One hundred years ago, the guns in Europe swung around, and the troop trains began filling en route for the border. Across the world, the outpost of a half-dozen European empires were put on alert. From Mitteleuropa to India to Papua New Guinea, territories became frontiers, and the world started on a way that would end with the the gas mask, the trench and the iron of tanks, in 5000 or 10,000 or 20,000 deaths a day — horrifying, pitiful deaths, known for days or weeks or months beforehand, by young men who had barely had lives.
The horror of it, when it became known in the post-war years, was enough to start a worldwide pacifist movement and a resistance to being marched to war that was then faced — as a bitter reversal of fortune — with the one incontestably, genuinely, radically evil movement of the century.
For a few decades, while World War I was in living memory, there was some separation between the two. It was easy to see that World War II was a conflict with a meaning attached to it, while its predecessor was one whose meaning, gift to the world, was to underscore the futility and ignobility of conflict.
It is impossible to recall from the 1970s and ’80s — the last years when WWI diggers were around in any numbers — anyone trotting out the official lines that had mobilised them in the first place. They had faded away into the sepia records of the time. It was only when they had all gone, the actual witnesses to the thing, that people felt once again free to sell World War I as some sort of meaningful and moral event.
That effort is partly driven by that punier conflict — the culture wars and the attempt to revive unthinking patriotism — but it has also been put in service of the Atlantic alliance and the idea that the United Kingdom and the United States somehow represent the soul of Western freedom and purpose. This has been particularly so since the Iraq War, when continental Europe by and large refused to be mobilised, and the UK and the US represented themselves as those that would wearily, once again, retrieve the laurels of peace, etc, etc.
By this argument, WWI was a struggle against a bestial and otiose enemy, Germany, which had for decades been let off the hook because propaganda against it over the invasion of Belgium had been taken as the perfect example of public manipulation. Now, we are told, stories of Germans bayoneting babies was less untrue than we had thought — and fitted in with notions of German supremacy and plans for world conquest. The new model of the war was that the Kaiser’s Germany was proto-Hitlerian in its bounding ambition and notions of racial destiny.
“Any fair reading of the period leading up to the war has to conclude that it is Britain that is a principal culprit in turning imperial rivalries into actual conflict.”
Much of this judgement is true; it is also irrevelant to the actual drift to war and its eventual ignition. Sections of the German government may have had plans in their drawer for world domination, but these had always been unreal fantasies. There was no real prospect of keeping France for any length of time, even had they won it; no prospect of expanding indefinitely eastwards against Russia; and Germany’s ability to colonise had been restricted by the British navy. The war was sparked in part by German defensiveness and a notion that it was being encircled by the Anglo-French-Russian alliance, whose combined industrial might and manpower far outreached that of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Indeed, any fair reading of the period leading up to the war has to conclude that it is Britain that is a principal culprit in turning imperial rivalries into actual conflict. It was Britain that, from the 1880s onwards, used its navy and its newly established colonies in an obvious attempt to control world trade and the expansion of other colonial empires. The British stymied much of Germany’s expansion in Africa, sabotaged business dealings between German commerce and the Ottoman Empire, and started the second Boer War largely over Germany’s financial involvement with the Boer republic.
The revisionist histories of the conflict ignore all of that — and that is their purpose. They serve the time-honoured role of presenting Western or US-UK activity as purely neutral in character, when its overwhelming strategy is encirclement. Thus, the Russia-Ukraine issue is a tiny replay of WWI. Our manifold attempts to encircle Russia with NATO are left out of the equation, and foreign policy heads speculate grimly on the Russian bear. Does it want the Middle East? Does it want Alaska? Is Putin a weird, psychotic cultist against whom we must mobilise?
Fortunately no one is quite crazy enough to mobilise anymore. But in 1914 they were. In trying to give the war a one-sided morality, the revisionists then ignore any moral question about what you do when the war you have started becomes a catastophe. That the German army behaved more brutally than the British is without question. But the British were allied with the Russians, and their march westward resulted in the the creation of a massive, rolling anti-Jewish pogrom that left thousands of civilians murdered and nearly a million refugees on the march.
Furthermore, and most importantly, to take a de-moralised view of WWI is to abandon any notion of humanity for the soldier, whether conscript or voluneteer — to see them as no more than khaki units to be numbered and spent. But this is to simply conform morality to military strategy. By 1915, it was clear that the Allied High Command had instituted a strategy of attrition on the western front. They’d done the sums and realised they could beat Germany in a game of mutual slaughter. And that is exactly what they practised year-on-year.
How is it that in all the discussion of the bloody century that followed, this does not join the tally of radical evil? It was a strategy drawn from imperialism — where native troops could be spent without compunction — and turned on the working class of one’s own country, seen as an indefinite supply of machine-gun fodder. Why are Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George not enrolled in those guilty of crimes against humanity on a vast scale? The moral course open to the British, when it was clear what the war had become, was a staged withdrawal. To say there was no real political chance of that happening does not absolve anyone from a choice that was there.
It’s a reckoning that never appears in the writings of the ergonomic chair generals who now re-fight it for a new generation — a fundamental forgetting of what the war was, an opportunist political game gone wrong, that became quite another order of events. The true meaning of it is the failure of anyone within high command to find a way to act out of humanity, rather than locked in an inherited servitude to nation. It is that unthinking, unreflective patriotism — for the West, for Christians, for Israel — that they are trying to revive now, ever turning and returning the guns of August, and marching as tourists over the mass graves of Passchendaele.