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The Great War divided us then. It still divides us now

January 5, 2014


So Michael Gove has decided to enter the debate and argue that a diet of left wing propaganda and television satire such as Blackadder has corrupted our view of the just and patriotic nature of the First World War. It’s the sort of intervention which confirms some of my worst suspicions that the Government’s sponsorship of the centenary of the War will descend into an attempt generate a nostalgic patriotic feel good factor.

Like all proper history the story of the First World War is much more complex and opinion was even more divided then than it is now. This was not a simple conflict. There were good reasons, such as the violation of Belgian neutrality, to fight. For my grandfather and other of my relatives who took part in the war there was never any real doubt that they were doing the right thing, however they chose to justify it. As a nation, Britain stuck at the task and survived, relatively untouched by major social disturbance, a conflict which engendered revolution in Russia, and, at its end, Germany, a mutiny amongst serving troops (France) and mass desertions (Italy).

Better than any modern judgements the case for fighting is summed up in the words of the poet, Edward Thomas, a natural pacifist, who in the end decided to enlist and was killed at Arras in 1917.

“This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true: –
A kind of god he is, banging a gong.
But I have not to choose between the two,
Or between justice and injustice”

Men or shades of opinion and walks of life heard this call and enlisted. More than any other conflict in our history the First World War touched virtually every family in the land with more than 5 million men mobilised. Again, more than with any other conflict, the thoughts of those who participated are accessible through a wealth of contemporary accounts in prose or poetry.

The fundamental question asked by many contemporary participants is not about whether they are fighting a just war but whether any war can be called just when it inflicts the horrific carnage and suffering which those who served in the trenches and other theatres of war experienced. The nature of warfare in 1914 was totally misunderstood and Generals and politicians massively underestimated the cost, in human lives, of achieving political goals.

The Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (bardic name Hedd Wyn) posthumous winner, after being killed at the Battle of Passchendaele, of the black chair at the 1917 Eisteddfod summed up for me powerfully the way in which the War had totally brutalised the civilisation fighting it.

“Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death’s roar
It shadows the hovels of the poor”

Another strong reflection is the sense of the difference of view between those serving in the trenches and those at home, for whom patriotism came with less sacrifice. This feeling is summed up by Siegfried Sassoon in the Soldier’s Declaration he wrote in 1917.

I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuation of agonies which they do not share, and which they do not have sufficient imagination to realise.”

Many other accounts describe how serving soldiers found it almost impossible to talk in real terms at home about what they had seen in the trenches.

Many participants also shared Edward Thomas’ ambivalent attitude to the enemy. At home there was a strong sense of outrage at German atrocities in Belgium, at the use of chemical weapons (soon copied by the British) at the consequences of unrestricted U boat warfare and the sinking of civilian and neutral shipping. In the trenches brutal hatred when individual life or the lives of comrades were put at risk is interspersed with moments of genuine empathy with those from the opposite side who are nonetheless living through the same hell on earth. The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a well-known story but there were many more such experiences.

So the question we need to ask about the Great War in 2014 is not whether it was just or a patriotic conflict but more fundamentally what role can violent conflict ever play in satisfactorily resolving the affairs of men. The greatest failing which can be placed at the doors of the politicians of a hundred years ago is not they started the Great War but that, once it had started and the scale of carnage and destruction were apparent, they made such limited efforts to stop it or to resolve the dispute in a way which made it less likely for future conflict to break out. The danger is that a just war leads to a just peace and we sadly know, in the case of the First World War where that led to.


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One Comment
  1. Saxo Ungrammaticus permalink

    Have you ever thought about writing a book about history- perhaps linking it to literature. You might want to do that many years from now when you retire.

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