Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Worst Year of the War? It Was 1917, By Far

Paths of Glory, CRW Nevinson, 1917

Nineteen-seventeen was the most important and historically influential year of the Great War. It's well understood that 1917 was a pile-up of disasters and miscalculations, from Germany's decision to implement unrestricted U-boat warfare in January to the Bolsheviks' triumph in the autumn, and with the ill-fated Nivelle, Kerensky, and Passchendaele offensives, plus the Italian collapse at Caporetto strung out in between. But how, you may ask, can it be argued that 1917 was worse than other years of the war, some of which had higher death tolls? Or, reducing the question to one statistic for a single belligerent, how was Passchendaele (244,000 casualties) worse than 1916's Battle of the Somme (416,000 casualties) for the British?

The answer to this has two dimensions: one physical, one metaphysical. That popular and highly quotable military philosopher, Sun Tzu, addressed the first of these: "There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." By the end of 1917 every one of the war's original participants had suffered horrendous casualties and had made debilitating expenditures of their nation's wealth. They were running out of men and money. Anxiety over this was building on everyone's home front as shortages were experienced in factories and at dinner tables. On the battlefields, all the generals were growing deeply concerned about the fighting spirit and discipline of the men, and how they would replace the massive losses.

But accumulated physical losses were the lesser factor in what happened in 1917. As another military authority, Napoleon Bonaparte, reminds us—in war, "Morale is to the physical as three to one." In 1917, the morale of heads-of-state, citizens, and soldiers bottomed out. Futility, mindlessness, and tragedy started to be the defining aspects and heritage of the First World War, even while the fighting carried on. This moral burden of the war is still with us. Something less tangible, in the area of mass psychology, lasting and open-ended, started coming into play during 1917, and it has stayed around, its influence shaping even our current century. Defeats like Caporetto and failed, costly endeavors like the Allies launched on the Chemin des Dames, and in Flanders and Galicia, were felt no longer as mere setbacks but as national humiliations discrediting the governing classes and—for the troops—defining the war as purposeless, futile betrayals.

Maybe the war's most damaging long-term impact was the exhaustion of morale suffered by Europe's well-educated, creative, affluent, and political elite. They became the main vectors for transmitting despair and pessimism to future generations, leaving the body of Europe vulnerable to something even worse, the corrosive aspects of Modernism, the hatred of authority, and the irrational impulse to discredit all institutions and traditions. Then and since, there have been few articulate defenders of order and continuity, and they are getting rarer. 

In 1917 the cumulative spiritual fatigue triggered mutinies, food riots, and revolutions, which led soon after to the Lost Generation; totalitarian governments; a second, larger war; a longer cold war; the atomic age; and a series of ill-conceived policies, leading right up to the present-day immigration catastrophe in Europe. This long decline surely has deeper, older roots than the Great War, but the events of 1917 certainly provided powerful downward accelerators.

Adapted from my introduction to the December 2017 issue of OVER THE TOP Magazine.  MH


  1. Great quotable commentary, eloquent and profound!

  2. Well...1914 certainly gets my vote since every government misjudged the dynamic they released. Without the misunderstandings/miscalculations of the summer of 1914, there would be no summer of 1917.

  3. Very interesting idea.
    But does this only apply to the Entente/Allies? By 1917's end Germany is fairly triumphant, and AH has seen both Russia and Italy humbled.