David Cameron has announced that the UK government is to spend £70m in commemorating (not, you note, ‘celebrating’) the centenary of the outbreak of World War One in less than two year’s time. Meaning no disrespect to any of the millions who died during those four years, still less to the multiples of millions who suffered its legacy of destruction, lost loved ones and its execrable solution that bred both resentment and World War Two, despite extensive competition amongst his utterances, it is easily the stupidest thing I have ever heard Cameron say.
For whatever glory or even good may be said to come of war, it is hard to pick a more vivid global example of the vanity, stupidity and sheer cussedness of mankind at its worst than WWI. All wars have their horrors, victims and, often, post-conflict justifications that stink. Some are arguably necessary. Moreover, the sacrifices made by brave and selfless people in their respective causes can often illustrate mankind at its selfless best.
I attend Armistice Day commemorations partly for that reason and partly because my grandfather managed to bring most of himself back from Ypres (leaving most of his right leg there). My father brought all of himself back from a four-year stint driving between Cairo and Lübeck in a variety of tanks. As a result I exist and am eternally grateful that my existence enjoys freedom from such emotional and physical scars, due to their—and all their comrades—selfless efforts.
But, let’s be honest, WWI is a global canvas of arrogance, brutality and stupidity that puts other wars in the shade by taking all those to depths never exceeded—before or since.
It starts with the cosy self-righteousness of the European ‘powers’ in the century before. By growing ever richer from their burgeoning industry and scant resistance to their global colonial carve-up, it was self-evident (to them) that their culture was superior to all others, justified in its Kipling-esque ‘white man’s burden’ way to sweep aside any culture, tradition or religion encountered. As Major Heyward queried General Webb in Last of the Mohicans: “I thought our purpose was to make the world England, sir!”
Despite fixation with massed colourful, concentrated brutality of the Napoleonic era, the military did learn lessons. But they were all about improving ability to kill. From rifle to machine-gun to breech-loading artillery, lethality grew in leaps and bounds that railways and navies allowed to be deployed over unheard-of distances at unheard-of speeds. But all that new scientific warfare offered little to the defence, whose main leap forward was drab uniforms that no longer made easy targets of brilliantly visible military peacocks.
The 19th & early 20th centuries should have taught military professionals across Europe many salient, fundamental lessons in war during the run-up to August 1914, such as:
- Massed charges against modern equipment in the hands of those resolute enough to use them caused carnage, such as obliterated Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg or decimated the Irish Brigade as it milled fruitlessly about in the Tugela river bend under Spion Kop or even the Old Contemptibles mowing down von Kluck’s doubl;e-time marching men before Ypres.
- Courage, resolution, élan, training and even camouflage uniforms count for nothing and are useless as defence if you simply charge a strong enemy. The French in the Vosges, the Japanese at Port Arthur, even the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift bought this lesson with the lives of their men.
- Relatively easy victories against large, courageous but ill-equipped forces in the colonies were no precedent to learn from (much less an training exercise in appropriate tactics), despite what Omdurman or the Boxer rebellion or Napoleon III’s Mexican adventure might appear to say.
- Using the First Law of Engineering “When in Doubt, Use a Bigger Hammer” while appealing, is not necessarily effective on the battlefield. Thus trenches largely negate the awful killing power of machine guns and artillery—and if they’re deep enough, even heavy artillery. Also, as Harald Hardrada found at Stamford Bridge and the English found at Bannockburn, having the biggest force is no ace trump if it can’t be deployed effectively.
The domino politics that led all the ‘great powers’ into war deserves entire chapters on its own but it bears a strong resemblance to a ‘my big brother can beat up your big brother’ ego-driven intransigence that characterises puerile playground face-offs.
Also, given that all major powers had put much ego into an arms race that involved dreadnoughts, mass-production-equipped armies and a fiendishly intricate mechanism for calling it up, those few with an objective appreciation of the powder keg that everyone was sitting on while passing round the fags were horrified when the whole Heath-Robinson-esque juggernaut was triggered by Archduke Ferdinand’s demise in Sarajevo, a person/place unknown to 99% of those about to be killed because of it.
That mass armies, in many cases galvanised by an almost insane level of imperial jingoism and deprecation of the enemy (e.g. “Huns Bayonet Babies in Belgian Churches”) met other mass armies in Flanders, Galicia, East Prussia was perhaps inevitable. But that, once stalled against each other, that the general-ship then applied was of such poor and basic reasoning makes you wonder how they ever got the job:
- ” They’re building trenches”? We’ll just outflank them.
- “We’ve run out of space to outflank them”? We’ll throw more men at ‘em
- “They’re mowing down our men faster than they can climb out of the trenches”? bombard their lines so they can’t fire at us so easily.
- “They’re still mowing us down”? Then use bigger/heavier/more artillery longer
And, behind the respective fronts, entire corps of cavalry milled about, waiting for their cue: a clean breakthrough that military manuals in every combative’s language dictated would be the way the war would be won. It never happened.
What little lateral thinking was displayed was scuppered by an execution that would be hilarious, had it not cost as many lives as it did. Raring to be at ‘em, Churchill pushed for the RN to invade the Baltic and land troops in Pomerania, failing which a similar move against the Turks by taking Dardanelles and then pushing on the Constantinople and linking up with hard-pressed imperial Russia.
Expecting a pushover against the much-maligned Turks, the ANZACs and British 29th Division stormed ashore at Gallipoli, milled about in confusion caused by an ossified command structure strangulated by superannuated commanders like Stopford, then found themselves mown down by German-trained troops under Kemel Attaturk who sold every inch of their homeland dearly.
Gallipoli turned into a sun-scorched version of the Flanders trench warfare but with desiccation instead of trench foot and omnipresent flies replacing rats. And yet, the attacks of 1915 and 1916 went on as if the Somme or Verdun could be different and had no lessons to learn from Ypres or the Marne, let alone the previous half-century of escalating carnage.
Perhaps Haig and French were prisoners of their own time, just as Foch and Joffre or Ludendorf and Hindenburg. That the German ‘Stosstruppen’ or the British tanks were able to break some of the stalemate is not the point; several million corpses already lay strewn pointlessly across Europe and it can be argued that it was German economic and social collapse that brought the war to an end. “Our soldiers were stabbed in the back” was what Hitler’s NSDAP, the Stahlhelm and other right-wing organisations would claim post-war—and thereby lay the foundations for what some regard as ‘the second half’, a.k.a. WW2.
It was a tragedy for all concerned that would bring Europe down from unprecedented Edwardian achievements and affluence to the shattered collection of bankrupt ruins that stretched from Stoke-on-Trent to Stalingrad in the rationed hand-to-mouth of the late 1940’s. If Western civilisation has a clear and unequivocal low point, it was then, when closed, smug minds in government took their gullible peoples to war in 1914. It should never have happened. It must be held up as a lesson in communal losing of the plot: brutal; costly; unedifying; unforgettable, but not something to commemorate, except as a kind of self-flagellating reminder of our capacity for universal idiocy.