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A Long Shadow – the events of 1917

January 28, 2017

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We are living in interesting times. With the political convulsions of Brexit and the election of President Trump there is a sense of losing some of the bearings against which I have judged political and other events for most of my lifetime.  I have long argued that, at a time when it is difficult to look forwards with any certainty, there is a value in looking backwards at what history can tell us about the impact of major change.

1917 was one of the most significant years of the whole of the last century. Four events, in particular, stand out as having cast an especially long shadow. All those events are set in the context of the First World War and the massive effect that conflict had on the shape of most of the 20th Century.

At the start of 1917 the First World War stood in a position of stalemate. The Somme Offensive, although possibly significant in its impact on German manpower and morale, had failed to make the great breakthrough which British and other commanders had hoped for.  The Battle of Jutland had failed to give other side a definite advantage on the seas.  A half-hearted attempt to broker a peace had not got anywhere.  More than anything there was a deeper understanding of the total and inhuman nature of modern warfare which had extracted an enormous cost from the young men fighting on the Western Front and elsewhere. Furthermore by 1917 the strain imposed by the War had reached well beyond those directly involved in the combat to challenge the very foundations of nations.

The Russian Revolution started in March 1917 (western dates) in the streets of St Petersburg. The economic consequences of the war were the spark for revolt, it turned into revolution when the military refused to put down the disturbances and within days the 300 year old rule of the Romanov dynasty had come to an end.  To start with the Tsar was replaced by a provisional Government of relatively moderate socialist and liberals.  But that was not the end.  A catastrophic decision to continue a war which Russia could neither afford nor win led to a new round of revolution in November.  On this occasion the winners were the Bolshevists led by Lenin who had been cynically allowed by the German authorities to return to Russia in a sealed train.  The first successful communist revolution (brought wonderfully to life in the account of the American journalist John Reed – “Ten days that shocked the world”) left an enormous historical imprint on the rest of 20th century.  It is an interesting historical question whether, without the First World War, it would have come to pass.

The second significant event was the decision on 6th April 1917 of the USA to join the conflict on the side of Britain and the Allies.  While American manpower did not really make a difference until 1918, the US declaration of War on Germany had, both practically and psychologically, a crucial influence on the outcome of the struggle.  It represents America’s coming of age as a world power and its first intervention in European affairs.  That willingness to act as the world’s policeman, both in times of War and, at times, as evidenced by the Marshall Plan, of peace has been another defining feature of the last century.  A more isolationist approach, as America pursued in the 1920s and which Donald Trump appears to be recreating, has a significant impact on events in the rest of the world.

In all sorts of ways the First World War changed the nature of war. One major aspect of this was the involvement of civilians in the conflict through the use of the airpower.  On 13th June the Germans mounted their first daytime air raid on London.  One of its targets was a school in Upper North Street in Poplar, very close to where I used to live when I was first in London.  18 children lost their lives.  Since then civilians and much as soldiers have been the victims of warfare something which recent scenes from Aleppo brutally remind us of.  Back on the Western Front the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, which started on 31st July, and in which my great uncle was injured, epitomised the futility of trench warfare as hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in trying to secure several miles of waterlogged ground.  In understanding the events which led up to the Second World War it is worth taking account of the deep psychological trauma which this conflict with its machine like brutality inflicted on a whole generation of men.

The final event does not relate to Europe but to the Middle East. On November 9th the  Balfour Declaration (named after the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour) setting out the support of the British Government to creating a Jewish state in Palestine. Its value at that time was seen, primarily in terms of propaganda, but by the end of the year the British General, Allenby had entered Jerusalem.  While British policy oscillated during the next 30 years of the British mandate in Palestine it set the course for the creation of the State of Israel.  More generally the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War and some of the decisions taken after it by both the British and the French set the scene for a lot of the regional instability which remains a dominant issue in world affairs.

So perhaps more than what happened in 1916 which we marked with the centenary of the Battle of the Somme the events of 1917 are the key to understanding the profound impact which the First World War had on human history. As we face another time of change it is worth remembering what happened a hundred years ago and the long shadow which things which happen today can cast on the lives of those to come.

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