1960s >> 1964 >> no-720-august-1964

The Legacy of 1914-18

When the first world war was declared amid scenes of hysterical enthusiasm from crowds of workers on both sides, few thought that it would drag on for four dreadful years. Nor did many envisage the weapons that would be produced and developed in that period of carnage.

Much of what has been written recently has touched on these weapons, and criticism has centred on the failure of the high-ups to see their possibilities and exploit them to the full. A few months ago, The Sunday Times Magazine had this to say about air power, for instance: –

For much of the war pilots were more concerned about painted duels than with the destruction of men and material. The hero worship such individuals gained was great for the home front, but didn’t do a lot for the man in the mud . . . real ground strafing did not begin until Messines and Cambrai (1917). Only in the final weeks was the aeroplane fully used as a striking weapon!

Be that as it may, it is not our intention to join the largely futile arguments about who was right and who was wrong, who was far-sighted and who not. Perhaps from the viewpoint of some contemporary historians, the perfect war effort would be one which organised its resources up to the hilt and exploited every weapon to the limits of its potential. Thank goodness there is no such thing as perfection, for had it been achieved, the ghastly story of it all would have been that much ghastlier.

The great lesson is that the war-like nature of capitalism continues, whether or not hostilities are actually in progress. Once a weapon has arrived on the scene, it will be developed, refined and used until changes in the conduct and techniques of warfare make it out of date. Perhaps the brasshats will be slow to grasp when a particular weapon has had its day and there will be the usual controversy among the war councils.

Let us consider one or two examples. In 1916 the first tanks appeared on the western front, much to the annoyance of the cavalry men. The tank was an early sign that warfare was to become much more mobile.. It was the answer to the machine gun nests which had prevailed until then, although some of the Allied chiefs were slow to realise its possibilities. Who, then, would have foreseen the day over twenty years later, when tank warfare would grow to the extent that it did, and Panzer divisions overrun France in a few weeks? But even the tanks of early 1940 were as babies compared with the sixty-ton monsters which smashed their way through Germany from all directions only five years later.

When the first world war broke out, the aeroplane was in its infancy, but at the end it was being used more extensively, and a fleet of four-engined bombers was being prepared to raid Berlin. Here, perhaps, is one of the most apt examples of our point, for the inter-war years saw rapid changes in the design of fighting aircraft. The Spitfire and Hurricane, and their German opposite numbers, could fly at well over three hundred miles per hour, and by 1939 the day of the bomber had really dawned. It is as well to remember, incidentally, that only just before this, the Spanish civil war had provided a testing ground for some of the new ’planes. Even in the midst of “peace” we are in war.

The growth of air power during 1939- 45, and its use against soldier and civilian alike, had its roots in the events of twenty-odd years before. During the first war, the allies had produced incendiary and high explosive bombs which were dropped on enemy airfields with devastating effect. Practically the whole of Baron von Richthofen’s Flying Circus was destroyed on the ground in one such raid. German Zeppelins bombed London and other parts until around 1916. But if civilians found the Zeppelin raids terrifying, a glimpse into the future would certainly have widened their eyes still further in horror. For there they would have seen the firestorms of Rotterdam, Hamburg and Dresden, the flying bombs and rockets on London, and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The casualty lists of 1914 shocked many of those who had been so enthusiastic for a fight, and the relief when it was all over was matched only by a “never again” feeling. Post-war conferences of the big powers outlawed dumdum bullets and poison gas, and supply us with a fitting example of the futility of such a piecemeal approach to the problem of war. For even by then, developments had rendered these weapons obsolete and far more efficient means of killing were to be our lot. Yet it is one of the tragedies that this attitude has persisted until the present time. Even the anti-war movements of the inter war years never got down to an examination of causes.

They have been succeeded by that prime futility of the fifties—the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This body has canalised the fright which many understandably felt when Hiroshima and Nagasaki hit the head-lines, but like its predecessors, CND has based its policy on the false assumption that the way to abolish war is to begin by outlawing its worst weapons and then work backwards through the list. “There is no war but nuclear war” was the remark made by one of their young supporters to an S.P.G.B. speaker a few years ago, and it seems a fair summary of at least their earlier attitude.

Last summer saw the signing of the test ban treaty, and this went to their heads a bit, having the effect of diverting their attention somewhat to other sources of capitalism. The words of Bertrand Russell illustrate to some extent their current feelings. At the end of January this year, he said;
Owing to changes in government opinion, it seems more possible than it did to avert nuclear war . . . friends of peace should look for compromise solutions possibly acceptable to both sides. It should also be part of our work to expose punishments inflicted by governments which are unjustifiable and exacerbate international hostility. (Guardian, 29.1.64.)

It has been left to the SPGB to point out that the danger of war is just as great as ever and that the test ban treaty was only a sign of the changing balance of power between the major capitalist countries. It will be the same sort of story as long as capitalism is with us.

The horror of war weapons past, present and future, cannot be divorced from the social system which produces them. Let us correct the words of the young C.N.D.’er:–There is no war but a capitalist war.

Eddie Critchfield