In 1918 they called it peace

There are very few people alive who experienced the First World War — the first swift moves of 1914, the settling down into the trenches from the Channel to the border of Switzerland, the mud and the policy of attrition which ground away millions of lives and then the great battles of 1918 and the Armistice, which came sixty years ago this month.

The war opened, on both sides, in a mood of high optimism. The author Henry Williamson, who himself survived much of the fighting, describes the last minutes of peace:

“That night I wandered with a cousin to the West End and we heard Big Ben strike the hour. The German Government had not replied. Wild cheers rose on every side.”

The troops marched away to cheers and brass bands, the recruiting stations were jammed with eager heroes, it was widely assumed that by Christmas another glorious victory would have been written into the history of British — or German — imperialism. This jingoism was subsequently fed by the official propaganda machines, at their traditional task of making the truth the first casualty in a war. The Germans alleged that any prisoners taken by the Belgians were liable to have their eyes gouged out (and then collected into convenient buckets for war correspondents to see); the Allies were definite that the brutal Prussians were severing children’s hands to prevent them growing up into a new generation of soldiers.

By 1918 the mood had changed, after the experiences of the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele and the like. The exuberance had given way to grim despair and a conviction that the war would, if not actually last forever, go on for a very long time with the trenches stuck there in the mud swallowing up one generation after another. There was little expectation that the end was so near; in August 1918 Churchill told Haig, the British Commander in Chief, that the “decisive period” of the war was to come in July 1919.

So when the Armistice came it was often greeted with a numb indifference. On the Western Front, exhausted soldiers simply slept through the rain which fell that day. One officer recorded the event in his diary, in less than heroic terms: “November 11 — Armistice with Germany commenced. Weather: Fairly heavy rain”. It was a strange ending to the battles of that year, which had introduced the direct military presence of American capitalism into the affairs of Europe and which had persuaded the German ruling class that they would do better to try to live to fight another day. Their army was allowed to return home in good order, a circumstance which subsequently fuelled the Nazis’ argument that the brave, honest German soldier had been stabbed in the back by the politicians.

It is impossible to compute anything like an accurate figure for the total losses of the war; one estimate says that 30 millions is too low for all the members of the forces and the civilians who lost their lives. Then there was the massive burden of the wounded — maimed, blinded, gassed or with nerves shattered by the shellfire. Many of these lingered for years, dying gradually over the days of disillusionment in the twenties and the thirties. And there were others, who were not killed or maimed but whose lives were distorted by the loss of someone they depended upon; the wife of a soldier who was killed got 5 shillings (25p.) a week plus ls.6d. (9p.) for each child, which was not far off starvation.

These were the people who, in 1918, were waiting for the promises of verbose politicians to be made good; they had suffered, as they had been told to, and now they were due to experience the better, safer world which their endurance was supposed to build.

Reality was something different. Demobilised servicemen came home to join the dole queue, the Means Test and the insulting rigours of the Not Genuinely Seeking Work Clause. They roamed the streets begging, or tried to live by selling laces in the gutter. They returned from the trenches to the slums — and many of them might hardly have noticed the difference.

“It is a pitiful thing to think of, but thousands of these brave men of ours have better homes in the trenches of Flanders than in the sunless alleys of our Motherland.” (Arthur Mee, Lloyd’s News, March 26, 1916).

The bewilderment and despair bore a predictable response. In England the workers turned from Conservative to Labour and back again; there was a questioning of the political system and of the value of parliamentary democracy which on the Continent helped the dictatorships into power. And in 1939, as a fitting climax to Europe’s new Dark Age, the struggle between German capitalism and the rest was resumed.

There are many questions being asked, now, about the First World War but few go to the roots of the matter. Much of the criticism of 1914/18 is laid at the door of stuffy, incompetent generals, who were more worried about the shine on their boots than about the sufferings of the men in the trenches. Or the war is treated as a massive historical accident, which might easily have been avoided by more skilful statesmanship.

These theories are inconsistent with one vital fact. August 1914 was the climax of a long period of the build up of their respective forces by the great powers of European capitalism. The military build up was itself a by-product of the challenge which German capitalism was making to the established dominance of the French and the British.

Socialist Opposition
That dominance was based on the industrial development and the imperial expansion of Britain and France during the 19th. century. German capitalism came comparatively late on the scene and as its industrial power increased it too began to look for expansion. The clash with the powers already in command was unavoidable.

Their victory in 1871 had given the Germans access to the ore of Lorraine; their production of iron and steel quickly outstripped that of Britain. Their mercantile fleet expanded and their ambition to become a new colonial power, with all that that meant in terms of markets and access to sources of raw materials, had to follow. Germany acquired the beginnings of an empire in Africa and, in the Agadir incident in 1911, showed its desire to get a foothold in North Africa. The plan to build a rail link between Berlin and Baghdad opened a way into India and, perhaps, then the Far East.

It was to support these economic ambitions that Germany built up her armed forces. The German Navy threatened to match that of Britain — something the British capitalist class could not accept without contest. Their army became a highly professional force, dedicated to the most efficient and ruthless prosecution of war — which the French ruling class could not accept. In the Schlieffen Plan the Germans laid down their design for the conquest of Western Europe and when it all began it became virtually impossible to turn it back in its tracks .

That war, then, did not appear suddenly out of the mists; it was the predictable outcome of a typical clash of interests in the perpetually feuding world of capitalism. What of those who saw this, who saw that workers were being pressed to fight for their masters’ interests and who stood out against the bully boy patriots who thirsted after the blood of their fellow workers?

From the outset the Socialist Party of Great Britain made our opposition plain:

“. . . no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood . . . Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.”

Opposition to the war was a hazardous stand to take. Objectors, of whatever persuasion, were often given a very rough time:

“The Daily Mail wants the names of every known pacifist or active friend of Germany in your city, town or village . . .” (Daily Mail, October 25 1917).

There were many examples of the brutal treatment of conscientious objectors, callously justified by Kitchener as “horseplay amongst soldiers”. This excuse illustrated one especially nasty feature of the system of dealing with objectors; all too easily they could be “deemed to have enlisted”, which meant that they were officially regarded as being in the army and subject to military law and discipline, whether they wanted to be or not. Thus if they were shipped to France and continued to disobey orders to put on a uniform they could be — and in many cases were — sentenced to death.

In no case were these sentences carried out, although some not uninfluential voices thought they should have been. In the case of political objectors there was an especial disdain. Colonel Wyndham Childs, who as Director of Personal Services — the ‘discipline branch’ of the War Office — was responsible for the treatment of conscientious objectors who, because they were “deemed to have enlisted” were officially in the army, recommended in April 1918:

“That it should immediately be made known that conscientious objectors who disobey a lawful command . . . will be tried by General Court Martial and, if sentenced to death by that court, the sentence will be carried out if it appears that their objection is based on political and not religious grounds . . .”

For the Socialist Party, propaganda was a difficult, almost impossible, business. Our meetings were broken up, our headquarters raided by the police and our members who were eligible for conscription were either imprisoned or forced to go on the run. Wherever they were — Dartmoor, Wormwood Scrubs or living rough — they continued to put the case against the war which was slaughtering their fellow workers in the cause of their masters and for the society of socialism. When the last shots were fired in 1918, we could look back on our defiant statement of August 1914 as a pledge to our class which we had kept through four desperate years.

In 1918 they called it peace but such has been the history of the world since then that there is hardly any need, now, to draw attention to the cynicism of that claim. The sixty years since 1918 have been of practically unbroken war, somewhere in capitalism, because this social system cannot exist as a harmonious, co-operative human experience. Capitalism is essentially divisive and conflict is basic to its nature.

These facts will not be in the minds of the people who stand at the cenotaphs this November, nor will they be heard in the sermons which are mouthed there. The poppies and the wreaths and the parades will be marking the end of one of capitalism’s bloodiest episodes — one tragic futility celebrated by another.


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