Fifty years too late
It has taken the world a long time to get back its breath after the shock of the First World War. Now it is time for a reassessment. Not surprisingly, this is proving to be a painful business.
The war is under severe criticism: the defenders of that episode in human history are finding it difficult to hold their lines and in many cases are in full retreat. Books, articles, photographs—even a West End musical have been devoted to a merciless exposure of the war. The generals are now regarded as cold blooded fools, the politicians as impotent puppets. Only the Poor Bloody Infantryman comes out of it well, slogging up to the Front, grovelling in the slime, resignedly going over the top whenever he was ordered to.
A new generation of exceedingly articulate historians have analysed the war. Alan Clark has written bitterly on the “experiments” of 1915, Brian Gardner has exposed the 1916 Battle of the Somme, Leon Wolff that of Passehendaele in1917. Alan Moorehead has told the story of the massive blunder of Galllipoli. And so on. These writings have taken full profit of the historian’s natural advantage of hindsight—the advantage which men like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, who had actual experience of the war, did not have. Although they eventually came to doubt the motives of the war, Sassoon and Graves were at first aware only of the confusion of it all. They could not know of the more horrible mistakes, of the conceited indifference of the generals. Theirs were snap judgments, put down in white heat.
It is different now. Almost everyone seems to agree that the war was a mistake just like an accountant adding up his books wrong or a mechanic leaving a nut loose. Good—but only as far as it goes. It was, after all, a “mistake” which cost ten million lives. At the time, the war was generally accepted as a good idea. And it is a “mistake” which the world can make again, at any time, because the elements for it are still there.
The condemnation of the Great War fits in with the ever popular theory about the Bad Old Days. But this does not alter the fact that the case against the war, on all scores, is overwhelming. It is pitifully easy to show up the leaders for what they were; Robert Blake, in his edition of the private papers of Sir Douglas Haig, avoids criticising the British commander but in truth Haig’s own words are enough. Many of the generals were hopelessly wrong in their estimations of military prospects which was, after all, their job. Haig, at the beginning of the war, considered the machine gun a much overrated weapon and thought that it would be impossible to use gas.
Sir John French, who was at the time the commander of the British troops, sited his headquarters for the disastrous battle of Loos at a place which had no telephone communication with Haig, whose First Army was to fight the battle. The French General Nivelle sent his men to attack on the Aisne in 1917 although he knew that his plans had fallen into German hands. The French soldiers were massacred: 180,000 of them were lost. Yet General Sir Henry Wilson, who was supposed to be the contact man between the British and the French forces, wrote to Haig, “I don’t think, luckily, that the French losses are very heavy.”
Wilson was only one of the generals who did not seem to know what was happening to the men under their command. However badly his armies were mauled, Haig never lost his confidence. The day before twenty thousand British soldiers were killed on the Somme he wrote: “The weather report is favourable for tomorrow. With God’s help. I feel hopeful.” The battle of Arras, in April, 1917, cost 160,000 casualties for an advance of seven thousand yards. Haig’s estimate of the losses was sixteen thousand—one-tenth of the actual total—and, of course, he had planned for a much greater advance. In March, 1918, just before the German armies smashed through his lines, he told his Army commanders that he was “ . . . only afraid that the enemy would find our front so very strong that he will hesitate to commit his army to the attack with the almost certainty of losing very heavily.”
Haig’s Chief of Staff. Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, did not visit the Passchendaele battlefield until the fighting was all over. When he did go there he was appalled by the impossible conditions in which the soldiers had fought. He broke down and went: “’Good God. did we really send men to fight in that?”
Perhaps the leaders suffered from a lack of imagination. Most of the generals were firm Westerners: they believed that the only proper place for the war to be fought was in France and Flanders, and they scorned any suggestions of bypassing movements like Gallipoli. Most of these officers started the war as ardent cavalrymen, dreaming of sleek horses prancing across the battlefields under vivid lance pennants. The mud strangled those romantic visions, as surely as it popularised the opposite theory of attrition.
In its baldest terms, this theory was that a general committed his troops to a battle which had virtually no chance of significant success — no chance of bursting through the opposing trenches into the open country beyond. The most that such attacks could achieve was a slogging, bloody advance of a few miles. At the end of the battle the general got his Staff to add up his casualties and those of the other side. If his were less than theirs (and Haig’s Staff usually took good care that that was how the figures came out) he had won. Simple. Even for the millions who were attrited.
The result of this theory was that the soldiers were continually being asked to do the impossible and were being blamed as cowards and slackers when they faded to overcome the combined obstacles of trench ailments, shellfire, bottomless mud, barbed wire and machine guns. On July 1st, 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the Corps under Haig’s command the Eighth lost thirteen thousand men. Haig’s comment on this day’s work; was that he was “. . . inclined to believe . . . that few of the 8th Corps left their trenches.”
It is fashionable now for the critics to point a horrified finger at the attrition policy. There is no doubt that the commanders did not seem able to think up any other way of getting their men killed yet the policy had succeeded convincingly in the American Civil War. Were the general really to blame for apparently applying what was then up to date military theory?
Attrition is, in fact, one of war’s logical conclusions. The theory sounds too callous to be true but has anyone ever heard of a humane war? Did ever a general plan a battle in which nobody was going to get killed? It was not the commanders, but those people who supported the war and the social conditions which nurture war, yet who objected to the long casualty lists, who were illogical. And in those people we can include most of the young historians who are now so bitterly critical of the war’s conduct.
What, after all. did the world expect? About a year before he was killed, Wilfred Owen composed a moving sonnet which opened with the words: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? ” By the time he wrote that Owen, and many others, were in despair at the endless slaughter. Yet when the war broke out the working class, hysterically patriotic, were not expecting to die like cattle: they looked forward only to swift, glorious victory and a hero’s return.
This was true of both sides. The cheering crowds in London were matched by those in Berlin. This was how Walter Limmer, a law student from Leipzig, who died of wounds in September, 1914, described his regiment’s departure for the Front:
Our march to the station was a gripping and uplifting experience! . . . Such enthusiasm! — the whole battalion with helmets and tunics decked with flowers — handkerchiefs waving untiringly and cheers on every side. .
It is a bitter fact that the workers eagerly took in the propaganda which was fed to them. The British government were surprised by the response to their appeal for volunteers, which kept up until the losses in the battles of attrition brought conscription on to the scene.
Not all the “volunteers” joined up entirely of their own free will: many of them were subject to varying types and degrees of force. There was the moral force of the girls with the white feathers. There was the sort of persuasion which Siegfried Sassoon mentions in his poem Memorial Tablet: “Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight (Under Lord Derby’s Scheme).” And there was the direct economic pressure from the firms who suddenly declared that they would no longer take on any fit men of military age. (The London County Council, when their tramway men went on strike in 1915, said that they would not take back any strikers who were eligible for military service.)
But even taking all this into account, there can be no question about the workers’ support of the war and of their eagerness to get into uniform. Whatever they saw and experienced at the Front, they kept coming back for more. They never gave up. The French, it is true, were mutinous for a time after Nivelle’s catastrophic offensive in 1917. But they were soon settled and the war ground on. The Germans, of course, suffered terribly but there was still enough fight left in them in 1918 for their great attack in March of that year. All that happened was that the mud got deeper and bloodier and more repulsive as the corpses rotted down into it. Visions of glory gave way to blank despair: most people thought the war would never end.
Yet even that did not shake the basic support for the war. It is all very well for confident journalists now to expose the terrible blunders that were made. At the time such exposure would have been generally regarded as acts of gross, unpatriotic indecency. So the journalists held their tongues. In his life of Lloyd George, Tempestuous Journey, Frank Owen tells of the Prime Minister crying:
If people really knew, the war would he stopped tomorrow, but of course they don’t — and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. The thing is horrible, and beyond human nature to bear, and I feel I can’t go on any longer with the bloody business.
Those words sound very heartfelt and sincere but they need not be taken too seriously. It was, after all, Lloyd George’s government who did their best to suppress anyone who tried to tell the truth about the war, even if in this they played up to the mob ignorance of hooligan patriots.
Those were dark days for the world, with only a gallant few holding out. In .September, 1914, the Socialist Party of Great Britain immediately made its opposition to the war plain: ” . . . no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood . . .” From that moment we kept up a barrage of opposition. Our speakers were physically attacked and we were forced to discontinue our meetings. Said the Socialist Standard of December, 1914:
Owing to various circumstances, including the peculiarly British sense of fair play of our opponents, the Party’s Lecture list is considerably curtailed this month.
The next issue advertised no meetings at all, only a defiant attack on
. . . the rampant jingo hooligans of the streets, and . . . the “patriotic” fury of certain parasites “dressed in a little brief authority ”.
Our headquarters were raided by the police and almost every issue of the Socialist Standard carried matter which, under the Wartime Regulations, was illegal. Our “crime” was that we were saying then what most people, in part, are thinking now. Here, for example, is an extract from the issue of May, 1915 before the big battles had given second thoughts to some of those who had once been so enthusiastic about the godlike omnipotence of their leaders:
The men in the trenches are being butchered. It is necessary to hide from them certain contributing factors. It is necessary to hide from them the fact that military experts, whose business it was to understand war, failed utterly to grasp the power, scope and requirements of the awful instruments of slaughter placed in their hands.
The members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain were not thanked, during those terrible years, for their stand. But they did not want to be; for them, the facts were enough. Time has shown how correct they were. The Europe which was spawned by the 1919 Conference was ready to father the Second World War. Until recently the conduct of the last war was thought to be above the sort of criticisms which have been levelled at 1914/18. But now, as time allows a better perspective and as the facts come out, opinions are changing. The raid on Dresden has become notorious as an example of shameless mass murder, as are the two atomised Japanese cities. The Dieppe landing has been exposed as a pointless flourish, partly undertaken to occupy troops who were bored with camp life in England. Perhaps the long bomber offensive will one day be seen as the Passchendaele of 1939/45 a drawn out campaign of attrition, in which hundreds of thousands were killed on both sides, with little real effect on the course of the war. The late Lord Alanbrooke has put on record the doubts about Churchill’s infallibility. And there are now the same hungry questions over the war’s conclusions —over the division of Germany and of Berlin, for example as there were about the conditions imposed in 1919 at Versailles.
Perhaps in 1989 there will be smug journalists to point out the mistakes of the Second World War. But can we afford always to wait fifty years to agree that war is an obscene waste of human lives and resources? Capitalism, with its inevitable competition of economic interests, causes modern war. From that flows all the rest the ghastly weapons, the shattered lives, the terror, the confusion, the mistakes. To bemoan the natural results of war without attacking the cause of it is to start at the wrong end of the problem.
The Great War happened a long time ago and it is safe, now, for the truth to filter out. The blinds can be lifted, now that there are only a few people to remember it all—a few old men who still wheeze from the gas, a few white haired women with an aching grief for someone who went out and was left in the mud. Nothing now can bring back the dead, nor put together the splintered limbs, nor erase the intolerable anguish of those four years. The strenuous apologists of capitalism are congratulating themselves on having just woken up to the fact that the First World War was a stupid, pointless bloodbath.
But they are too late.
Fifty years, and ten million lives, and an untold burden of human suffering, too late.