Harry Patch and the First World Slaughter
“War is organised murder and nothing else”. “It was not worth it, it was not worth one let alone all the millions” (Harry Patch)
Two of the last known surviving combatants of the first World Slaughter died in July. Both were over a hundred-years old. The second of the two, Harry Patch, had some very enlightening views on the subject of the slaughter. Not surprisingly some sections of the media, not wanting to upset the military and other dealers in death, were not inclined to give some of his views the prominence which they deserved.
The “Great War” (great for whom? Undertakers? Arms salesmen?) was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Given that there has not been a single day since 11 November 1918 when there has not been some armed conflict going on, it can only be said to be a failure in this respect. This can hardy be a surprise to anyone with even the slightest grasp of socialist principles.
In 1914 many people were led by propaganda to think of themselves as belonging to the same “nation state” as their so-called “betters”. Kitchener’s famous poster of “Your Country Needs You!” is simply put down by the socialist maxim that the workers of the world have no country. Alas, countless thousands were intimidated, bullied, coerced or simply blindly led to the slaughter. Those who have chuckled at the antics of Rowan Atkinson as captain Blackadder might like to reflect that behind the humour there is more than a grain of truth in these episodes.
This article is not written to dwell on the horrors of trench warfare, the introduction of gas and tanks or the futility of the mass bloodshed to gain a few yards of Belgian mud. There are countless other articles doing this. Suffice it to say that even though the trenches were an insult to humanity most troops actually gained weight whilst in the army, not that army rations were so good, just food at home was so poor or non-existent. Others covered also the horrors of conscripts, many who had lied about their age to enlist and who should have been back at school, being shot at dawn for cowardice.
Harry Patch’s point was that the war was simply a family squabble which was not worth the shedding of one single drop of (working class) blood for. In that most of the (unelected) royal houses of Europe were related by marriage and blood, he was correct in this respect. Not without good reason were the Empress Maria Theresa and later Queen Victoria known as the Grandmothers of Europe, their children and grandchildren having married into Europe royal houses.
It may or may not be true that Victoria thought submarines were unsporting and ungentlemanly and shouldn’t be used or that her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm was being a naughty boy. It may also be true that the monarchy and their hangers-on had more influence then but the war was simply a continuation of business by other means.
Wars would not be fought unless the profits of some important section of business was under severe threat. The capitalist (ruling) classes are not daft enough to allow their workers to be killed without good reason. And, taking a lesson from the slave owners, they did not expect soldiers to fight well if their stomachs are empty. No access for business to markets, resources or investment outlets = no profits = war. That is the simple logic which condemned so many men and women to death. A fight with other workers who in most cases did not even have a common language, let alone a quarrel with them. Workers who on both sides would rather have been with their families or going about their everyday (peacetime) tasks. Almost 100 years later nothing has changed.
The profit motive shows its head even further. In the current events in Afghanistan troops have been killed because allegedly their equipment was not sturdy enough or up to scratch. Should we or they be surprised? Of course not. The ruling classes want to win their wars as quickly and cheaply as possible and if that means a few more casualties so be it. (Arms manufacturers of course want the war to be as long and expensive as possible).
Harry Patch’s bravery was a type that some might not recognise. His gunnery team made a pledge not to shoot at the “enemy” (with whom they had no personal quarrel or animosity) unless absolutely necessary and then only shoot at their legs to wound them and not kill them. (In subsequent wars weaponry has been designed not to kill but to cripple; wounded combatants coming home minus limbs is bad for moral – ask Thatcher why the wounded of the Falkland’s were not allowed to appear at the “victory” parade – and tending the wounded when they are back home “wastes” valuable resources which could be preparing to kill or maim more people).
Harry Patch described war as “organised murder”. I would go a stage further and call it “legalised organised murder”. When opponents of socialism cite objections to socialism by way of what would we do about murders and robbers, point out to them that capitalism by its very nature is a system based on legalised murder and legalised robbery.
Harry Patch may not have been a socialist but we should salute his courage and conviction in telling the truth, so embarrassing that may have been to the authorities.