One hundred years ago today, the ‘war to end all wars’ ended. Of course, wars didn’t end on 11 November 1918, but the myth making had already begun – and continues to this day.
In the UK, the industrial slaughter of World War One is folded into the war against the Nazis in World War Two and all the other wars since then in a portrayal of British military action as always being about the defence of ‘our’ liberty and democracy.
Not much is said about the fact that the fight against ‘German militarism and expansionism’ in 1914-18 was fought by an army of working class men, many of whom were denied the right to vote by the British ruling class. A higher proportion of workers in Hohenzollern Germany had the vote than in Britain. And far from it being fought ‘in defence of small nations’ (plucky little Belgium, which had pluckily looted and murdered its way through the Belgian Congo), it was primarily about preventing Germany becoming a challenge to the British Empire. The fact that the British government was all too happy to ally itself with the ruthless autocracy of Russian Tsarism should have been evidence enough of that. In fact the clash of empires with the British, French and Russian on one side and the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman on the other would eventually result in the ending of the German, Russian and Habsburg monarchies, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British and French Empires (although they didn’t think this at the time) and the advent of the American Century.
Millions flocked to the colours in all countries, it is true, but many were driven by poverty as much as patriotism, and with the collapse of most Labour and socialist parties into recruiting sergeants for their respective national elites, it is hardly surprising that working class youth queued up to wear the khaki. And none of them could have foreseen the Dantean inferno they were rushing towards, many genuinely believing that ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. When it was clear that this wasn’t going to be the case, protests and strikes took place in many countries about the war – both in general opposition and on specific issues such as conscription, wages, conditions at work, and wartime restrictions.
The prevailing account is that after the early stages, especially on the western front, it became a deadly war of attrition which eventually exhausted the German army, stretched their supply lines too far and with the extra resources and troops provided by the USA after their entry into the war in 1917, forced them into seeking an armistice.
It’s rarely conceded that the two Russian revolutions of 1917 sent shock waves around the world and inspired the growth of greater opposition to the continuation of the war. The collapse of the Kaiser’s war machine and the German determination to end the war was not the result of planned decision by the German High Command – still less of the Kaiser. It was forced on them by the increasing radicalisation and anti-war mood of the German armed forces and the workers at home. The mutiny of the German fleet at Kiel, the formation of councils of sailors, soldiers and workers, and the spread of revolt to the cities and army units in the German revolution are what forced the hand of the German government to sue for peace. They feared a social revolution.
Little of this is reflected in the discussions around Remembrance Day in the UK, which still broadly follows the narrative established just after the end of the war, although at least then the horrors of the mass slaughter in which 16 million people died were so clear in the public mind that even the most gung-ho politicians were obliged to talk about the ‘war to end all wars’.
With such colossal losses, there is a human need to feel that these deaths were somehow of value, they were not pointless, there was purpose and achievement as a result. Glorious yes, but not just glorious.
There is the language of sacrifice as well as glory, as if most of these men willingly sacrificed their lives for the war aims of the British Empire.
Immediately after the war, the emphasis in remembrance was on ‘Never again’. Millions of veterans with first hand knowledge of the horror ensured that. While I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s there were still plenty of survivors to offer an alternative view of the ‘glory’ of war.
Today all are gone and there is an increased glorification of the military rather than a remembrance of those who died and a reflection on why. Like many of the worst things in present day Britain, Thatcher and Blair bear a heavy responsibility. It was while Thatcher was PM that Michael Foot’s appearance at the Cenotaph was criticised for ‘scruffiness’ and ‘disrespect’ (in a weird precursor to the attacks on Corbyn). Thatcher relentlessly used the military to shore up her own political position. Blair took Britain into an illegal war, engaged in various military acts of ‘liberal interventionism’ and attempted to wrap himself in the prestige of the armed forces. Like much of his politics, this cult of the military was borrowed from the United States and Blair and his acolytes ostentatiously grabbed the poppy as a symbol of their ‘mainstream’ legitimacy. In his desperation to prove that they were the friends of the military establishment (not the forces rank and file by the way), Gordon Brown created Veterans’ Day in 2006 (it became Armed Forces Day in 2009).
The increased military activity of the last two decades, the (until recently) unquestioning bipartisan worship of the military establishment by the political parties, the hysteria about the wearing of the red poppy has all contributed to changing the nature of remembrance itself.
It is right to remember all those – soldiers and civilians, in the UK and abroad – who have lost their lives or suffered mental or physical injury as a result of war and conflict. But it is not enough just to ‘remember’. We need a reflective remembrance about those who died, why they died, the lessons we can learn from their deaths so that they really were not in vain. That surely should be the purpose of Remembrance: never again.