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The war which should have ended all wars

November 11, 2018

 

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There is something very portentous about the anniversary of the Armistice which ended the Great War at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a hundred years ago  in 1918. Few wars have been as much remembered and it is the First World War which has given us the modern rituals of remembrance: the poppy, the cenotaph, the two minute silence, the war memorial and Remembrance Day itself. There is much to remember and the aim of this blog is to provide some arguments for why.

I have always been interested in the Great War, partly because it is big history, partly because it was a major historical event which, through a number of family members, I had a direct connection.  Over the last couple of years I have been able to extend my reading and gain some fresh insights into the conflict.

There were and still are various narratives about the War and what it achieved. Some see it as a pointless loss of young life, others make a case for the importance of of their issues over which the war was fought and the consequences that might have happened if Britain and other nations hadn’t gone to war.

As ever the reality is more complex but I want to discuss a number of historical lessons which all have significance today.

This starts with the  mass hysteria which carried Europe to war in 1914. Much is made in discussing the start of the War about diplomatic failings and the inflexibility of railway timetables. Those things are important but what strikes me more than anything about the events of 1914 is a sense that the people of Europe and, in particular, its young men wanted to go to war. Accounts and images (including the famous one from Munich which captures the face of the young Adolf Hitler) from all over Europe show almost a sense of relief at the coming of conflict and a nostalgic revelry in the idea of young men leaving the drab reality of industrial or bureaucratic drudgery to return to the heroic world of being a soldier.  It strikes me that with that groundswell of public opinion there was little politicians could do to argue against the idea of going to war.

There has been something of the same sense of hysteria in some contemporary developments here and in the US. Such developments are hard to check but they need brave people to speak up against them and they need politicians prepared to try to contain them rather than stoke them for their own political ends.

The First World War was also characterised by a fundamental shift in the nature of war. Despite the precedents set 50 years earlier in the American Cicil War the nature of the conflict unleashed in 1914 seemed to have taken most generals and politicians by surprise. The adage that it will all be over by Christmas was widespread and, in Britain, Kitchener was a fairly lone voice in seeing the inevitability of a long conflict with the resulting need for a massive military recruitment. Throughout the war despite the reality of the trenches Generals continued to hanker after the use of cavalry.

The mechanisation of warfare was at the heart of this with its resulting massive destructive power and merciless greed for human life. In the Napoleonic Wars 10 lives were lost in every hour of the fighting. This had risen to 230 in the Great War.

Yet despite this it was a war where the behaviour of most generals (there were exceptions such as Petain in France) was marked by optimism bias. While tactics did evolve through the War Generals such as Douglas Haig committed time after time to a belief in the “Great Push” and the ability of human courage to prevail over barbed wire, heavily fortified positions and murderous machine gun fire.

This links to the influence of lived experience. For soldiers such as Siegfried Sassoon there was an unbearable distance between the experiences of soldiers at the Front and the opinions of those driving the War at home. Although the First World War was, at the time, the most photographed conflict in history and pioneered new approaches such as Geoffrey Malins’ filming of the explosion of the mine at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, this was a different age and news from the Front was still heavily censored.

We now have the graphic accounts of the war poets and hundreds of others who entrusted their experiences of the battlefields to writing. What if some of those accounts had been widely available in real time?

The final reflection rests on the need to win the Peace. We now know, with hindsight, the way in which the humiliation of 1918 and the harshness of the Versailles Treaty contributed to the Second World War less than a generation later.  The failure of the League of Nations is also a grim reminder to us of what might happen when nations withdraw from the institutions and spirit of international collaboration.

In many ways World War One should have been the war to end all wars. It wasn’t but it is important we don’t let its remembrance pass without reflecting as deeply as we can on which of its lessons we can most draw on in looking at the challenges of our own age.

On the centenary of Armistice Day we rightly remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in conflict. However let’s also remember those things which are most likely to prevent conflict in the future.

 

 

 

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