Monday, November 18, 2013

Positive aspects of the First World War

Despite the undoubted tragedy of World War One, there were some more positive developments, such as leaving a legacy which sought to avoid future war. There were also glimpses that amidst the carnage and unnecessary slaughter, humanity can still retain a certain dignity and aspiration for higher ideals.

These are some of the positive aspects of the First World War

League of Nations

The First World War was a colossal failure of the pre-war 'balance of power' theory. Given the war, Woodrow Wilson envisaged that in the future conflicts could be settled through diplomacy and an international organisation devoted to global peace. The League of Nations came into being at the end of the war with the aim of preventing future war. Many consider it to be a failure because it didn't prevent the Second World War; it was also severely weakened by major countries, like the US, not joining. But, it was important from a symbolic point of view. It raised the ideal of international co-operation and was the forerunner of the United Nations.

Fourteen points of Woodrow Wilson

As well as the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson sought to promote a just peace, through his idealistic 14 points. This included the right of nations to self-determination and an end to Empire building. Wilson's idealism was severely curtailed by other allies, who were less forgiving and unwilling to give up their Empires. But, the ideal of self-determination has increasingly become an important idea throughout the Twentieth Century.

Greater acceptance of women

Before the war, the suffragette movement had largely failed to convince society that women should play an active role in society. The war gave an opportunity for women to take on previously men-only jobs. The war proved a significant factor in giving women the vote in 1919 and helped change social attitudes towards women forever.

Greater respect for workers

In the First World War, the industrial battle was as important as the actual fighting. Countries gave greater importance to the welfare of munitions workers, trade unions gained in acceptance. In the First World War ironically led to several gains for the poorest in society. When landlords pushed up rents, there was a popular backlash against the war profiteers. Lloyd George personally intervened and promised rents would be regulated by the government. The first rent control act was implemented in the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (War Restrictions) Act of 1915. It was supposed to be temporary, but in 1920, the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Interest (Restrictions) Act 1920 was passed.

Fraternising with the enemy

From a political perspective, countries became implacable enemies. But, to the soldiers in the trenches, they often saw the human kinship with their fellow soldiers. The Christmas truce of the First World War is tragically poignant in showing how the two sides could fraternise and seek a personal friendship, despite their military orders to kill others. The Christmas truce wasn't just an isolated incident. This respect for the individual soldier on the other side could sometimes be seen on many fronts. In Gallipoli, the allied troops came to respect the courage and honour of their Turkey counterpart.
"there was no bitterness at all. There's many a German who helped our wounded people down the communication trenches, even carried them down. There was no hatred between the forces. Although we were shooting at one another."
- Private Harold Startin, Forgotten Voices of the Somme' - Joshua Levine.
"You didn't hate them as individuals, no, no, you felt sorry for them."
- Corporal Wilfred Woods Forgotten voices of the Somme - Joshua Levine. Many soldiers on both sides developed an attitude of 'live and let live' - periods where they would try and avoid killing the soldiers a few hundred yards in other trenches. The Generals and politicians on both sides hated this 'live and let attitude' and the bitterness of future battles often ended these periods of calm. But, it was a reminder that even supposed enemies, can at times find a shared humanity.

Friendship of the war

Despite the unimaginable hardships and tragedies of the war, some soldiers say it gave them something they never had in peacetime. Soldiers say the horror of the war, created unique friendships between soldiers and officers thrown together. Soldiers say how in the front line, class divisions broke down; they were all in together. The bond between fellow man was a unique experience.

Unexpected Courage

Soldiers on both sides showed frequently showed the qualities of courage and steadfast loyalty to their cause. But, courage wasn't just in fighting, but also standing up for one's principles. For example, British nurse Edith Cavell, executed for 'spying' after helping Allied soldiers to escape Belgium.

Conscientious objection to war

Conscientious objectors on both sides were executed for refusing to fight. They were courageous in standing up for their principles. For example, Bertrand Russell was jailed for his opposition to the First World War.

A greater awareness of the horrors of war

At the outbreak of war, there was widespread enthusiasm on all sides. Men rushed to join the armies in an outbreak of patriotic fever. Both sides felt that 'God was on their side' and they would be victorious by Christmas. However, the stalemate and ongoing horrors of war led to many men to question why they were fighting. War poets, such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Vera Brittain left a strong anti-war literature which has influenced later generations. The massed cemeteries of Flanders stand as stark reminders of the tragic consequences of war.

By the end of the war, many soldiers had been awakened to the futility and horrors of war. These days, people have perhaps become more critical of any rush to war. When the UK and US took part in the invasion of Iraq, during 2003, millions of people protested against their own countries involvement. It is much more difficult for politicians to play the patriotism card and expect everyone to join in the war.

German militarism was defeated

Given the widespread scale of death and destruction, it is possible to forget why the First World War was fought in the first place. Britain went to war, with some reluctance. Liberals in the cabinet, like Lloyd George initially opposed Britain joining a European war, but the invasion of Belgium changed his mind and he felt Britain needed to fight to protect Belgian independence. If Germany had defeated Belgium and France, modern Europe would have been dominated by a militaristic German who would have treated conquered nations as vassal states.


Book Cover

Forgotten Voices of the Somme at