World War One – lest we forget
The German invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg in 1914 was of military benefit but a political gamble. It enabled the German armies to flood into France by avoiding the main border defences and it allowed Belgian coal mines and factories to fall into German hands. The political gamble was whether or not this move would bring Britain into the war on the side of France.
For the previous century Britain had remained neutral in European conflicts, preferring to use diplomacy to maintain its top position in the balance of power by setting its capitalist rivals against each other. The British capitalist ruling class had supported Prussian aggression and a united Germany in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and had applauded the formation of a German Empire. However, during the last quarter of the 19th century British capitalists began to realise that Germany was now rapidly replacing the traditional French enemy as their major commercial rival.
The unbridled European scramble for African colonies saw Germany savagely acquire four large areas of that continent. This new swift-growing capitalist society was in desperate need of sources of raw material, markets for their manufactured goods and regions for capital investment and possible emigration. When tremendous mineral wealth was discovered in the independent territory of Transvaal, the anti-British Dutch settlers (Boers) favoured allowing Germany to access these riches. This prompted the voracious British capitalists to embark upon a vicious and ruthless military policy of consolidation in Africa. By destroying, disarming and dispossessing war-like tribes (including the well-organised and disciplined military Zulu nation in 1879), they were then able to concentrate upon annexing the Boer territories of Orange Free State and Transvaal.
The first armed conflict between British and Boer (who were well-armed with German weapons) in 1881 resulted in a British disaster but led later to a far more determined action in 1899-1902 (known as the Boer War, during which 26,000 civilian Boer women and children died in British concentration camps. The eventual British victory assured British capitalists an additional bonanza in wealth and completely foiled the plans of their devastated German rivals. Having staked everything on an industrial society, German capitalists were left in a desperate situation of having no access to the raw materials that were so essential.
The German ruling class now turned their thoughts to the limitless riches that surrounded them in Europe. By expanding their control in all directions Germany could obtain all the resources her industries would ever need and would rocket Germany easily to top spot in the world capitalist league. Plans were made accordingly.
British capitalists were also anxiously aware of the possibility of Germany gaining access to Europe’s riches and with the invasion of Belgium in 1914 the great fear was that such a state, with a powerful fleet controlling the Channel ports, could seriously challenge Britain’s command of the seas. British capitalism could not allow this to happen.
So Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and had troops in France alongside her allies just in time to face an almighty military onslaught. A massive German army of 1½ million men stormed through Belgium with the objective of reaching and occupying Paris and the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. On the left of the line the British halted the German advance at Ypres where heavy fighting continued through to November. This was the first Battle of Ypres.
In the centre of the line the allies were driven back to the outskirts of Paris where, in September, the Germans were halted at the Marne river. Counter-attacks by the allies pushed the Germans back to the Aisne river by the end of 1914. The front line then stabilised and for 3½ years trenches and massed artillery transformed the war into a virtual interminable siege, extending from Switzerland to the sea.
All along this “Western Front” the names of obscure towns and villages became immortalised as grim reminders of the obscene indifference that exists towards the expendability and suffering of workers in our social system, known as “capitalism”. Young men were shot, bayoneted, gassed, blown to pieces or drowned in water-filled shell craters in their tens of thousands – human sacrifices to the God of Profit and Commercial Greed.
The fighting in capturing, losing and re-capturing a few yards of territory under the most horrific conditions and the great expenditure in effort and explosives plus the unacceptable casualties and loss of life, all became quite acceptable. The only significant movement, which swayed back and forth, was in the centre of the line between Loos and Verdun known as the “Somme Battles”.
Fighting was continuous all along the Western Front but ferocious major battles were unleashed at strategic points. On 22 April 1915 a heavy bombardment signalled another attempted “breakthrough” by the Germans in the second battle of Ypres. Civilians streamed out of the town and headed south. During the afternoon the Germans launched a poisonous gas attack, the first time such a weapon was ever used in warfare. Sixty-thousand allied troops died in this extended battle during which the Germans advanced two miles. This portion of the front was then pounded by artillery shells almost unceasingly for the next two years. The region was reclaimed marshland which was used as pasture. Farmers had been required by law to maintain drainage ditches which, of course, were quickly wrecked. Rains added to the already soggy terrain which eventually became a landscape of foul-smelling mud, peppered with water-filled shell craters. In time this treacherous morass would suck in and engulf men, horses, guns and later even tanks. Every new shell explosion would throw up rotted corpses which would slowly sink from view again.
In the Spring of 1916 the Germans launched a massive attack against the French at Verdun. For four months the battle raged and troops on both sides were massacred. The line held, but to relieve the exhausted defenders the allies mounted an equally massive offensive against the Germans on the Somme (1 July 1916). This first battle of the Somme was aimed at pushing the Germans back on a wide front. A seven-day artillery bombardment was followed by a “creeping barrage”, infantry advancing behind a screen of slowly progressing shell explosions. Constant pressure was applied to the German positions, British tanks appeared for the first time in September 1916. the few tanks became ineffective when this area of irrigation and river systems also turned into a quagmire. Conditions worsened during the winter but the “push” was resumed in the Spring of 1917. Progress was slow and at a huge cost in lives – 600,000 allies were lost for again of about 20 miles.
In April 1917 a British offensive captured some high ground overlooking Ypres, the notorious Vimy Ridge. The same month had the USA declare war on Germany but it would be a year before trained American troops arrived in France.
Life in the trenches after a battle has been described:
“By day, the only signs of life in the ‘moonscape’ of no-man’s land was the hoarse and parched voices of the badly wounded pleading for help which would never arrive and the hawks and carrion crows alighting to gorge upon the many corpses. At dusk hordes of rats, seemingly in their billions, materialised to indulge in feasting upon the dead and the dying who were too weak to fend them off. Bodies were reduced to khaki-clad skeletons within hours.”
On 7 June 1917 the British eliminated another German position that overlooked Ypres. Nineteen mines were exploded in tunnels burrowed beneath the Messines Ridge. This was followed by an artillery barrage from 2,266 guns and howitzers and an infantry attack by 80,000 men. The rim of land was captured at a cost of 1,700 allies lives. This was merely a prelude to the third battle of Ypres, described even today as one of the most squalid bouts of butchery in the history of warfare – now more generally known as “Passchendaele”.
On 31 July 1917 4,000 allied guns pounded German lines for ten days. Four-and-a-half million shell reduced the villages to rubble and then turned the rubble to dust. For four months, mostly in heavy rain and waterlogged conditions, this mindless slaughter continued unabated. In October the Germans unleashed another new weapon for the first time, mustard gas which caused blindness and burns. On 4 November the Canadians captured a mass of shell holes that had once been Passchendaele. The allied line had advanced five miles for the loss of nearly 400,000 allies and at least 200,000. Six months later the Germans had recaptured all the ground the allies had gained since 1914.
On the night of 21 March 1918 the Germans hurled themselves at the British in the centre of the allied line in the second battle of the Somme. For a week the British were forced back but eventually halted the German advance at Amiens. The Germans then launched massive attacks against the French to the right which drove the line back once more to the Marne, where another stubborn resistance held the ferocious German attack.
War-weariness and exhaustion was affecting both sides by this time. The original British regular army had been destroyed in the first few months of the war. Kitchener’s volunteer army, comprising those who had so enthusiastically flocked to the recruiting offices in 1914-1915, had been destroyed at the Somme. The British were now scraping the bottom of the barrel to replace the horrific losses. The very young, the old and the unfit were all being dragged in. When fresh American troops joined the final allied offensive which opened on 18 July, the Germans wilted and were rolled back until the final victory on 11 November.
Left behind, marking the position of the Western Front, was a scene of utter destruction. Every landmark had been wiped out and was unrecognisable. But nature healed the man-made wounds of the landscape. Shattered tree stumps threw out leaves and the ground became covered in poppies – a plant that thrives naturally wherever soil is badly disturbed – which became an emblem and trademark for a new “Remembrance” industry. Towns and villages were painstakingly rebuilt and today only the pages of history and the many man-made memorials make the visitor aware of the insane carnage that was acted out in these areas.
Accurate numbers of losses on the Western Front are unknown but, even today, bones and skulls are unearthed by ploughs and ditching machines. Many memorials list names of those “lost without trace”, 55,000 engraved at the Menin Gate, 34,000 at another memorial nearby and so on. These are just the names of British and empire troops and do not include French, Belgian or German losses. Acres of war graves litter France in which those whose remains were found are laid to rest.
Today, in this year of 2002, the land on which these war graves exist has become valuable and the French government have made it known that they intend allowing these grave sites to be used for capitalist development. The thought of bulldozers and construction activity operating upon these plots is abhorrent to many workers who see this as a lack of respect, gratitude, reverence and esteem, etc for those who died for “freedom”. The harsh question should be asked: What respect, gratitude, reverence or esteem did these reluctant and unsuspecting heroes ever have when they lived? A basic understanding of capitalism would indicate that the only freedom workers ever fight for in wars is the freedom for their national, capitalists to do exactly as they wish to make a profit.