros (ph)."
Now, of course the First World War could have just been the third Balkan war. And the option was there when the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand happened, for there to be a limited conflict with Austria taking reprisals for this act of terrorism, which clearly had been to some extent state-sponsored, or at least sponsored indirectly by Serb intelligence.
The problem really was that from a very early stage, both Germany and Russia were determined that this should be the basis for a wider European war. It should in fact be the pretext.
And so the Serbs, rather unwittingly in pursuit of their own objectives in the Balkans, namely the creation of some even bigger Serb state, unwittingly trigger a massive European war which ends up being totally calamitous for the Serbs themselves. But this isn't their plan, nor is it I suspect their plan at the moment.
GROSS: How was Serbia changed by the outcome of World War I?
FERGUSON: Well, in a way, the Serbs, despite losing huge numbers of men, their mortality rate is second only to the Scottish regiments, end up in territorial terms as big winners. Yugoslavia was one of the creations of the post First World War peace settlement. Although it wasn't initially called that, it was the "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes," I think. And they renamed it Yugoslavia in 1929 I think to save on ink.
And this was essentially the moment when a quasi-federal south Slav state is created with the Serbs as the dominant partner. And it's been a pretty unstable edifice ever since. It plunges into bloodshed and into that kind of feuding in the Second World War, and it does it again after the Cold War.
But if you ask where does originate? The answer is it originates in 1919 when everybody is trying to figure out in Paris what to do after the war, and how to reward the people who had rather unwittingly started it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is historian Niall Ferguson. And he's written a new book called "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I."
You wonder in your book if the gains of World War I justify the loss of life, the massive loss of life. And I -- you know, I wonder like in your mind how do you do that calculus to decide how many lives are worth losing in war. I think that's just the most impossible calculus to do.
So what are your thoughts on how to calculate?
FERGUSON: Well, nowadays of course certainly the American view, and possibly also the European view, is that zero lives should be lost, at least by your own side in a war. And of course this is the direct opposite of the view for the first half of the 20th-century when, in two world wars, the European states were willing to sacrifice millions. I suppose a grand total of going on 30 million lives for the sake of what?
And you have to ask yourself here we have the death toll, and one of the things I try and do in my book is set out as accurately as possible the death toll. The figures country by country as a percentage of the male population, as a percentage of the men who were actually sent into battle.
You have that death toll and then you say, well, OK, what is achieved here? And you can list the achievements. For example, the neutrality of Belgium is restored and Belgium and northern France are freed of German troops. And German troops are also moved out of those parts of Eastern Europe which they occupied in the course of the war.
And then you say, well, what other achievements are there?. Well, the British Empire acquired a few more colonies from the Germans, and the French acquired some too. And then you say, well, what other things were achieved? Well, the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire temporarily, these great empires were split up into small nation-states with more or less degrees of success.
Now, are these achievements, and these seem to be the principal achievements, really worth the sacrifice of 10 million men?
It seems to me when you consider how short-lived the peace that was achieved in 1919 was, I mean, its 20 years of peace is what's achieved, before the whole thing is subject to revision again. For the Germans, throw the whole settlement overboard with the outbreak of the Second World War. Twenty years of peace for 10 million lives seems to me like a bum deal.
GROSS: Well, Niall Ferguson, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
FERGUSON: My pleasure.
GROSS: Niall Ferguson teaches history at Oxford. His new book about World War I is called "The Pity of War."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Niall Ferguson
High: Niall Ferguson is the author of "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I." Ferguson is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford. His other books include "Paper and Iron" and "The House of Rothschild." Ferguson talks about WWI was the century's worst war and why he blames Great Britain for prolonging the war.
Spec: War: Europe; Lifestyle; Culture; Niall Ferguson
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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Explaining World War I
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 31, 1999
Head: Remembering Photojournalists
Sect: News; International
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
On Memorial Day we commemorate those who died in war. Today, we have an interview from our archives about photojournalists who died or disappeared while covering war. In 1997 I spoke with Tim Page and Horst Faas, two photojournalists who were wounded in Vietnam but survived.
They edited the 1997 book, "Requiem," which is a memorial to the 135 journalists who lost their lives or disappeared while covering the wars in Indochina, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The book collects some of the extraordinary pictures these journalists gave their lives for.
Tim Page is an English freelance photographer who first started taking pictures of war in Southeast Asia at the age of 18. He was wounded four times while covering the war in Vietnam. He's worked for wire services and magazines.
Horst Faas is a German photographer and editor with the Associated Press. He was the AP's chief photographer in Southeast Asia from 1962 to '74. He's won two Pulitzer Prizes. He's now AP's senior editor in London.
Page and Faas knew many of the photographers represented in the book, "Requiem." I asked what impact it had on them when a colleague was killed while taking pictures. Page answered first.
TIM PAGE, PHOTOJOURNALIST AND CO-EDITOR OF "REQUIEM": I think probably in Vietnam we became a little inured, in a certain sense. And we went on -- surfed over the trauma of it, the emotion of it, because should you let that trauma, emotion dominate your existence, then it would be damnably difficult to go back out in the field and do -- to make more pictures. Now, you didn't make light of it. You became very sad and very -- reminisced about the person -- but had to make light of it or else you could not go out and function again.
GROSS: Horst Faas, did you find that when you had a friend or a colleague who was killed in Vietnam -- a photojournalist who was killed -- would it make you any more or less cautious in your own work?
HORST FAAS, PHOTOJOURNALIST AND CO-EDITOR OF "REQUIEM": Oh, I was -- I was trying to be cautious from day one. I had covered other wars before and I knew it was dangerous. As an agency -- agency reporter and head of the photo operation of an agency as AP these days, the death of somebody always for a very brief -- I would stop all the activity.
I mean, people talk to each other and they talked immediately about this person, and nothing much happened in the AP bureau. But since times grows really very short, and then everybody try to get back to work almost more determinedly than before; for the photo editor himself was possibly the one who sent the killed colleague out on the assignment.
There was a lot to do. The body had to be brought home. The family had to be informed and talked to. We attended funerals in the beginning. And we tried to bury the -- bury the -- mourning somehow under the activity. Do you understand?
GROSS: But now wasn't that sometimes your responsibility? Weren't you often the assigning editor who had to take care of it?
FAAS: I -- it was my responsibility to deal with headquarters -- explain to headquarters what had happened and then talk to the family. Talk to the wives or talk to parents and explain what happened, and go out myself to the place where a person was killed and see for myself what happened.
I remember going out and trying to find one of our American photographers, Ollie Noone (ph), who had crashed -- had been shot down in a helicopter; and it took three, four days of walking with troops and troops that were under continuous attack until we reached the helicopter. I found the camera which had been thrown clear, and the film inside was still intact. But there was almost nothing left of Ollie Noone.
So I watched the people that deal with corpses and remains -- watched them sorting out the scene. I kept the camera and went back to Saigon and had the difficult task to explain what happened to the parents and the sisters.
GROSS: What did you say? Do you remember?
FAAS: No, I think that was very, very private. I think -- I think we try to be honest at the time. We try to be not -- we tried not to use the normal -- the normal words of mourning -- "and I'm very sorry" and so on -- "he was the greatest." No, we didn't do it. We tried to be very clinically exact -- what exactly -- what happened, how a person died, possibly saying that there was not much pain. There was just sudden death. And try to be honest, eh?
GROSS: Were you ever in a position where you had assigned a photographer to go someplace to take pictures and they were killed on that particular job?
FAAS: All the -- no assignment was an assignment where people were ordered to go to places. We generally assessed the day-to-day situation and then photographers would go out according to their preferences. I had Vietnamese would rather go out with Vietnamese troops. We had other Vietnamese photographers who loved the American Marines.
If they did so, then we let them go up there.
GROSS: Did you ever try to talk an AP photographer out of going to a certain place?
FAAS: Oh, yes, many times. I mean, I myself -- I myself spent about 50 percent of my working life in Vietnam in the field. That means I would go out four or five days and then stay in Saigon four or five days and play the editor for the others, and then go out myself again and leave another photographer in -- at the editing desk. We took turns. So we all had -- we all had our experiences there.
I, being a little bit on the senior side already -- in these days, I was 30 and older so -- but older than many of the young colleagues, including my friend Page. I tried to warn people. I tried to instill to them that they shouldn't go with bad troops. They should rather pull back and take care of themselves and look out for photos when situations became dicey and never ever be foolishly risking -- risking chances.
GROSS: What are "bad troops"?
FAAS: Bad troops are the troops that don't take care of themselves. Marines that don't dig in; patrols that don't put out points; companies that go through the jungle in single-file without having flanks out; troops that handle their weapons sloppishly (ph); artillery observers that don't check out the town properly; and so on.
GROSS: Did you find that when you traveled with troops that they looked after you? Or that -- did they see you as a burden -- you know, someone who's not a member of the military who's tagging along?
FAAS: That was one of the main features of a good combat correspondent, combat photographer, not to be a burden to the troops. It started with being equipped and dressed and -- like soldiers. It means you had to have the right boots and you have to have your own overnight gear and you have to carry your own food. The only thing you don't carry is your weapon. You had to protect yourself with a steel helmet and a flak jacket just like they did.
And when there was danger, you could not count on them putting a shield around you and defending you. No, you had to just run with them and hope for the best. But it was not our role ever to participate in the fighting.
On the other side, among the communist photographers, that was their prime role. They were soldiers foremost and reporters, propagandists -- photographers secondary.
GROSS: When you were photographing combat, what kind of rules of thumb would you use to know when to take pictures and when to just run for cover?
PAGE: I think it's a cross purpose. You learn where you can -- it's -- it's a sixth or seventh nature. You learn where you can take pictures from and be safe simultaneously. You learn how to move, where to position yourself. You learn how to shoot on the run, and this was the advantage of today's all-thinking and seeing camera and autofocus. You learn to anticipate. You learn to try to sort of preempt what's going to go on and where you can place yourself.
It becomes -- it becomes a sixth or seventh sense in the end. You just automatically know where -- you know that a rubber tree won't a bullet, so you don't hide behind a rubber tree. Admittedly, the opposition can't see you behind the rubber tree, but stray weaponry will come through that rubber tree.
GROSS: My guests are photojournalists Tim Page and Horst Faas. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with photojournalists Horst Faas and Tim Page. I spoke with them in 1997, after the publication of their book, "Requiem."
David Halberstam wrote a piece in Vanity Fair in which he talked about you, Horst Faas, and he described you as one of the first photographers in Vietnam to use a Leica, which enabled the photographer to look forward instead of down.
Would you describe what that difference was and how that affected your safety and your photographs?
FAAS: Well, I wasn't the first one to use Leicas. Larry Burrows arrived at almost at the same time, had considerably more Leicas than I had because at the time AP was still working with large (ph) cameras and I carried one or two with my own Leicas in there.
Well, a Leica camera is a camera we can keep both eyes open. You can look with the free eye that doesn't look sort of (unintelligible) all directions. It's like backwards -- and sometimes also backwards. And you can look through the viewfinder and see your picture.
So it may be sports photography or it may be war photography, the Leica camera appeared to me a camera that made it possible that you were at all times aware of things happening around you.
GROSS: Tim Page, did you use that too?
PAGE: Initially, no. But after I'd made my first -- had my first spread in "Life" magazine in mid-'65, almost the first thing I did with all this new-found wealth was buy two Leicas in Hong Kong. But it has to be said that almost the first foreign -- one of the first foreign photojournalists to be killed in Indochina, Robert Capa -- I mean, of World War II fame and Spanish Civil War fame -- also used Leicas.
I mean, they have been the -- the camera of choice for war photography since -- I mean, they were used by the Germans in the Second World War. I mean, (unintelligible) magazine consistently had photographers using Leicas and Contaxes.
I mean, the Contax looks much like the Leica -- much -- similar technology in lenses. But it's always been the strongest -- it's kind of the Rolex of the cameras -- the Rolex cum Volkswagen.
FAAS: The other wonderful thing with the Leica was that you could actually take it ap
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