Today being the actual anniversary when 96 years ago the guns fell silent on the Western Front it seems appropriate to not just remember those who lost their lives serving in the British Armed Forces but why they were called tio make that ultimate sacrifice.
And, though the First World War caused unimaginable slaughter across all the countries engaged and signalled the end of European hegemony irreparably fracturing the dominant, highly stylised but overly smug Edwardian culture.
Though the Allies eventually won the war, in righteous triumph after so much sacrifice, they chose to ignore sage advice to treat gently with the defeated Central Powers. Their harsh terms sowed vigorous seeds of what would become the Second World War, a war that many have cynically regarded as the ‘second half’ of WWI.
Together, those two wars account for 1,287,000 British casualties or almost exactly 75% of the 1,678,000 total from military actions since the American War of Independence. A chart showing the casualties of individual wars underscores this.
The chart also shows that by far the most bloody conflict outside the two World Wars were the 331,000 soldiers and sailors who died in the Napoleonic conflicts. Given the war lasted over a decade and a half—even though there were pauses—the impact of industrial developments meant that individual conflicts were fought at deadlier range; better training for professional forces meant armies and ships engqged more closely and more resolutely.
Prior to the American Revolution, records, weapons and training were all haphazard affairs. After a hiatus of amateurism lasting 1,000 years after the Romans left, Cromwell put the Army on a professional footing, leading to the mass standing armies of the late 18th centurry.
Conceived for self-defence, they were also simply too good as tools of what Von Clausewitz called ‘diplomacy by other means’ not to be used for aggrandisement with the ill-defined, fluid borders of Central Europe. Britian’s naescent Navy asserted itself against Dutch maritime power for control of the seas. Prior to Napolean, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and Frederick of Prussia carved unlikely empires by drilling armies of professionals to march, volley and melee better than their opponent.
Well before then, the motivation for war had become highly commercial. England’s early hostility to Spain derived from their colonial ambitions and the money to be made bringing tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes and other lucrative goods home, It was only when France’s ambition clashed with Britain’s in North America, the Caribbean and India that they were revived as an object of venom.
Though much was made by Pitt at the time of the need for coalitions to deal with the ‘upstart Boney’ and his republican threats to the remaining monarchies, the real motivation was to ensure freedom of the seas. This, more than any moral imperative, was necessary so that Britain could dominate global trade upon which is was fast becoming rich. Nelson’s victories at the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar were greeted with great relief at Westminster but even more so in The City.
Naval victories against a France were not, however, enough. It dominated the entire Continent and therefore most destinations of Britain’s trade—hence the heavy involvement in a Peninsular campaign, support for far-flung allies like Portugal and Russia and judicious local bribes like the £1m going to Brunswick to prop up a wavering United Netherlands.
Casualties over the couple of decades to 1815 were proportionately heavy as anywhere, dwarfing those suffered in earlier wars. Given that Bonaparte was exiled for good and peace reigned across Europe for a century, high principles were cited as justification for the unheard-of numbers of dead. But the dominance of British trade and industry through the following decades was no co-incidence.
The ensuing colonial wars that sputtered across the world in the 19th century and cost a cool 100,000 lives were fought against locals resisting becoming another pink part of the map. Some (such as Elohinstone’s disastrous Afghan campaign) could be seen in Kiplingesque “White Man’s Burden” terms. But those to secure Assam’s tea; to secure Egypt as a vassal so that tea trade would flow uninterrupted; to secure Kimberley’s diamonds and Jo’burg’s gold to finance the whole shebang had no such altruistic explanation, even as smokescreen.
And the problem with global reach is it provokes such a global myriad of enemies. Whether from the Opium wars, the Sudan campaign, the Indian mutiny or repressing the Boers, fallen redcoats were an integral component of the ‘lifeblood of empire’.
Indeed, the entire culture that has grown up to be seen as quintessentially English—the tough regimen of Eton and Harrow through to Oxbridge and Sandhurst was to train a constant flow of administrators and subalterns who formed the backbone of empire right up to its collapse in Britain’s post-WW2 overreach.
While taking nothing away from the cooly professional performance of the British Armed Forces that continues to this day, the country itself no longer has the fiscal or moral backbone to justify recent deployments. From the Falklands through Iraq to the present Afghan wind-down, everything has been done on a shoestring for questionable reasons that many in the country dispute.
Residual taste for conquest and its justification resides in the MoD, plus a cadre of politicians and retired colonels these days. The ‘Troubles’ in Ulster cost more lives than all the various independence movements in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, etc. Those, in turn, cost more than all the ‘small’ wars engaged in since Korea 60 years ago.
The British no longer have the stomach for this—even the 760 service lives lost in foreign operations spread over the last 35 years (since withdrawal from Aden and ‘East of Suez’). Even averaging that out to a loss every three weeks on such deployments now seems unacceptable to the public.
Contrast that with the glory days of empire when Britain lost someone every half an hour; commercial ambition (a.k.a. “the good of the country”) deemed such loss to be acceptable. For that if no other reason, we should remember them along with the tragic, deserving fallen of WWI and 2 and since.
Those earlier stalwarts also died ‘doing their duty’ but for causes much less ennobling, much more grubby than saving the world from the horrors of Nazism.