Memories of the First World War 1914 to 2014

The war was fought with good cause. But a spirit of vengeful nationalism corrupted the peace, and lives on today


“Futile” is the word perhaps most often associated with the First World War – as much now as in its immediate aftermath. It has gone in and out of fashion, so to speak. In the 1930s the feeling of “never again” was so powerful that it drove the left in politics towards pacifism and the right towards appeasement, with results that are still working themselves through.

The reputation of the war probably reached its nadir in the 1960s, around the time of its half-centenary and the publication of the late Alan Clark’s Lions Led by Donkeys. Today, not overly helped by the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, it has been rehabilitated somewhat from its Blackadder image of a senseless conflict between equally greedy imperial powers, all led by moustached buffoons in grandiose uniforms.

The last fighting Tommy, Harry Patch, has passed on but we remember his injunction, “if any man tells you he went over the top and he wasn’t scared, he’s a damn liar”. We seem better these days at remembering the scale of the sacrifices made at the time, the moving stories of the pals’ regiments, Gallipoli and poison gas, and not allowing any doubts about the justice of the war to pollute our respect for the fallen.

Modern misunderstandings

A hundred years on, our perspective on the Great War has a more balanced feel. The school of thought that believes the British Empire would have been better off, materially and politically, if it had let the Continentals get  on with it and reneged on its guarantee of Belgian independence is, as yet, an eccentric minority view.

Some have made much of the comparatively muted commemorations in Germany. Yet they too seem to have the Kaiser’s War framed in the correct way. They refer to it as the urkatastrophe, the appalling origins of Hitlerism, the Holocaust, the division of Germany itself in the Cold War and every kind of evil. While facing up to their shameful past, it is understandable that Germans should prefer to look to the future.

In his hefty War Memoirs, published in the 1930s, the former war-time minister of munitions and Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote of 1914: “Nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay.” That is a useful lesson to learn. As some historians have pointed out, one of the mysteries of that hot diplomatic summer was how little the telephone was used and how easily signals among the different Great Powers were misunderstood, occasionally wilfully

Some of that is true today. Russia and the West seem to be perpetually misunderstanding each other’s true position, admittedly not helped by elements that may be out of the control of any sovereign state, operating in the badlands of eastern Ukraine. The arrival of the internet era, with its super high-speed communications, has not prevented the slither towards another cold war.

It is perfectly plausible to conceive of Ukraine following the former Yugoslavia, Angola, Vietnam and Korea into a proxy “civil” war fought mainly by locals on behalf of the great powers of the time, and with the same descent into atrocity and ethnic cleansing.

That is why, even as we prepare to enforce new sanctions against Russia, it is important to try to keep some sort of dialogue alive, even if the messages have to be passed through back channels and intermediaries. If nothing else, we may as well remember how the experience of near destruction in the Second World War shaped Russia’s peculiar and suspicious view of the outside world right up to the present day.

The other powerful parallel is between Austria-Hungary and Serbia on the one side, and Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza on the other. Israel today, like Austria then, had a troublesome southerly neighbour whose existence it resented, not least because it was regarded as a base for terrorism.

After all, the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were based in Serbia and had links to the Serbian military. The equivalent today of the Serbian Black Hand terrorists would be the tunnellers and rocket-launchers of Gaza. Israel is able to call on a much more powerful ally, the United States, to write a “blank cheque” for its foreign policy, though the US may tire of the bellicosity of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Germany did the same for Austria in 1914, because it, too, could not imagine a world without its ally usefully in place, with links of sentiment underpinning the political relationship. So far the Gaza conflict has not spread but the whole region, and especially Iraq and Syria, is becoming increasingly Balkanised. As Israeli politicians often remark, it is a dangerous neighbourhood at the best of times.

Peace on the path to war

The Great War, it is becoming accepted, was not itself a “bad” or unjust war, from the Allies’ point of view, at any rate. It was fought against militarism and aggression and to protect the sovereignty of small states as well as the integrity of British power. What went wrong was the bad peace that followed.

The Versailles settlement was born of the same forces that drove Europe and the world to war five years earlier – vengefulness and nationalism. It was such a flawed, vindictive peace – famously eviscerated by John Maynard Keynes – that a second round of Europe’s civil war would break out barely two decades later.

The machinery of resolving international conflicts – which will always arise – was the League of Nations, which failed almost as soon as it began. It was designed to replace a world of secret treaties and imperial aggression, and was itself replaced by the United Nations. The UN has not failed as badly as the League, but the same factors that were at work then are balefully present today, including cynical manipulation of the organisation by superpowers guarding short-term national interests rather than the long-term interests of global harmony. So maybe not so much has changed in a century.

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