With war in Europe an immediate prospect in July 1914, the young First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, felt a tinge of guilt at his growing excitement and 'hideous fascination' with the detailed preparation. He caught the mood of the moment. 'No one can measure the consequences,' he recorded; 'we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance. As if it was somebody else's operation!' More than three years into a conflict that many had wished for and others merely succumbed to in ignorance, costs both human and material were being counted by John Maynard Keynes, who agonised about working for a government he despised 'for ends I think criminal'. The war had, indeed, fast become an increasingly disreputable enterprise which with every discarded corpse raised the stakes of peace. Blinded by the poisonous sting of mustard gas or deafened by the roar of big guns to the rear, the surviving serviceman had every reason to demand a better world. The top-hats and dress-coats who arrived in Paris after more than four years of war were bound to fail the desperate expectations that followed them in, uninvited, from outside. The consequences of failing to meet those demands arguably mattered more than the treaties that were ultimately signed. In a parallel universe the historian who fails to include the uninvited along with the invited risks placing herself in as much jeopardy as the statesmen she portrays with so much empathy and in such detail.
LRB 15 November 2001 | PDF Download