Monday, January 17, 2011

Tragedy of the First World War

Book Cover
Have been watching the remarkable BBC series - The Great War, really great production. Very thought provoking about the forces that was motivating people at the time.

Arrogance. Everywhere in the First World War we see tremendous arrogance. On the outbreak of war there was almost a universal confidence that God was on their side and they would win. Germany expected the war to be over by Christmas. So did the allies. Even after millions of dead, and repeated failed attacks, generals on both sides remained of their ability to create one final push which would sweep the opposition into the sea. It was this arrogance, which led to so many repeated mistakes.

Enthusiasm for War. When war broke out, there was tremendous enthusiasm for war. People flocked to join their armies, worried only the war would be over before they got their chance. Some saw war in a different light but they were in a minority. After declaring War to the House of Commons, a colleague came up to congratulate the British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, but he replied - what is there to celebrate? I hate war. Woodrow Wilson feared too that when he took the US into war, there would be a great enthusiasm for war.

Repeating the Same Mistakes
. Nothing exemplifies the First world war better than the Battle of the Somme. Soldiers going over the top to be mown down by machine guns. This led to popular phrase 'lions led by donkeys' - often with reference to General Douglas Haig. Yet after the first wave, more and more waves were sent over the top, despite the impregnability of the defensive positions. Tactics did slowly evolve, but, there was an inflexibility on both sides.

Distorted View

As the war progressed, the experience of the soldiers actually fighting became very different to the perspective of the people back home. Back home, the public retained an enthusiastic and sanitised view of the war. When soldiers returned home, they found they couldn't share the reality of trench warfare because the non-fighting public didn't want to hear about how bad conditions were, they preferred to maintain the myth of a romantic war.

Kinship amidst the slaughter.

Despite the widespread scale of shooting, there was a surprising lack of animosity between the actual soldiers on opposing sides. In 1914, the spontaneous Christmas truce between the two sides was both unplanned, but also poignant in showing that individually the soliders could see the 'enemy' as a human being just like themselves. Certainly, there was great pain caused by seeing comrades die, but this wasn't usually directed at other soldiers. When prisoners were taken, generally they were reasonably well treated, at least by the front line troops.

War Profiteers

The one thing front line troops hated was the cafe philosophers and war profiteers back in the comfort of Paris or other city. Whilst French soldiers were facing the reality of war for five sous a day, people back home were very able about talking about the greatness of this war without taking part.

Fear of the Enemy Within.

War often brought the worst fears of people to the fore. In Britain, anti-German sentiment led to violence and retaliation against anyone with German roots (except the Royal family, who just changed their name to get rid of their German past). This fear of the enemy within was capitalised on with great fury in Turkey, where it was used as an opportunity to kill ethnic Armenians, an ethnic group which law in both Turkey and their now enemy, Russia.

It was the fear of the enemy within which led to tragic miscarriages of justice. For example, the dancer Mata Hari executed on flimsy charges of spying.

Lack of Tolerance. Despite the sense of slaughter, those who opposed the war in either camp were given little tolerance. Conscientious objectors were despised and intellectuals who expressed misgivings about the war were closely watched (Bertrand Russell) or forced to flee the UK, like D.H.Lawrence.


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