Reflections on the First World War
by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
The returns on almost every experience are diminishing ones. Our emotions are, of their essence, fleeting.
This is true of places and things. You can never look at a painting and experience the same emotion as the first time, and listening to the same symphony every day for a year would be as great a bore as listening to white noise for the same period. Those of us old enough to have passed through that phase of life where you start returning to the places you remembered as being particularly moving in your salad days are well aware of this – the impact a place has is not intrinsic; it also says something about the mental and moral development of the visitor at that stage of their life. Our perceptions, even of the eternal, are transient things.
The Western Front cemeteries are the one place that I find this doesn’t hold true. Every time I am in this part of the world I am deeply moved by the bravery, devotion and staunchness of those men who gave their lives for their country and the enduring freedom of her children. I have found this emotion, a mixture of pride, sadness, humility, awe and, in some sense, horror has held fast over the decades – at French grave sides and at those of the British, Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders and Australians.
There is something so deeply atavistic about these spots, something of the sea on a dark night, a sense that something of your very being derived from here. Nothing in the British character, her recent history or the history of all Europe makes sense without an understanding of the hell of the Western Front. It was the crucible in which modern Britain – her nihilism and her retreat from public moral values, as much as her tolerance and her half-baked socialism – was formed, and by extension the modern British, too. I know of no other place in the world so affecting, and of no effect so enduring as that which can be found there.
It is one of the commonplaces of war commentary to note that in 1914 the carnage that was to follow was unforeseen, than everyone confidently expected to be home by Christmas, that all the participants from Juncker to Jellicoe anticipated a repeat of the War of 1870 where one side crushed the other and then retreated immediately behind more or less the same lines (excepting Alsace-Lorraine). I think, in retrospect, this can’t have been entirely true. All the colonial events in international relations between those years, not least the scramble for Africa (or, for that matter, the scramble for obscure archipelagos in the Pacific) in which Europe went half mad over empty, uneconomic scrubland in the interior, indicated not that Europe was settled or had become more less important, but rather the opposite, that on some level each of the Great Powers was dimly aware that the stakes were now so high, the weaponry so advanced, the risks so great, that a million hectares of African savannah was to them worth less than an inch of the coal-producing hinterland buffering France and Germany. In truth Sir Edward Grey’s remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” is probably closer to the true feeling at the time.
The common view of trench life is also one which probably doesn’t hold – the sick and the scared and the bored waiting stoically for a death they were already disillusioned with, lions led by donkeys, the futility of war. These impressions draw largely from the minds of the war poets, but it is worth remembering that the war poets represented an extremely small segment of British society – public school educated, wealthy, engaged largely in either sedentary activities or leisure, holding the fashionable opinions of liberal Edwardian society (the same opinions which can be found today in this line of person). These were not people who had not been forced to confront the hard, dirty, painful realities of working-class life before, and the grimness of manual labour appalled them.
The Allied troops were emphatically not engaged in a futile exercise. As in 1939, the German Empire was headed by a hysterical madman; it was engaged in the conquest of liberal democracies, which it would have maltreated horribly had it succeeded; it stood for all that was reactionary, stupid and evil in the continent – liberal civilisation of the type we now know would not have survived German success any more in 1918 than it would have in 1945.
It was the entire course of German history, as AJP Taylor wrote, which brought her to the battlefields in the two world wars. It was that jealousy of Roman Europe, that hatred of Slavic Europe, the experience of being hemmed in, the willingness of a nation that had boasted at times the world’s greatest philosophers, musicians and artists to place itself in the hands of its most brutal, stupid citizens in the service of Prussian militarism that caused Germany to go to war, and in saving Europe, the Allies also saved Germany from herself, twice.
It was the entire course of British history that found Britain opposing the Germans. The British Empire was never an empire on the Russian or German lines, an exercise in pure savagery and extraction, a Mongol Empire a millennium after the fact. It was always more complicated than that – it was a moral enterprise, a religious one, a civilising mission, and an economic one all bound up at once.
Consider her record since the American Revolution: it is one not just of victory in every major conflict but also of consistently in that time acting on the side of self-determination and against the subjugation of civilised nations. This was not just true in 1914 and 1939 against the Germans, but against the Dutch in 1780, the French between 1799 and 1815 and the Russians in 1853. Single-handedly and against her economic interest Britain abolished the slave trade and by force of will extended that ban to the remainder of the civilised world. No empire lasts forever, and the weakness, the self-abasement, the loss of the will to govern had begun to set in at the top by 1914. It was fitting that the country marshalled these resources to sacrifice itself twice for the freedom of the world. The Britain of 1945, bankrupt, weak, bombed out, dying, would never have existed had the country taken the American route and immorally sold weapons into the conflict as a neutral until the final acts before striding onto the world stage as a concerned colossus, anxious to do right. It is to the eternal credit of the British that they were great enough to render themselves humble in the service of the world.
We are wrong too about the French, desperately wrong. How those men have gone down as cowards and shirkers is a mystery. At the First Battle of the Marne, the one which halted the German advance short of Paris, taxi-drivers ran a constant loop from the Gare du Nord in Paris to the front where men who were three hours before on a train platform in the sticks would be thrown a rifle and sent straight over the top. Whatever it tells us about the state of man, his malleability, that takes courage.
Though all nations paid a blood tithe in the First World War, it was France who saw the ravaging of her cities, thousands of refugees roaming the north, the armies of the world encamped on her soil; and witnessed at first hand the brutality of the war. Perhaps when we consider the Second World War, it ought to be no surprise that France lacked the stomach for the all-out conflict that Germany and Britain, two countries whose territory remained unmolested twenty years previously, were able to summon. Certainly, the folk memory of war has proved one of the most powerful drivers of European pacifism ever since, and I do believe that it was the necessity of instilling in the German imagination an understanding of what their incessant wars amounted to on the ground that provided a sufficient justification for the terrible Dresden bombings in the minds of the Allied commanders.
All of the nations emerged from the First World War changed forever apart from Germany. Great Britain was aged. A nation which had until that time behaved with the conviction, power and acquisitiveness of youth transformed overnight into a model of cowed middle age.
The appeasement which preceded the Second World War was a work not only of realpolitik, but of a nation which had lost the ability to weigh risk and now sought solely to conserve what she had, unable to see the consequences involved or contemplate the morality at stake. Compelled to fight again, she did. As the bells chimed for Victory in Europe Day, and the state celebrated the triumph of liberty by nationalising the factors of production that it had been fighting to keep free, Britain had lapsed from clear sighted youth into the oldest of all ages, characterised by maudlin sentimentality, inconsistency, laziness and regret. This is a state of mind that persists into today. The youth of my nation lies on the fields of the Somme in more ways than one.
France was altered also, her confidence in her national mission destroyed more ruthlessly, the entire ageing process happening overnight. Henceforth her greatness was rhetorical, rather than real, her concerns internal, the sole object of her foreign policy the containment of Germany, even when that containment required a form of submission. Austro-Hungary ceased to exist after the war, the Austrians burdened with the entire weight of reparations on the rather unfair basis that they carried the most prominent part of the old name. Their empire, that of the Hapsburgs, was a weak and unnatural one that survived only thanks to its usefulness to its neighbours and the martial incompetence of the Italians. In going, it left Europe more fractured, Germany stronger. From the First World War, the Italians, thanks to late success on the front with Austria, drew the lesson that they were an invincible military power, with unfortunate consequences under fascism. The Russians found not for the first time that while they struck fear into Western hearts, it was only they who would eventually disintegrate thanks to proximity to the West.
Only Germany remained fundamentally unaffected. The evil of National Socialist rule was an extension of the autocracy practised by the worst of the Prussian kings, a natural extension of the rabid sentimentality and nationalism that hallmarked Germany under Prussia. Every liberalising step in German history had been imposed under foreign arms; every peak in German wealth and power used to lash out to the West, the East, the South. National Socialism was the logical conclusion of German history, the naked extension of the German character. Only defeat in the First World War at the hands of a ruthless power prepared to occupy and extract would have reformed domestic political life, and the only actor in the First World War capable of the necessary brutality to do so at a time of peace was Germany itself.
Germany has come eventually to dominate Europe through its control of the continent’s finances and the bulk of its productive industry. Yet the First World War was not fought vainly – the great nations of Europe still exist as independent polities and may some day choose to wrest control of themselves back through their domestic democracies, Britain still remains independent and has made herself wealthy once again, Germany itself is a less thuggish, stupid, malicious and dangerous neighbour than it was a century ago.
The graves of the Western front are so deeply moving because the sacrifice made by those men for their countries, for liberty of consciousness and for duty is the basis on which all of our contemporary society rests. There is a lot to say about the whys and wherefores of the war, and much will be said in the coming four years. Perhaps all that we really need to say is ‘thank you’.