At first sight, remembrance of World War I has changed little over the last century. The One-Minute Silence dates back from 1919 along with the poppy in the lapel but on this day, the 100-year anniversary of Passchendaele, it seems more important than ever to share a few words about this terrible war.
On 4th August 1914, the nightmare began. Austria declared war and Europe watched as Germany invaded Luxembourg followed by Belgium the next day. It was the beginning of World War I. In the space of a month, Britain found themselves at war against Germany, an old friend and a traditional ally. An ally that they shared many historical events, not to mention family ties with for over two hundred years. In that month, between the assassination of Franz Joseph and the outbreak of World War 1, control had gradually slipped out of the fingers of Queen Victoria's grandchildren: cousins Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicolas and George V. What happened was the beginning of a terrible family tragedy that dragged the world into an abyss. Their friendships, and above all, their poisonous rivalries would play a key role in the realignment of Europe.
Each of the cousins had duties on 3rd August 1914. George went for a short drive down the Mall to Trafalgar Square where huge crowds greeted him uproariously. To quieten the crowds, he had to show himself three times on the balcony.
At the same time, Nicholas appeared on the balcony of the Winter Palace and the vast crowd fell to their knees. The barricades had disappeared and the revolutionaries had melted away. The country had not been so vibrantly alive and united since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.
In Germany, the crowds cheered Wilhelm at the Brandenburg Gate. In a rush of enthusiasm, the Reichstag voted to give its power to the council of German princes, effectively allowing Wilhelm and the army free reign.
Of the 120 of Victoria's descendants alive in 1914, 42 were living in enemy countries and 11 would fight against Britain. Four years later, there would be no one cheering. In that short amount of time, more than 10 million people would die and Queen Victoria’s extended family would be ripped apart.
King George's worst mistake was to support General Haig, his Chief of the General Staff, and General Robertson. Both men were committed to trench warfare and the belief that conscripted soldiers could do little else than stand in a line and walk forward. With this point of view, Haig sent hundreds of thousands of men into the trenches and over the top of them in the Somme and at Passchendaele through 1916 and 1917. At Passchendaele, there were between 240,000 and 260,000 British casualties and barely a foot of territory was won to justify it. They lived in holes in the ground. They had been cold, wet and hungry with bombs, artillery, gas and air missiles falling around them with nothing in front of them except barbed wire and machine guns and they had barely survived in a world of pain. The stress sent many mad. Literally. Haig’s only excuse for failure was that he didn’t have enough men.
The German invasion of Belgium produced monstrous tales of women raped, children’s hands cut off, priests butchered and even a Canadian soldier crucified by German troops. Wilhelm, who had only wanted his British relatives to love him, was now hated more than he could ever have imagined. Propaganda posters showed him hunched over the dead, mutilated bodies of women and children or goose-stepping in front of burning libraries.
Wilhelm’s war effort was less than dramatic. Within days of the war’s beginning, he joined the army at military headquarters as his grandfather had before him, then promptly collapsed and took to his bed. He had spoken of leading his men into battle but barely a week into the war, he told the German General of Staff that the war was their responsibility, not his.
Like Wilhelm and George, Nicholas became a viewer. He was a pinner of medals and a visitor to hospitals, sometimes seeing 3,000 people a day, and he visited munitions factories. Like Wilhelm, he had fantasied over leading his army and like Wilhelm, he installed himself in the unreal office of Russian army headquarters, packed with aristocrats with whom he had once loved to mix with. There he thought he was in the thick of things. He took long walks, ate hearty lunches, and lingered over conversations while smoking cigars and organised boat races. While he charmed visitors, men were dying by the hundreds of thousands on the battlefields.
Within three months, the Russian war effort was a disaster. Vast sums of money were being poured into the army but war planning was a dismal failure. Before long, there was a supply crisis with no provision being made for winter uniforms, guns or boots. Ammunition began to run out and by 1915, soldiers were being told to limit themselves to ten bullets a day. Losses were huge and pointless. At one time, 1,800 new recruits arrived at the front without a single rifle to hand over to them. Instead, they were handed wooden replicas. They had to wait for casualties and deaths to receive a real gun. By then, 1,600 of the 1,800 were dead. Nicholas’s sister, a nurse on the Austrian front, said that Russian soldiers were going to meet German machine guns with sticks in their hands. There were no medical supplies and generals came begging her to ask Nicholas for reinforcements. Most of the men shivered in the trenches without trousers or boots as the sub-zero winter months slowly approached. As the losses mounted, morale collapsed and the nine million men who were called up in the first year of the war alone were asking themselves why they were there at all.
Like Wilhelm, Nicholas could have filled a role as a civilian leader, caring for the wounded and refugees but like Wilhelm, he had no idea where to start. He was in thrall of the romance of the army but overwhelmed when it came to actually doing anything worthwhile.
By the end of the war, the three men were showing the effects. For Wilhelm, it had been too much from the very start and by 1916, he was a broken man, swinging from violent and unpredictable rages to depressed and lethargic isolations. As for George, he was looking ten years older than his age and his beard had gone completely white. His face was lined and haggard but his dogged unsmiling face appeared every year on a gruelling visit to the Western Front where he visited ammo depots, railway depots and hospitals. The carnage absolutely overwhelmed him.
The Great War was the deadliest in Britain’s history, with nearly three quarters of a million killed. It was impossible to bring such a large number of bodies home. Indeed many soldiers had been literally blown to bits by shellfire and their remains were never found. So the dead were interred and commemorated along the battlefronts in nearly a thousand cemeteries and monuments constructed by the Imperial War Graves Commission in one of the biggest public works projects of the 1920s.
Among the missing was Jack Kipling – only son of the celebrated author Rudyard Kipling – who was last seen stumbling in agony across the battlefield of Loos in September 1915 with half his face blown off. Jack could have got a medical exemption because of short-sight but he and his father were gung-ho patriots. After 1918 Kipling threw his energies into the war graves project, like the architect Edwin Lutyens and the administrator Fabian Ware. Too old to fight, these were men consumed with grief and probably guilt about the young men who had been sent to their deaths.
During the war itself the public knew little of the gruesome reality of modern industrialised killing. Press reporters were strictly controlled and there was virtually no film footage of combat or bodies. But during the twenties, the veil was partially lifted in veterans’ novels and memoirs. Particularly powerful was the play Journey’s End by RC Sherriff. Set in a gloomy dugout on the western front, it depicted British soldiers bickering and drinking as they psyched themselves up to literally climb out of the trenches into the the horror of waiting Germans.
As the thirties progressed, this link between peace and remembrance tightened. Many people felt that the dead would not have died in vain if 1914–18 proved, in the cliché of the time, ‘the war to end all wars’. In other words, peace would be the truest form of remembrance. By the mid-1930s Britain had the largest peace movement in the world. Over a third of the population – 11.5 million people – signed the so-called ‘Peace Ballot’ of 1935, with an overwhelming majority registering support for the League of Nations and for an end to the arms trade. And, as war clouds gathered in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his own bid for peace in a desperate deal with Hitler at Munich. Chamberlain was another of the generation who was too old to fight. He had never recovered from the death in action of his younger cousin and closest friend, Norman.
But on 3 September 1939 Britain was at war once again with Germany: all the peace-talk and peace-making had come to nothing.
This new war was profoundly different from the last. All through the Great War there had been a western front, but in 1940 the fall of France in four weeks left Britain fighting on alone. Unlike 1914–18, the country was heavily bombed and menaced by imminent invasion and 1940 became immortalised in Churchill’s celebrated phrase as Britain’s ‘finest hour’. This war, unlike the last, ended with Germany’s unconditional surrender and complete occupation by the Allies, by which time the utter bestiality of Nazism had been revealed in camps such as Belsen, Buchenwald and Auschwitz. This seemed clearly a ‘good war’ – and it had been won at half the human cost of the last.
In the 1920s and 1930s the British continued to refer to 1914–18 as the Great War. But after 1945 they adopted American terminology, and spoke of the 'First World War’ and the ‘Second World War’. This accentuated the sense that 1914–18 had been an inconclusive opening round, which needed another round to finish the job.
After 1945, both Remberance Day on the 11th of November and the One-Minute silence fell out of fashion. Instead, the dead of both world wars were honoured on the nearest weekend, known as Remembrance Sunday. In the 1950s and 1960s the British seemed obsessed with Hitler’s war – commemorating, even celebrating it, in more than a hundred colour movies showing squared-jawed, stiff-upper-lipped heroes such as Jack Hawkins and Richard Todd fighting evil Nazis in films such as The Cruel Sea and The Dam Busters.
Preoccupied with the era of Churchill and Hitler, the British paid little attention to 1914–18, but the 50th anniversary brought the conflict alive for a new generation. The blockbuster BBC TV series The Great War screened hitherto unseen footage of the trenches in surreal black and white. This theme of innocent soldiers sent to their deaths by bone-headed upper-class generals was dramatised in 'Oh! What a Lovely War' – an experimental play that mushroomed into a West End hit and a global movie. The tragedy of the soldiers is played out in front of a news panel displaying headline points about the fighting, such as “November… Somme Battle Ends… Total Loss 1,332,000 Men…Gain Nil”. At one point, Field-Marshal Haig (played by John Mills) asserts with aristocratic insouciance: “The loss of, say, another 300,000 men may lead to really great results.”
In Germany after 1945, there was no denying the crimes of Nazism, even if these were initially blamed on Hitler and a criminal few rather than acknowledging the complicity of the population as a whole. But until the 1960s, Germans still thought of 1914–18 as a necessary war of defence against Russian and French encirclement. But then the writings of leftist historian Fritz Fischer persuaded many Germans to see both wars as episodes in a long story of militaristic expansion since the days of Bismarck.
And so in France and Germany, like Britain, the two world wars were interlocked in cultural memory. But, unlike Britain, both these countries found a way of escaping from the prison of memory. For Britain, the First World War was costly yet inconclusive and it left troubling questions about whether Britain should have intervened at all on the continent.
And so we come to Remembrance Day. No veterans are alive today who served in the conflict: quite literally, no one can ‘remember’ the Great War. In fact, we are now as far from the men who marched away in 1914 than they were from the Redcoats who fought Napoleon at Waterloo. Of course we should honour the dead but I believe we must also try to understand the Great War as history – history that still casts a long shadow across the world today.
Lest we forget.