LSE research on the on the First World War, its causes and consequences, informed many of the UK’s major centennial commemorations.
What was the context?
Between 2014 and 2018, the UK marked the centenary of the First World War, which sparked a renewed interest in the history of the war, from a British and multinational perspective. As well as commemorating the war dead, a range of initiatives investigated the wider history of the conflict and aimed to enhance public understanding of some of its lesser-known chapters and events.
Major institutions, including museums, the media, universities, and the armed forces, all developed programmes of publications and events focusing on the First World War. Many sought expert advice on the quality of their material, wanting to ensure it incorporated the latest research on the war, beyond common myths and popular perceptions.
What did we do?
Over the past 20 years, Professor David Stevenson has led an extensive programme of research on the First World War. Adopting a multinational and multilingual perspective, and using a blend of military, political, diplomatic, and economic approaches, his work has investigated and analysed the causes, course, and conclusion of the conflict.
Stevenson’s research, aided by LSE PhD students Marvin Fried, Michael Hemmersdorfer, and Charles Sorrie, has produced three major monographs drawing on archival sources in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the US, as well as in the UK.
The first, 1914–1918: the History of the First World War (2004), provides a general history of the war, with an emphasis on why it began, why it escalated, and on its termination, legacy, and impact. It relates the outbreak of war to the pre-1914 arms race, and integrates military, technological, political, and diplomatic explanations of the stalemate between 1915 and 1917. Its closing chapters examine how this stalemate was broken, and analyse the conflict’s continuing cultural, political, and economic influence.
In 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution (2017), Stevenson concentrates on a single, crowded year: 1917. An analysis of strategic and political decision-making, it focuses on the choices to continue and to escalate the conflict. It examines German submarine warfare and American intervention; the disastrous offensives launched by Britain, France, Russia, and Italy; and the global repercussions of the European stalemate. The book investigates why governments could not find (or deliberately rejected) strategies for exiting short of total victory, despite the human cost. By this means, it analyses the forces that perpetuated the conflict.
In his 2011 book, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918, Stevenson analyses the 1918 campaigning (on all battlefronts) and the factors enabling Allied victory. Particularly novel are the discussions of Allied superiority in logistics – especially railways (largely neglected in earlier accounts) – and the calculations leading Germany to seek an armistice and its opponents to grant one.
Stevenson’s research has also examined particular moments or issues of the conflict, for example presenting the First World War as – paradoxically – a struggle between rival projects for European integration, while his research into the peace settlement shows that Germany’s imposed disarmament was justified as facilitating Allied disarmament – a commitment subsequently regretted.
Overall, Stevenson’s research represents a substantial and significant contribution to the literature on the First World War.
In their preparations to mark the centenary of the First World War, several notable public institutions asked Professor Stevenson to advise them, including the British Library, the Imperial War Museum, the BBC, and the British Army.
Stevenson served on the academic advisory committee for the Imperial War Museum’s First World War galleries, which opened in July 2014. Costing £40 million, the galleries formed a centrepiece for the UK’s centenary commemorations. Stevenson offered detailed comment on a number of areas, including the initial concept, gallery layout and content, and provided expert quality assurance for the exhibits’ accompanying text and captions, as well as advising on how to present more sensitive subjects, such as events in Ireland and Armenia. He also coached museum staff on the war’s outbreak, which visitors frequently wanted information about.
Museum visitor numbers in the first few months following the opening of the galleries were more than double the previous average and remained consistently high throughout the centenary. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Alastair Sooke celebrated the galleries’ “fascinating, and frequently heart-breaking, exhibits”; they also received industry acclaim, winning Best Permanent Exhibition at the 2015 Museum + Heritage Awards.
In 2013 and 2014, Stevenson was a consultant for the British Library’s pan-European educational initiative on the First World War, a collaboration with educational website Europeana. Its thematic collection, “1914–1918”, gathered untold stories and official histories of the conflict. The British Library liaised with 11 European institutions to develop this web resource for teachers, which provides access to nearly 500 exhibits, including photographs, correspondence, propaganda material, and news clippings, supported by commissioned articles from leading experts, including Stevenson. He also delivered a companion lecture for London schoolchildren at the British Library in October 2014. The website has received more than four million visits, and it has been widely reviewed and recommended as a teaching resource.
Based on his work on First World War logistics, and particularly the railways, Stevenson was consulted for the popular BBC series, Railways of the Great War with Michael Portillo. Portillo interviewed him on how railway superiority assisted the Allies’ victory and how the disintegration of Germany’s logistical system contributed to its defeat. Stevenson also viewed first cuts of every episode, corrected inaccuracies, and copy-edited the associated book, Railways of the Great War with Michael Portillo, by Colette Hooper.
In preparation for the centenary, the British Army established Operation Reflect, which as well as forming part of the nation’s commemorations also sought to identify contemporary lessons from the history of the war and the British Army’s continental campaigns. Stevenson consulted on this and delivered lectures at the Royal United Services Institute in 2014 and at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2017, emphasising the importance of logistical factors. He also joined a “staff ride” to Cambrai in 2014, lecturing cadets about the battle that took place there in 1917.
Stevenson’s research has also underpinned several other public-facing initiatives, including BBC educational programmes, radio dramatisations, the National Theatre’s centennial output, and conferences organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Throughout the centenary period, Stevenson spoke widely to non-academic audiences, giving keynotes at literary festivals in Toronto, Edinburgh, Malta, and Great Malvern, at the National Defence College in Tokyo, at the Liberty War Memorial, Kansas City, and to the Western Front Association. In all he gave some 40 public lectures, including two recorded talks at Gresham College.