Never Again – Lest We Forget

Remembrance Sunday reminds us again that backward-looking national narcissism is now the constant mood music for post-Brexit Conservatism. But the way official remembrance has always been done is designed to use the ‘sacrifice’ of slaughtered service personnel to sanctify doing it again, argues Paul Atkin.

When Michael Gove wrote a piece in the Daily Mail lambasting “left wing myths” about World War One, he might have been surprised by the dusty response he received, even on that paper’s website. He’d set up the usual targets, fired off the accustomed clichés and blown some patriotic dog whistles, but 70% of responses were hostile.

World War One is deeply scarred in popular memory, even for those too young for it to be about their grandparents. In my case I can’t help think that when my grandfather was the same age as my son, 16 and revising for his GCSEs, he was at the Somme. He was 18 at Cambrai and 19 when the war ended. For me and many others, the youth of the names on the war memorials, of all the participating powers, is more a source of sorrow and anger than pride.

In the course of the war many soldiers in all armies were brave and honourable. Many others weren’t. Few could be either all the time. The government’s aim for this commemoration to be a celebration of ‘the national spirit’, ‘like the Golden Jubilee’ presupposes that national pride is an appropriate response in a way that they would find distasteful if Germany were to commemorate the war in the same way.

When I read of the freshly conscripted German students from Heidelberg, walking across the fields at Mons in 1914, singing with their arms linked to keep their courage up, I feel no pride in the efficiency of the British musketry that killed them; and I doubt the humanity of anyone who does. When I read of the German machine gunners at the end of the first day of the Somme who stopped firing at the shattered remnants of the British attack stumbling back to their lines because they just couldn’t stomach slaughtering them anymore, I don’t feel any pride in that either, just a sense of horror at what the ambitions of Empires did to the men who had to fight for them. The hostility to Gove’s article indicates how out of step with popular sentiment the government was.

The widespread sense of a futile and wasteful war that so disturbs Gove is rooted in reality: the collective post-traumatic stress of a society shell-shocked by the loss of so many of its young. Those upper and middle class families whose sons had been junior officers were hit particularly hard.

· 25% of the Oxford and Cambridge graduates under 25 who joined up were dead by 1918.

· The life expectancy of a lieutenant on the western front was two weeks.

The agony of these families is captured in Kipling’s poem My Son Jack. This led to a deeply felt popular reluctance to engage in further wars of mass annihilation at all levels of society.

There is an echo of that sentiment today, with popular support for the wars consistently advocated by Gove, from Afghanistan to Syria, ebbing to a point that it will not sustain another, at least for now. Most people are weary and wary of these, do not want to see any more fresh young names carved onto the old war memorials, no more coffins driven slowly through Wootton Bassett, nor see the sort of politicians who seek to entice their children into harm’s way with one-sided tales of heroism past as malignant pied pipers.

“Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Wilfred Owen

Owen’s view, as a man who fought and died in the trenches, has a broader humanity than Gove’s. He talks of “the seed of Europe”, not the seed of Britain. A similar feeling runs through Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, mirroring the experience from the German trenches and pointing to the same conclusion. The “old man” in Owen’s poem, like the patriotic teacher in Remarque’s novel, stands for the rulers of all Europe and the “son” is all too many of their sons. In John Keegan’s First World War (1998), he is so struck by the fact that 35-37% of all boys born in Germany between 1892 and 1895 were dead by 1918 that he cites it twice. 

There are some who seek to minimise the scale of the casualties, so it’s worth looking at the figures for the major European participants.

CountryTotal deadTotal wounded
Britain8-900 0001.6 million
France1.6 – 1.7 million4.2 million
Russia2.8 –  3.4 million3.7 – 4.9 million
Austria Hungary1.7 –  2 million3.6 million
Germany2.2 – 2.8 million4.2 million

These figures show the terrible impact of this war on all the participants. They also show that Britain, even though its soldiers had a 50% chance of becoming a casualty, with all the trauma that represents, was affected least. That’s not to understate this impact. In some ways Britain, like France, was a mutilé de guerre after 1918. If you want a flavour of a society with its facades intact but the stuffing knocked out of it, read The Waste Land or Mrs Dalloway, or listen to the anguish in Elgar’s Cello Concerto. “We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men…”

Nevertheless, any British-centred account of the war distorts understanding because the British social order came out of the war more substantially intact than any other European power. Contemporary Britain is the only power listed here with direct constitutional continuity with its pre-1914 self, so in some sense we are still living in that world, while the other powers were tested to destruction and thrown into more traumatic models of modernity.

· Tsarist Russia, overthrown in revolution,

· Austria Hungary collapsed altogether and balkanised,

· Turkey, collapsed and dismembered,

· Germany: Kaiser, overseas territories, economic stability all gone and burning with resentment, a chaotic vortex in the heart of Europe.

· The French Third Republic stood as a shadow of its former self until nemesis in 1940.

For Britain, World War One was a trauma. For continental Europe, it was Gotterdammerung, the last days of humanity. If we want to understand it, we should examine the war in that framework; rather than have a cosy domestic debate, licking our own wounds while belittling those we inflicted on others.

If we are to understand our own country and its role in the world, we have to have a certain critical distance from the people who run it, not least because we can’t always trust what they say.

For Gove the war was a “noble cause”, a “just” defence of the “international liberal order” (as represented by the British, French and Russian Empires, much as for our media today “the international community” is the United States and whoever agrees with it at the time) against the “aggressive” and “predatory” German Empire. This is a very odd argument. All the major powers that fought were Empires. The “aggressive”, “predatory” Germans had managed to build an Empire just a fifth the size of the British Empire by 1914. How Britain managed to build an Empire five times bigger without being “aggressive” and “predatory” is a mystery.

His argument that World War One was a “just war” has been echoed by John Blake, who likes to strike a rebellious pose of challenging left wing myths and conventional wisdoms in the interests of being safely approved of by ‘mainstream’ opinion. His view is an uncritical rehash of that advanced by the Foreign Office in 1914, subsequently consecrated by the Treaty at Versailles in 1919 and revisited in Fritz Fischer’s German war guilt thesis in the 1960s.

Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers shows how the participation of the British Empire in World War One was neither more nor less moral than any of the others. It was realpolitik.

· The British Empire in 1914 was the largest and wealthiest in the world.

· It was also overstretched. Germany and the USA were growing faster and developing stronger modern economic sectors with a better educated workforce. Militarily there was some threat from France in Africa and a more definite and troubling threat from Russia in Asia and the Middle East.

· The decision to ally with France, and by extension Russia, was a decision in line with the notion “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.

· The British social order was already archaic and finding it hard to reform itself. In the long run there was nowhere to go but down, unless some of the competition could be eliminated or subordinated.

If the German Empire can be validly criticised for behaving as Empires do, the British can hardly be immune from the same critique. What Michael Gove calls “the liberal international order” was actually the Pax Britannica. Expecting other rising powers in a context of inter-imperialist competition to accept British hegemony indefinitely is absurd. Expecting subject peoples to put up with subjection indefinitely is also absurd. In the British case, “the rights of small nations” never applied across the Irish Sea or anywhere else under its command.

In August 1914 the British Empire chose to go to war.

For the rulers of Empire a decision not to go to war was unthinkable, even though they knew that taking part would be ruinous and were being begged by some business interests to “keep us out of it.” Sir Edward Grey’s “lights are going out” remark was not that of a man who thought it would all be over by Christmas. They knew what they were unleashing. They had massacred enough colonial peoples to know what modern weaponry was capable of.

All the Empires were aggressive and predatory and so felt threatened by each other. The dominant interests in all of them were convinced that taking a strong stand, hitting hard and fast first, would carry the day for them. All of them. If there is a smoking gun, they are all holding it. The British government of 1914 is on no higher moral ground than any of the others.

During the July-August crisis, the leaders of all of the powers manoeuvred so they could present themselves, to their own peoples and perhaps to their own consciences, as defending themselves against aggression. The opposition of the Socialist Parties and others in each country made this a political necessity. Contrary to popular myth, there was no great wave of enthusiasm for the war and significant opposition was shown within governments and on the streets. In each country fear of the other was the main tool used to dragoon people into line: in Britain and France, fear of Germany, in Germany fear of ‘Russian barbarism’.

The Socialist International’s plan to call a Europe-wide general strike against war may not have succeeded, even after mass anti-war demonstrations in Britain, Germany and France in the last days of July 1914. One has to regret, given the 15 million who were to die, that its leaders weren’t made of sufficiently stern stuff to even try nor, with a few honourable exceptions, vote against the war credits in each country.

A mass war of annihilation, slaughtering millions, could only be carried on with at least passive popular consent and the preparedness of soldiers to follow orders. This collapsed altogether in Russia and, almost, Italy but was a real factor for even the least affected forces.

The war poets are nevertheless an authentic source for an appalling human experience.  Their growing popularity from the 1960s reflected an increasingly widespread questioning of the encrusted reactionary pieties of ritualised remembrance carried out in such a way as to sanctify present and future sacrifice.

Those of us just a few years free of the shadow of conscription, but growing up in the greater shadow of the mushroom cloud, looking around the world to unjust wars like Vietnam, and living in a national existential crisis where the old gods of Empire had failed but the future was uncertain, could be forgiven for thinking that it was ours to reason why, and maybe ours to do a bit better and spread our love a bit wider than the narrow bounds of one little island.

Gove’s attempt to cast any critique of the British General Staff outside the realm of politically acceptable debate also shows a fear of uncontrolled historical sources. Arguments that this or that general might have been more or less competent or imaginative than another is meat and drink for those interested in military history. But while a discussion on the relative capacities of Von Moltke or Ludendorf might be seen as a technical discussion capable of objectivity, critique of Haig or French is presented by Gove as tantamount to treason by “left wing ideologues” wanting to “belittle Britain”. A thoughtful assessment of the strengths, limits and capacities of military commanders and their strategies are legitimate areas for historical debate that should not be obscured by the desire of contemporary politicians to wave patriotic pom-poms.

More swingeing critiques of the entire General Staff in the 1960s, like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) came after the British humiliation at Suez (1956) had rocked deference to the ‘out of touch elite’ that was still running the country but could no longer defend its Empire and for a while looked on the ropes. Clark became a Conservative MP and Minister in Mrs Thatcher’s government. The soul-searching evident in Clark’s book was echoed by other right wing authors at the time.

 It’s clear from this that, at a time of widely perceived national decline, the right was capable of a more lacerating self-critique than they are today. These debates were, however, within a framework of whether this or that general was the best man for the job, whether someone else with greater intelligence or flexibility might have been more effective in the pursuit of Britain’s war aims; not whether those war aims were valid in the first place. The left wing critique is not just of Haig, but also of Ludendorf, not just Nivelle but Von Hotzendorf and Grand Duke Nicholas; not just the unimaginative, out of date, hidebound, inflexible generals, but the clever, thoughtful, innovative ones too; because our critique is not just of this or that Empire but of all Empires. If you look at it with clear eyes, the monumental pile of corpses the First World War heaped up, as those Empires fought for supremacy and sacrificed their peoples to do it, still casts a shadow today long and dark enough to make us challenge unthinking loyalty to such causes.

This is an edited version of a blogpost that originally appeared in 2014 in response to plans from the Conservatives to “celebrate” the anniversary of the First World War. The full version is available here. Paul Atkin blogs at https://urbanramblings19687496.city/

Image: Remembrance Sunday. Source: Remembrance Sunday – Hall of Memory – poppies and crosses. Author: Elliott Brown from Birmingham, United Kingdom,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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