First World War: my take
Disclaimer: I am not a historian; I have taught the literature of the First World War to post-16 students for many years, and the historical notes and reading suggestions are largely based on that work.
In many ways, this was a war that was waiting to happen. There had been almost a century of peace in Europe since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, with perhaps brief interruptions in the Crimean War 1854-56, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Boer War of 1899-1902.
Britain was allied with France and Russia, Germany was allied with Italy and Austria-Hungary. Italy changed sides in 1915, Russia made a separate peace with Germany early in 1918, after the Revolution. The king of England, the German Kaiser and the Russian tsar were all related to each other. The major European nations had been busy colonising and empire-building around the world, and Britain and Germany were engaged in a naval arms race. There was a good deal of new weaponry waiting to be tried out, including submarines, battleships and machine guns.
However, as there had been no large-scale warfare for such a long time, this meant that in some ways the commanders were not really prepared for what was to happen, and were out of practice.
Once the war began, the Germans moved quickly to invade France by way of Belgium, and, as invaders, had tactical advantages. They could choose where to dig in and establish defensive positions, leaving the British and French to react. And when trench warfare along a front stretching from the Channel ports to the Swiss border established itself fairly early on, the Germans by and large had the advantage of the higher ground, and building their defences first: this meant that their opponents had to develop their trench systems on lower ground and under enemy fire.
The full horror of trench warfare needs some thinking about: the only way to defeat the Germans involved capturing their trenches, which meant crossing no-man’s-land to get there. There was often only between fifty and a hundred metres of ground to cross, but obstacles were barbed wire and enemy gunfire, as well as the fact that troops were often weighed down by huge amounts of equipment, and often ordered to proceed at walking pace.
It was possible to bombard the enemy lines using artillery, in order to weaken his positions. But then, once the bombardment stopped, it was obvious to the enemy that troops were now about to try and make their way across no-man’s-land, so they got ready to fire their machine-guns at the advancing troops. A hundred metre sprint is one thing on level ground, but if we remember that the climate in Northern France and Belgium is fairly similar to ours, i.e. wet a lot of the time, then no-man’s-land rapidly became a swamp, uneven ground cratered by shells, littered with barbed wire and corpses. The enemy defences were often deep, and trench systems and dugouts offered a fair amount of protection during bombardment. It’s worth remembering that the British bombarded the German lines for a week before the start of the battle of the Somme in July 1916, and made little difference to the German defences.
The slaughter that was the Battle of the Somme is often seen as representing a turning point in people’s response to the war. There were 20,000 British troops killed, and 60,000 British casualties in all, on the first day of the battle alone, and very little ground was gained from the enemy. After this, it was almost impossible for anyone to sustain the jingoistic patriotism of earlier days, and weariness with the conflict gradually set in. More and more people, through their own personal experience, or that of family members, began to realise the horror of what was going on. We should not forget that everyone’s initial enthusiasm had expected it all to be over by Christmas 1914. By Christmas 1914, pretty nearly all the troops of the British Expeditionary Force, which had gone to war in August, had been killed.
It’s often been suggested that commanding officers were incompetent, that British troops were lions led by donkeys. Recently historians have challenged this over-simplistic idea. However, it is clear that those in high command often did not have, and could not have, an accurate picture of the current situation on the ground, and this led to disastrous decisions being made.
The war led to the development of new weapons, particularly poison gas and the tank. The aeroplane was drafted into service for reconnaissance and eventually bombing, too.
Many men, officers and enlisted men alike, were unable to cope with the horrors they experienced. The condition which was eventually labelled shell-shock (and is now called post-traumatic stress disorder) was not recognised and men were often shot for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy. Over 300 British soldiers were executed during the war, and it is only within that last ten years that they were reluctantly granted posthumous pardons by the government. Ordinary men were most likely to be court-martialled; officers had more of a chance of being treated in a ‘nerve hospital’, although the treatments were often barbaric.
The ending of the war came about largely through the exhaustion of all sides, and in many ways it was a case of which army fell apart first. The Russians had pulled out of the war after the revolution, and the German nation was exhausted after four years of war and gave up first, after their final offensive in March 1918 ran out of steam. The ‘victorious’ Allies then forced a disastrous peace settlement on Germany, the Treaty of Versailles, which was almost guaranteed to lead to further trouble; in may ways the Second World War came about as a result of the unfinished business from 1919, and led to even greater mass slaughter, perhaps underlining the point that war solves nothing. As Quakers, perhaps one of the more challenging questions for our peace testimony is what we would have done about stopping Hitler; my feeling has always been that it was very foolish to have created the conditions that allowed him to start in the first place… but then, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Casualties: history books usually reckon that about ten million fighting men from all countries were killed in the First World War. As far as I am aware, the youngest British combatant killed was just under 14 years old. It is even more sobering to realise that the nations of Europe were so physically debilitated by the war that they succumbed to the Spanish Flu pandemic that swept the world in 1918-1919, and killed another twenty million…by the end of the war, the height and physical fitness requirements for British conscripts had been reduced several times.
It was during the FWW that governments realised the importance of propaganda, controlling the news and censorship: the British Government passed the Defence of the Realm Act (still in force, incidentally) which gave it draconian powers. The number of reporters, photographers and cameramen, and where they could go, were severely restricted. However, news was much more easy to control, as there was no radio or television, cinema newsreels were still silent, and the technology for printing photographs in newspapers and magazines was still relatively primitive.
Because men were required at the front line, there were many opportunities for women, taking the jobs left unfilled in factories, offices, public transport, as well as making munitions. Although the suffragist movement antedates the FWW, women’s contribution to the war effort made it impossible for the government not to grant women the vote in 1918, and, ten years later, the vote on the same basis as men.
Initial enthusiasm led thousands to volunteer, and the British government did not need to introduce conscription until 1916. Many men were pressured by family and friends to sign up, and treated as cowards if they were reluctant. After conscription, there were many conscientious objectors, who were treated very severely, subjected to great pressure to make them changed their minds, forced into uniform and shipped across to France, often being court-martialled and sentenced to death when they refused to handle arms, and reprieved at the last minute. They were often sentenced to terms of hard labour as punishment.
War memorials are an interesting thing to consider: they are quietly everywhere: almost every small village has one, as do most churches. It is worth looking at the names on them: often there may be several names from the same family. I counted five with the same surname in a small French town. In villages, one may recognise the names of families that still live in the village. And there has been greatly increased interest in tracing one’s family history, including the fate of those who took part in the FWW. The war cemeteries in France and Belgium are intended to be maintained in perpetuity… I found it sobering, visiting the Menin Gate in Ypres, upon which are the names of about 54,000 British and Empire soldiers whose remains were never found (that is why their names are on the memorial, rather than on individual war graves in a war cemetery), that twenty-two such gates would be needed to list the names of all those British soldiers killed in that war.
Patriots and heroes?
It is almost impossible for us now, after two world wars , and the threat of nuclear war, to understand the atmosphere of patriotism that pervaded the nation at the start of the FWW, but the attitudes are clear in the poetry of the early days. Both sides invoked the Almighty in support of their cause. And both vilified the enemy, through atrocity propaganda.
We need to think about what we understand by heroism, and without denigrating the efforts of those who participated in the conflict and gave their lives. It’s perhaps easier to understand the classical idea of the hero – an Odysseus, an Aeneas – engaged in single combat with his enemy, face to face, each knowing that he must physically kill the other or suffer that fate himself. Where it becomes harder is when the killing takes place from a distance, through mechanised weaponry, where the combatants cannot see each other. And yet, individual acts of great courage, bravery and sacrifice still take place under those circumstances. However, it is even more chilling that the efforts of scientists are now directed towards the creation of drones and robots, with the ultimate aim of allowing war to continue whilst removing that obstacle to popular opinion and support, which is the death of one’s own men.