FEATURE: Lest We Forget

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Lest We Forget By Rosie Gillott : FreshAir News Reporter.


On 4 August 1914, at 11 o’clock in the evening, Britain declared war on Germany. Europe was launched into a war that was to last four long years and send millions of young men to their deaths on “those dreadful fields of senseless carnage”. Most of the commemorations for the Centenary will agree with E. D. Morel’s assessment; that the Great War was unnecessary and unproductive, a “senseless” waste of human life. They will talk of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many young men (and a few women) in answering the call of their nation but they will also talk of the innocence of those young men who believed they would be “home for Christmas”. They will talk of the anachronistic tactics deployed by out of touch Generals but most of all they will talk of the blindness with which great men in the capitals of Europe allowed the continent to slip over the precipice into a war that was to be such an utter waste. You can agree or disagree with the famous idiom “all war is futile” yet there seems to be a general consensus that if any modern war fits that description it is this one.

Yet the mood was very different in 1914. The news of Britain’s entry into the war was greeted by cheering in the streets and queues around the corner to sign up and head across the Channel. Many believed H. G. Wells when he said that this was to be “the war to end all war”, Britain and her Empire would stamp out German militarism and there would be peace and prosperity in Europe. That doesn’t sound like a futile cause to me and it didn’t to the thousands of men who signed up in the wave of enthusiasm that swept the nation in the first few months after August 1914.

So what changed? Reading Wells’s claims today it is easy to call them naïve, misguided or even idiotic, but then we have the benefit of hindsight, something Professor Ewen Cameron of Edinburgh University’s History department claims has altered our entire understanding of the First World War. “I think this perception [of the war as unnecessary and unproductive] comes from a comparison to the Second World War. That war is in retrospect imbued with a moral clarity which we find difficult to see in the Great War.” Where the Second World War can be easily understood as the defence of democracy against the evils of Hitler and Fascism, the Great War is far harder to simplify. So even though there were four times as many conscientious objectors to the Second World War as to the First, and a far higher death toll, we still tell ourselves that the Second World War can be justified in a way the First cannot. Maybe that is why we prefer to focus on the personal aspect of the First World War, with the poetry of men like Owen and Sassoon featuring heavily in our commemorations. These poems focus our attention on the pain and suffering of the soldiers, something we can all understand and empathise with. They do so both beautifully and justifiably for we should forget neither the horror war can cause nor the people who gave their lives in the line of duty, but by focusing solely on this aspect we run the risk of missing the bigger picture. Whilst Sassoon and others may have viewed the war as futile, and used the suffering of soldiers as proof of that, it is only one viewpoint and many others believed they were fighting to make the world a better, more peaceful, place. So to ascribe this belief to blind jingoism or youthful innocence is not only to oversimplify but also to ignore the fact that prior to conscription at least, so many people thought the cause worth volunteering for.

After all, for good or ill, the First World War did change the world. A time traveller from the mid-1800s could probably have arrived in the early summer of 1914 and felt relatively at home but jump forward just four years and he would not have recognised the Britain, or the Europe, he saw. The map of the world had been redrawn with whole empires disappearing, to be replaced with new nations. Royal families had fled or been killed and whole new political systems had been born, perhaps most notably in Russia. At home too, there had been many changes. Professor Cameron argues that the war brought about “very important changes” to the political landscape in Britain. The new Prime Minister Lloyd George promised “Homes fit for Heroes” as part of increased government involvement in everyday life, from taxation and control of industry to food production and the housing market; a socialist agenda that coincided with the rise of the Labour Party. Other things were changing too. Many women had worked during the war and though most returned to the home with the Armistice, many retained the political activism they had adopted during the war, some even got the vote, and women began to take a more prominent role in the previously male world of politics. Here in Scotland too the war brought about huge changes “because the Scottish economy was disproportionately weighted towards older heavy industry the war had a very significant impact” according to Professor Cameron. “Heavy engineering, textiles and coal mining all expanded greatly. The more modern and technologically significant industry of ship building expanded further, as it had done in the age of pre-war naval expansion. But after a brief post-war boom, there was a deep depression here in the early 1920s. I suppose this is another reason for the negative perception of the war. Because we know about the high unemployment of the inter-war period, especially in the west of Scotland, we add this in to the perception of the war as a waste, in that it seemed to bring few immediate social gains.”

So maybe we should stop referring to the First World War as “senseless” or to the sacrifices made by soldiers and civilians as a “waste”. Those young men did not march off to war in the belief that their cause was futile, they went with the hope that they could make a difference; and they did. It may not have been quite the difference they hoped for and the price they paid was far higher than any had imagined but the fact still remains that the First World War did shape the world we live in today. The war was not senseless, futile, a waste or any other such adjective used to describe it, because it changed the lives of all those who experienced it and all those who came after. And we should remember that.

Professor Ewan Cameron is giving a lecture entitled The Great War and Modern Scotland on the 12th August as part of the Rethinking the Past lecture series. Details can be found on the faculty webpage.

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