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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2014

3 - Complex Adaptation


The First World War has the justified reputation as one of the most brutal wars in history. It also possesses the reputation as a war of stagnation and military incompetence. The fact that the Western Front remained virtually stationary for four years, despite the slaughter at Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele, appears to provide the evidence of general military stupidity. Not surprisingly, historians have tended to depict the war as one in which the “donkeys” of the general staffs drove Europe's youth through the slaughter pens of the Western Front to their death. In the bleak words of the great British war poet Siegfried Sassoon:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath

I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base

And speed glum heroes up the line to death.…

And when the war is done and youth stone dead

I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.

– Siegfried Sassoon, ``Base Details''

Collected Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

Reinforcing such bitter attacks on the war's leadership has been the belief that solutions to the war's tactical problems were obvious and that armies could easily have developed the means to deal with the battlefield stalemate. Since the late 1920s, this has been a prevailing theme in the war's historiography until recently. In his admirable novel on the First World War, The General, C. S. Forester likened the war's tactical difficulties to those confronted by a tribe of South Sea islanders who had come across a board with a large screw embedded and who out of curiosity desired to remove it: “Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort.”

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