Reynolds, David: The Long Shadow

Introducing “The Long Shadow” (2013), the proposer said that, as our meeting fell in the month of the centenary of the Armistice, he felt we should mark the occasion with a book about the impact of World War One on the century that followed. The David Reynolds book was the only serious candidate of which he was aware.

David Reynolds is a British historian who is Professor of International History at Cambridge. He specialises in the two World Wars  (although until now most of his book output has been about the Second) and the Cold War. He served as Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge for the academic years 2013–14 and 2014–15. A short TV series narrated by Reynolds accompanied the launch of the book, and he also lectured at the Edinburgh Festival.

In his introduction Reynolds quotes George Kennan, who characterised the First World as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century”. Kennan was struck by the “overwhelming extent” to which communism, Nazism and the Second World War were all “the products of that first great holocaust of 1914-18.”

Although the book was long, it was written with unusual clarity and incision. Reynolds was able to simplify complex ideas across a whole range of subjects with admirable brevity. If it sometimes made you pause, or was challenging, it was only because the wealth of ideas successively described left you giddy – a sort of intellectual fairground ride. The book was in many respects the history of the last century.

The general – and very enjoyable – discussion that opened up reflected the vastness of the subject matter covered by the book. It cannot be covered in a blog of acceptable length, but here are some highlights.

It was very unusual to get a writer so comfortable in writing across such a wide range of subjects. He covered military history, political history, economics, painting, poetry, literature, general culture and more. He did this across a time span of a century. And, although his major focus was Britain, he wrote very cogently about developments in Germany, France, Russia, Ireland and America. Reynolds was inclined to give both sides of an argument without overtly stating his own position, but that gave the book a welcome feel of objectivity and absence of a personal agenda.

A “terrific book” was the general view, “very enjoyable”, “enlightening and absorbing”.

But there were some notes of reservation. “At times too much detail for my taste….I would have preferred more focus on what is the shadow….I think his writing is too diffuse, and in the end I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say”.

Could we define “the shadow”? Was it loss of life, anguish, the rise of fascism, the spread of communism, the Great Depression, World War Two, the ongoing crisis in the Middle East?’ The consensus was that it was all of these and more. He had been wise in using the evocative concept of the “shadow” rather than in striving to demonstrate causation, always very difficult in considering history. He was talking about impact in a general sense. And the word “shadow” – for which 16 meanings are given in the OED! – is not necessarily pejorative.

Another reservation was that “the structure was a bit confusing (Part One ‘Legacies’; Part Two ‘Refractions’), and it led to a degree of repetition”. But for most the structure was fine.

Irritatingly we found Reynolds hardly put a foot wrong in his grasp of the bewildering array of subjects he covered, whether on concept or on detail. For a book of history to deprive us of the satisfying opportunity to pick nits is rare indeed. Finally, however, our resident statistician claimed to have nailed him – Reynolds had asserted that German South West Africa (today Namibia) was roughly the same area as England and Wales combined, whereas we reckoned it was 6 times bigger!

Occasional shafts of ironic humour brighten the narrative, such as:

A year after the Armistice, Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the imperial general staff, fumed ‘We have between 20 and 30 wars raging in different parts of the world’, which he blamed on political leaders who were ‘totally unfit and unable to govern’. Wilson’s deputy, Gen. Sir Philip Chetwode, warned colourfully that ‘the habit of interfering with other people’s business, and of making what is euphoniously called ‘peace’, is like ‘buggery’; once you take to it you cannot stop.

The financial dimension of the War was one of the few that Reynolds did not discuss in depth. We noted the heavy financial impact on Britain of the two German wars. Britain had not been entitled to reparations after the First War, having declared war and not having been invaded, but found herself in substantial debt to the US, as it did also after WW2. British WW2 Lend Lease debts to the US were not fully repaid until the end of 2006. War bonds raised from the British public for WW1 (and earlier wars) were not repaid until 2015.

We debated the impact of World War One on religion, again one of the few subjects not tackled in the book. Had the War accelerated the decline in religious belief, which could be traced back to Darwin and beyond? We could not resolve this, noting that many in the forces and amongst the bereaved had found religion a great comfort during the War, but accepting that later reflection on the appalling violence and subsequent brutalisation might have shaken the belief of many.

An interesting fact unearthed by one of our members was that the Armistice would have been at 2.30pm on the 11th of November if Lloyd George had got his way. For Lloyd George, with characteristic egotism, wanted to announce it at 2.30 when he stood up for PM’s Questions. Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the senior Forces member of the British Delegation, had to appeal to the King to overturn Lloyd George’s order and change it to 11am. Thereby Wemyss saved hundreds of lives, and thereby he incurred the vindictive fury of Lloyd George.

We noted that Reynolds heads a whole chapter “Evil”, which is devoted to genocide in the Nazi concentration camps. But, leaving aside that as unquestionable evil, could the Allies claim the moral high ground given some of their behaviour in other aspects of the Second World War, such as the hundreds of thousands of European citizens killed by RAF bombing, the use of flamethrowers and thermite grenades, and the use of nuclear bombs? The defence is that such tactics were necessary to win – or shorten – the War, but not all of us accepted that argument.

Reynolds is particularly strong on tracing the changing perspectives on the War in Britain, and clear-sighted on the ways in which the facts had become distorted. However, the head of the Imperial War Museum recently said that he had hoped that the commemorative efforts for the centenary of the War would lead to the popular view and the historians’ view of WW1 moving into alignment, but that they had failed to achieve that.

In conclusion, we agreed for our part with the historian John Horne’s view, quoted by Reynolds, that the Great War was “the seminal event in the cycle of violence and ideological extremism that marked the twentieth century.”