Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Legacy of the Great War

by Simon Lemieux

British troops, near Ypres, during the First World War
The commemorations for the centenary of the Great War are now well under way. We have already seen the inevitable sniping over the causes, involving some of our leading politicians: see the spat between Michael Gove and Tristan Hunt for starters, with a somewhat ill-informed Education Secretary coming off rather the worse. Still if he cannot come up with something more creative than blaming it on the Germans and challenging a proper historian (namely Hunt), what does he expect? But is there something more fertile when reflecting on the war than merely the hotly contested debate about who started it? Arguably, just as interesting is a discussion on what we have ‘lost and found’ both as a nation and as a global community as a result of this global conflict. What follow, therefore, are my own thoughts on this easily neglected aspect of the war. Some points are inevitably a little simplified and summarised for reasons of space, but hopefully the more astute readers will accept that.
T E Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia'), who played
a significant role in the fall of the Ottoman Empire
So where to start in our audit of gains and losses? First of all, consider the subject of empires and global superpowers. The war saw the destruction of three long-established Empires in Europe and the Near East: the Ottoman (Turkish), the Romanov (Russian) and the Habsburg (Austria Hungary) – all, arguably, were in terminal decline before 1914, but there is no doubt that the strains of sustained total warfare finished them off. In return, the world found new successor states created out of the rubble of these imperial entities. Examples of these artificial new creations included: Austria, Czechoslovakia and modern day Turkey. Also, restored to independence were states such as Poland and Lithuania, peoples with a proud history but victims of imperial expansion in the previous centuries. Europe also lost the Second Reich – Imperial Germany, created from the unification of 1871 and led by the Kaiser.
Arguably, too, this was when the sun really began to set on the British and French empires, the costs of warfare fundamentally undermining their ability to sustain their vast and unwieldy colonial collections. Great Britain saw the net sale of around £300 million of overseas investments. True, in the short term with the arrival of League mandates of ex-German colonies such as South West Africa (modern day Namibia) the British Empire had never been larger geographically. In reality, we lacked the resources and increasingly the will to keep the show on the road. World War Two would deliver the coup de grace but the rot set in after 1919.

Lenin and the October Revolution, 1917
But for losers, there were also winners.  The entry into the war in 1917 of the USA marked its arrival as a global rather than merely regional power. Yes, isolationism would characterise much of its foreign policy in the 20s and 30s, but the USA had done well financially out of the war supplying the allies with vital supplies and materials. Easily overlooked, perhaps (given the refusal of the Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or to join the League of Nations in 1920), is the role the USA played in aiding the anti-Bolshevik White forces in the Russian Civil War from 1918. The real origins of the Cold War can be found in the aftermath of the First, not Second, World War. The composition of the Whites (in truth, a motley collection of autocratic nationalists with few genuine liberals or democrats among their ranks) also serve to remind us that, not for the last time, the mother of all democracies was quite happy to support ‘offspring’ with dubious credentials other than being sworn enemies of America’s enemy (in this case, Lenin and the Bolsheviks).

Adolf Hitler, 1920s
If the world witnessed the collapse of the main European outposts of monarchical autocracy, it also found new and arguably even crueller tyrants. In Russia the seizure of power by the Far Left and in Weimar Germany the political instability in part engendered by the Far Right set the scene for twentieth century totalitarianism. The roots of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, with their self-proclaimed secular messiahs, lie in the debris of the Great War. A vengeful and embittered Germany would in due course find their saviour in an Austrian corporal for whom the experience of war provided a purpose and direction to his hitherto drifter lifestyle. In Russia, the creation of a communist one-party dictatorship under Lenin paved the way for Stalin to rise to power by the late 1920s. Under Lenin, the key ingredients of a communist secret police, merciless treatment of any opponents and bureaucratic party machinery were all established ready to be cynically manipulated in due course by the ex-trainee priest and bank robber from Georgia.
Part of this Bolshevik brutality was the execution of the entire Russian royal family in 1918. Yet on matters royal, in Great Britain we too lost and found a royal family. In an act of clever spin or desperate re-branding, the surname of the Royal Family was changed from the Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the reassuringly English surname of Windsor. During the war H. G. Wells wrote about Britain's "alien and uninspiring court", and George famously replied: "I may be uninspiring, but I'll be damned if I'm alien." With an Order in Council in July 1917, his wish was granted. Not to be left out, other German titles held by members of the Royal Family were also patriotically dropped for more British-sounding titles. Thus for example, Prince Adolphus of Teck became Marquess of Cambridge.

Remaining with the United Kingdom, the war also heralded ‘lost and found’ in domestic politics. On the losing side was the Liberal Party. Having suffered a damaging split in 1916 when one of its leading lights, David Lloyd George - then Munitions Minister - replaced the Liberal leader Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister but not as Liberal leader; the party never fully recovered. Lloyd George remained PM with Tory backing as head of the Coalition Government until 1922, when he, in turn, was ousted by the Conservatives. Incidentally, this was the last Coalition Government until 2010, as those in the 1930s and 1940s were technically National Governments. Like the empires of continental Europe, the British Liberal Party was not without its considerable problems prior to 1914, but the War, if nothing else, acted as the catalyst in its decline and fall. However, if the British electorate lost a party of the progressive centre, it gained a party of the constitutional left in the form of the Labour Party. Although founded back in 1900, it was only in 1918 that it emerged as a fully fledged and properly constituted political machine. It also adopted its long serving Clause IV and socialist commitment to nationalisation, only ever partly realised and then dropped (sorry, re-worked) by Blair’s New Labour project in 1994. Well, if a monarchy can re-brand itself, why not a political party …
Alongside the arrival of a new political force in Britain, came full democracy. In 1918, the one third of men who still could not vote and women over 30 at last found their political voice. It is rather a simplification to argue that votes for women was achieved due to their war work, and there is an argument that in fact it slightly delayed it, but overall the suspension of the militant suffragette campaign in 1914 and the need for comprehensive franchise reform in 1918 to allow men who had been away at the front fighting to vote, undoubtedly helped gain the vote for women.

But it would be unfair simply to focus on gains and losses in the area of politics and empires. The social and belief aspects also merit discussion. The scale and horror of so much of the trench-based fighting, the sheer scale of casualties all round, put paid in Britain, at least, to any residual notions of nobility and romanticism concerning war. The Dulce et Decorum est view of warfare based on notions of duty and service fuelled by imperial pride was an early victim of the War. For many it soon became a lie, replaced by a more bitter tone, often critical (rightly or wrongly) of social and military superiors. General Haig was probably wrongly lambasted by some as the butcher of the Somme; modern historians have been more sympathetic towards his methods and tactics, but nonetheless those who survived the war were less likely than their forebears to be deferential and accepting of the status quo. The golden age of a Downtown-Abbey-style social hierarchy was no more. The number of domestic servants plummeted; numerous country estates were split up and sold in the years immediately after 1918. They were victims often of either death duties or the death of male heirs on the battlefields of Flanders or the beaches of Gallipoli. Junior officers drawn frequently from the ranks of the younger landed classes had the highest casualty rate of pretty much any group serving in the British armed forces.

If the innocence of a generation about the brutal realities of warfare had been lost, we gained some evocative war poetry. The likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon came to epitomise for many the futility of war. Their experience of heavy casualties and of the sheer brutality and scale of modern warfare with its artillery shells, shrapnel and gas, all served to propagate a growing pacifist movement for much of the inter-war years. With works such as Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That, which appeared in 1929, and plays such as Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff (described by George Bernard Shaw as a "useful [corrective] to the romantic conception of war"), the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ was created. This approach was later followed through by musicals such as ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ and Alan Clark’s work actually entitled Lions Led By Donkeys. Perhaps it is no surprise that much of this second wave of academic and cultural output criticising the leadership of the Great War generals appeared in the 1960s, another period that saw much criticism of the political and social establishment and, of course, anti-war protests over Vietnam. So there is a case to be made for saying that the much of the modern-day pacifist and anti-war movement dates from the immediate post-war period, when organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union flourished and much (misplaced) faith was placed in the League of Nations movement.

Yet, while we might have found the pacifist and anti-war movement, we also saw the emergence of the ordinary soldier as a hero. Previous monuments to wars or battles focused very much on the leaders and generals; think of Nelson’s Column – where are the names of all the ordinary seamen who served on board HMS Victory alongside the great admiral? Or the Arc de Triumph in Paris, inscribed only with the names of Bonaparte’s generals? Following the Great War, commemoration of a soldier or sailor’s sacrifice in Britain, at least, became individualised and democratised. Visit any British war cemetery and generals and lowly privates (and even deserters) are all commemorated alike by a simple white stone headstone of uniform size and layout. Even the impromptu roadside shrine has its origins in the war, when such shrines became a feature of many East End streets when news of death reached a neighbourhood.  Flowers and written tributes would often be placed there as an act of solemn tribute.
Conventional religious faith was also affected and challenged by the experience of war. While faith brought comfort and a crutch to some, for others, the sheer scale of devastation and randomness of life and death encouraged a secularist fatalism. The socialist and Fabian F.H. Keeling, writing from the trenches in 1915, noted that, ‘the yarns … about the revival of religion at the Front is all rot…. I don’t think there is much to be said to be said for le bon Dieu after all this.’ The strident muscular Christianity of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Fight the Good Fight’ was in part replaced by a more reflective and activist style of Christianity. Many theologians would doubt the Just War theories which had helped provide some moral camouflage for entering the war in the first place. Wilfred Owen, in a letter to his mother in 1917, wrote "I am more and more a Christian. . . Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill." The Great War was for many who experienced it one long Good Friday.

So, there we have it. A lengthy if necessarily incomplete audit of gains and losses, with reference to the Great War.  Above all, what strikes one when looking at the bigger picture is just how widespread was the impact of the war: on empires and the political map of Europe and beyond, on the arts and culture, on belief systems and political ideology, and also (and most poignantly) on numerous individual families. Few if any wars so well illustrate Leon Trotsky’s famous maxim: ‘War, comrades, is a great locomotive of history.’ However, the context in which Trotsky used it when addressing the Comintern in 1922 was not directly referring to World War One. He was actually speculating about the consequences of a possible war between the USA and Japan. Yet, on the premise of that almost throwaway remark, a famous quote about war was coined. In the end, Trotsky is right about the impact of war and also about a war occurring between the USA and Japan. But he was wrong about its consequences and the fortunes of world revolution. Historians are best suited therefore to poring over the ‘lost and found’ of the past, than speculating about what might turn up next in the railway station lost property room!

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