Like most people of my generation, I grew up with a mystery. I felt I understood the Second World War. The attempt to dominate and destroy, to eliminate the people of other races – though raised to unprecedented levels by the Nazis – is a familiar historical theme. The need to stop Hitler was absolute, and the dreadful sacrifices of the Second World War were unavoidable.
But the First World War, which ended 90 years ago today, seemed incomprehensible. The class interests of the men sent to kill each other were the same. While Germany was clearly the aggressor, the outlook of the opposing powers – seeking to expand their colonies and to dominate European trade – was not wildly different. Ugly as the German state was, no one could characterise the war at its outbreak – with Tsarist Russia on the side of the Entente Powers – as a simple struggle between democracy and dictatorship. Neither did this resemble the current war in Iraq, in which legislators send the children of another class to die. The chances of being killed were at least five times higher for men who had been students at Oxford or Cambridge in 1914 than they were for manual workers. The First World War was an act of social cannibalism, in which statesmen and generals on both sides murdered their own offspring. How could it have happened?
On July 1st 1999, consumed by the urge to understand the war before the century was over, I visited Thiepval on the Somme. This was the anniversary of the first great attack on the German salients, which caused devastating losses for British and Irish troops. Men carrying flutes and dressed in orange sashes – commemorating the Ulster Division – paced about. Beneath the arches of the Lutyens memorial a circle of evangelical Christians hugged and screamed and ululated, while a little boy dressed in combat gear played around their legs with a plastic machine-gun. I goggled at the names on the monument – the 73,000 commemorate only the British and South Africans who fell on the Somme and whose bodies were not recovered – but I couldn’t grasp the scale of what I saw.
Dizzied by these conflicting sights, unable to connect, I wandered behind the old German lines and into a field of sugar beet. Walking between the rows, trying to clear my head, I noticed a spherical pebble. I picked it up. It was strangely heavy. Then I looked around and saw that the field was covered with the same odd little balls. Almost every stone was in fact metal. Within a minute I picked up more grapeshot than I could hold. I found shell casings, twisted bullets, fragments of barbed wire, chips of armour plating. I stopped, overwhelmed by shock and recognition. It was a field of lead and steel; and every piece had been manufactured to kill someone.
There are plenty of words to describe the horrors of World War Two. But there were none, as far as I could discover, that captured the character of the First World War. So I constructed one from the Greek word ephebos, a young man of fighting age. Ephebicide is the wanton mass slaughter of the young by the old. But how did it happen, and why?
In his fascinating book The Last Great War, published a fortnight ago, Adrian Gregory shows that the notion that Britain was carried to war on a wave of patriotic enthusiasm is false. The crowds that gathered around Buckingham Palace and in Downing Street when war was declared seem to have been more curious than excited. Most people appear to have greeted the war with resignation or dismay. Nor does voluntary enlistment provide clear evidence of enthusiasm. It is true that some wanted to fight, and others saw war as a more exciting prospect that working in a dead-end office job. But Gregory shows that voluntarism wasn’t all that it seemed. For many men fighting was the only employment on offer. The largest numbers volunteered not at the very beginning of war, but after the disaster at Mons on August 24th, when it became clear that there was a genuine threat to national defence.
The speed with which the war began and Britain joined made effective resistance impossible to organise. By the time the anti-war meetings had been called, it was too late. And by then there was a genuine need to stop Germany. It was as rational to seek to curtail German expansionism in August 1914 as it was in September 1939.
But the narratives, like Gregory’s, which suggest that World War One was inevitable begin late in the sequence of events. Another anniversary, almost forgotten in this country, falls tomorrow. On November 12th 1924, Edmund Dene Morel died. Morel had been a shipping clerk, based in Liverpool and Antwerp, who had noticed, in the late 1890s, that while ships belonging to King Leopold were returning from the Congo to Belgium full of ivory, rubber and other goods, they were departing with nothing but soldiers and ammunition. He realised that Leopold’s colony must be a slave state, and launched an astonishing and ultimately successful effort to break the king’s grip. For a while he became a national hero. A few years later he became a national villain.
During his Congo campaign, Morel had become extremely suspicious of the secret diplomacy pursued by the British foreign office. In 1911, he showed how a secret understanding between Britain and France over the control of Morocco, followed by a campaign in the British press based on misleading foreign office briefings, had stitched up Germany and very nearly caused a European war. In February 1912 he warned that “no greater disaster could befall both peoples [Britain and Germany], and all that is most worthy of preservation in modern civilization, than a war between them.” Convinced that Britain had struck a second secret agreement with France, that would drag us into any war which involved Russia, he campaigned for such treaties to be made public; for recognition that Germany had been hoodwinked over Morocco and for the British government to seek to broker a reconciliation between France and Germany.
In response British ministers lied. The prime minister and the foreign secretary repeatedly denied that there was any secret agreement with France. Only on the day before war was declared did the foreign secretary admit that a treaty had been in place since 1906. It ensured that Britain would have to fight from the moment Russia mobilised. Morel continued to oppose the war and became, until his dramatic rehabilitation after 1918, one of the most reviled men in Britain.
Could the Great War have been averted if, in 1911, the British government had done as Morel suggested? No one knows, as no such attempt was made. Far from seeking to broker a European peace, Britain, pursuing its self-interested diplomatic intrigues, helped to make war more likely. Germany was the aggressor; but the image of affronted virtue cultivated by Britain was a false one. Faced, earlier in the century, with the possibilities of peace, the old men of Europe had decided that they would rather kill their children than change their policies.
This article first appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 11th November 2008. The article with full footnotes also appears on [Monbiot.com]
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This post was written by George Monbiot