Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Personalities of the War

This war will seem to many to lack the personal element, but no one can study its history in detail without being impressed with the fact that the war itself was so huge that it became impersonal. It is possible that another Napoleon, Luther, or Bismarck might have dominated its events, as they did the great periods of the past, but to the men who lived through the war there was on neither side a man of that supreme caliber. To the extent that those men directed the trend of events no individual controlled them. Great men we have had, perhaps in some number, among whom certainly our own President Wilson will rank with the foremost, but in general opinion, the man of transcendent genius did not appear.

It is probably true that the war was this time too extraordinary in its scope for any single individual to play a truly dominant part in it. Modern society is now too complex in its organization; it requires the cooperation of too large a number of men to accomplish anything to allow events to be influenced decisively by a single personality. The democratic organization of the Allied countries was, alas, suspicious of power or responsibility in the hands of a single individual. In Germany, where such power might have been entrusted to one man, there was the fear that the individual might not possess sufficient ability to decide wisely.

The war indeed was not fought by individuals but by committees, by multiple executive bodies, called cabinets, councils of state, ministries, general staffs, many of them composed in their turn of committees. While, therefore, men like Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and the Kaiser had a larger personal influence than others, the real political decisions in all countries were the result of the thought of many men. So too of the generals. President Wilson and Marshal Foch perhaps had a greater power to act in matters of importance than any other individuals and both properly exercised it upon occasion. But Marshal Foch himself said, "The whole war has been one giant orchestra—I merely happened to hold the baton, to be the orchestra leader." At the peace conference President Wilson seemed to some the dominant character, but others declared vehemently that he was only one of many. No one man in this war has been able to decide, as Napoleon did, the issues of war and peace for himself. In writing, therefore, a book as brief as this, it seemed better to reproduce the impersonal quality of the war, rather than to attempt to emphasize the parts played by individuals, and thus introduce names into the text whose part in the conflict could not be properly described.

At the same time it is essential to make clear the extraordinary influence which personality had upon the history of the war. After all, men fought it. The quality or lack of quality in these particular men must be one of the most important elements in its history. Many foreign students have contended that the Allied failures in the first years were due to the incapacity of statesmen, staff officers, field generals, and the like. They were unequal to the responsibility placed upon them. Primarily, of course, they were lacking in experience.

The Germans had developed a military and administrative machine whose prime object was to eliminate possible failure, as the result of individual incompetence. So careful had been their work that their machine was at the outset superior to that of the Allies. On the other hand one of the most conspicuous reasons for the German defeat was the failure of individuals in Germany to judge correctly the British and American people and to understand the deep ethical convictions of the modern world. The sinking of the Lusitauia, the execution of Miss Cavell, the atrocities in France and Belgium are from any proper point of view individual failures.

In all countries the political and industrial situations played the most important part in the fighting of the war and the relations of individuals to each other had a most important effect upon the progress of the war. Human material was a vital factor but it cannot be described briefly, nor can it be truthfully said that any success or failure can be credited to or blamed upon one man. The war was intentionally organized to prevent a single man from playing any such role as the conquerors of the past had enacted.