a memorial event for the First World War, in the Oxfordshire village where I
live, a list was displayed with the names of 166 men from the area who had
served during the war. 29 of them were marked as having died. That is a figure
of 17% out of the total for those who died, rather higher than the national
average of around 10%. Most of them were
probably farming lads many of whom might have never gone even as far as Oxford
before. We don’t have a figure for other casualties, the maimed, the wounded
and the shell—shocked. Nationally the
figure seems to be something like one-third.There was tea and cakes at our
event, songs from a children’s choir, and a short speech by the organiser who
asked us to remember, in a minute’s silence, all those serving soldiers from
the village who, as he put it, had been “traumatised” by the war as well as
those who died. It was a well-chosen
word, and the whole event struck the right note of quiet reflection.
and down the country there have been hundreds of similar events over the past
year, some just as appropriate and a few perhaps less so. These are not occasions
on which people want
to debate the war, but away from these
formal events, there are a lot of issues which people are concerned by. And in
my remarks today, I want to explore how far the big questions about the war are
being addressed in this first centenary year.
…..Was the war inevitable or could
it have been avoided?
Did Britain have a choice whether to enter the war?
….Was one country chiefly to blame or should
the blame be shared?
…..What was the actual experience
of the war for those taking part?
…..Once the war had started, could
it have been stopped earlier?
….And (for those with an ethical turn
of mind) Was the war a Just War?
of these questions can be summed up in the one word: Why?
-- the question posed by Thomas Hardy in his poem On the Armistice (1918) from
which this is the first verse (and I believe that Hardy too should be counted
as a “war poet”).
There had been years of
And much Despair, and Anger heaving
Care whitely watching, Sorrows
Among the young, among the weak and
And the pensive Spirit of Pity
and most important, what are the lessons which we should learn from the war,
how it began and how it continued, and how it was ended, so that we may not
make the same catastrophic mistakes again?
here in the IWM October 2012 to announce the government’s plans for the
Centenary, the Prime Minister David Cameron had this to say:
[out of] war and hatred can come unity and peace, A confidence and
determination never to go back…
And he concluded that
[we need] to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us for ever. And
that is exactly what we will do.
approach outlined by David Cameron was the right one; but has the government
lived up to it, and is
that “exactly what is now being done?” I
am going to look at the way in which the war is being remembered in this first
anniversary year, and I am going to ask how far does the way it is being
remembered helps us to answer all these questions – and to learn the lessons.
shall examine three kinds of
information, comment and analysis, which many people will have come
across in the last few months. (And I want to emphasise that I am concerned
with the information which members of the public are likely to encounter: not
just peace historians who are in a better position to access materials).
First, the statements by
our leaders particularly on and around the days of the outbreak of the
war at the end of July and early August.
Second, the books which have been published about the
war in t he last couple of years, or at least some of them.
Third, the way that the centenary is being dealt
with in the media, and here I shall focus on the BBC which has had by the
greatest output, and is probably listened to by most people.
Statements on WW1: I have to start this
with Michael Gove’s article in the Daily
Mail, at the beginning of this year, in which he claimed that most of what
we think we know about World Wat 1 is a bunch of myths got up by left-wing
historians. I shall resist the
temptation, almost, to set up Gove
as a straw target -- though I cannot resist pointing out that this is a very
apt metaphor Yet we cannot ignore Gove:
he has in my view quite deliberately
inserted himself into the debate, on the extreme margin of the spectrum of
opinions on the war, and as we shall see, his claim that we have been deluded
by left-wing myths does appear elsewhere.
When we look at what was said on
and around the 4th of August at the various ceremonies, the answer is
remarkably little, and nothing very profound.
This might have been an occasion
for the Queen to say something, along the lines of Never Again perhaps. After
all it was her grandfather George V who
ruled over Britain when the war began,
and who later was closely involved in the setting yup of the Imperial
War Museum. But she was silent, and so unusually was Prince Charles.
What about the leaders of
three main UK political parties? Here is the result of my research, and
shows the remarks of both Cameron and
Miliband to be disappointingly bland and anodyne. [If I have done Nick Clegg an
injustice I hope someone will tell me, but I have really searched hard for
anything he said on or around the August anniversary without success].
Cameron: “…although there was an enormous amount of waste and loss of life,
there was a cause that young men rallied to… “
Miliband: …”hundreds of thousands of British soldiers gave their lives to
protect the freedom that we still enjoy today.”
there was an agreement between the party leaders not to say anything much on
the day itself – though Cameron has said more than Miliband or Clegg throughout
this year. Yet this was surely a time for them all to attempt to draw some
profound lessons from history, not simply, as they have all done at various
times, to praise the sacrifice of
British soldiers without questioning, even for a moment, whether the sacrifice
was worth it.
Let us note that Joachim Gauck, the
German President, at the ceremony at Liege where the Duke of Cambridge also
spoke, made an unconditional apology for the German invasion of Belgium. None
British politicians even hinted that anything that Britain did before or
during the war might need to be questioned, let alone apologised for. The LibDem
leader in particular should have been more aware of history. After all Britain
was led into the war by one Liberal Prime Minister (Asquith) and prosecuted the
war to its bitter end under another Liberal Prime Minister (Lloyd George).
Turning now to a different sort of
“leader”, several of the newspaper editorials on the August 4 anniversary were thoughtful
and perceptive, and they conveyed a a general feeling that we need to learn
lessons from history. I am putting up here quotes from The Guardian, the Financial
Times, and the Independent.
Where was the great historic statement that the people of this and other
countries abhor the prospect of war in Europe?
[we should] commemorate… with dignified ceremonies and respect for the dead,
but also with sober consideration of the lessons to be drawn…
war was fought with good cause.
But a spirit of vengeful nationalism corrupted the peace, and lives on today.
As you can see, all of them seek in
one way or another to draw the argument forward to the present day. Editorials
are an important indicator of the
media narrative, or narratives, yet as a former leader writer myself I have
to admit that most people don’t read
them (including, I might add, one’s
fellow journalists) -- so with regret I don’t regard these as having played a
significant part this year. There was also a sense that the print media had exhausted
itself already, because as is increasingly the case, it had anticipated the
anniversary by publishing material well in advance.
books on WW1:
Second, the books
which have been published, or
issued in new editions, in the run-up to the anniversary. These are academic
works, all written by serious historians, but they
are also trade books which are intended to be accessible to the general reader.
World War One scholarship is a notoriously prolific subject: the only two other
areas of study which have attracted so much attention are those devoted to the
works of Homer and of Shakespeare – Homeric and Shakespearian scholarship.
years ago” [says Christopher Clark, author of one of the new books] “an
overview of the current literature [on
the First World War] counted 25,000 books and articles.” Many more have
been added in the last couple
of years: here is a selection of six titles, all of which are well worth
reading, which offer a total of more than 3,000 pages of text. (I know the
figure to my cost, because I have just completed a review essay of these six
for The Spokesman).
Clark, The Sleepwalkers:
How Europe Went to War in 1914 Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to
Margaret Macmillan, The
Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War
Gordon Martel, The
Month that Changed
the World, July 1914
Sean McMeekin, July
Douglas Newton, The
Darkest Days: The
Truth behind Britain’s Rush to War
I could easily add another six titles
which have come out in the last two years, including
the new Cambridge History of the
First World War, three volumes, well over 2,000 pages, edited by Jay
Winter, and selling for around £250, and the excellent To End All Wars by Adam
Some of these books provide a more
general narrative of the diplomatic and political build-up to the war, going
back well into the previous
decade, as well as the events immediately leading up to it. (Here, this approach
is taken by Clark, Hastings and Macmillan). Others focus more narrowly on the
decisions and diplomacy of the main powers involved in the critical weeks and
days before the actual outbreak of the war. This is the approach taken in this
selection by McMeekin, Martel and Newton == and Newton focuses even more
tightly on the policy debate and decision-making in Britain.
Both approaches seem to me equally
valid and necessary to reach a full understanding. The second approach,
focusing on the immediate background, addresses the question of “Who Started the War”. The larger question of
“What Caused the War?” requires us to delve deeply into diplomatic military and
political history over at least the previous decade and to look at subjective
moods and assumptions among leaders, elites and public opinion in all the countries
concerned., as well as the twists and turns of
all the actors on the international stage Clearly these authors are not
agreement, nor are they all seeking to answer exactly the same questions. However
we can identify several features of the
current academic view of the First World War where with some exceptions there
is a consensus.
First, the majority of opinion
today rejects the single-cause view that all the blame for the war can be placed
upon Germany. In the selection
here, this view is only taken by Max Hastings. The argument about Who Was to
Blame has ebbed and flowed for the past century. Briefly, the last fifty years
of the argument have seen quite a dramatic shift first towards, and then away
from, the doctrine of sole German culpability.
Now we seem to be moving back
towards the view that the actual question Who Started the War – Germany
certainly fired the first shots -- is
much less significant than the question What Caused the War,
case against pointing the finger at one country alone is put very well by
Christopher Clark, who says that the result is that you ignore the inter-play
of all the different actors. Douglas
Newton -- see the quote here – describes
the war as a failue of systems. And Margaret Macmillan sketches out the
multiple factors which we need to take into account – the quotation here is
only part of it. She also includes the driving force of nationalism, fears of
loss of revolution, the demands of honour and reluctance to back down, the
baneful influence of Social Darwinism and the belief it encouraged in the
inevitability of human struggle – which is a perversion of what Darwin actually
said, all this plus the individual ambitions and fears of individual nations.
[Newton] Britain was
not especially to blame – but neither was she free of blame – when
in 1914 the tragedy of war engulfed a
[Macmillan] “[causes of the war include] the arms
rigid military plans, economic rivalry, trade wars, imperialism with its
scramble for colonies, or the alliance systems dividing Europe into unfriendly
ii/ Second, was a European war inevitable
and if had not come in August 1914 would it not have come sooner of later? (This
is the get-out-of-jail card for defenders of the war, who argue that, terrible
as the war proved to be, if it had not
happened then another European war would soon have come along). The consensus
in most of this new work is that this is not true.
[Martel] War was not inevitable. It
was the choices that men made during those fateful days that plunged the world
into a war. They did not walk in their sleep . They knew what they were doing.
[McMeekin] I see counterfactual
reasoning as central to the historical enterprise and far more constructive
than ‘consensus’ interpretations designed to close off further argument.
of these historians argue that chance
did matter, that the choices which were made also mattered, and indeed that
there were moments even in the last days before August 4th when war
might have been avoided. [as Martel argues here] One can never be sure, of
course, what might have happened otherwise, but that does not mean that
counter-factual arguments of this kind should be complacently brushed aside
[which is the point being made here by McMeekin]. We can reasonably surmise
that if the war had not occurred, the alternative future for all concerned
could hardly have been worse and almost certainly would have been a good deal
A third point on which there is also a majority consensus is that Britain’s decision
to enter the war was a matter of choice and not of dire necessity. Those who
advocated neutralism were not only
pacifists and socialists, but a considerable body of liberal opinion. There
were two different views, both strongly argued and strongly supported: In the
end the view of the liberal imperialists won over the radical liberals , but it
was not pre-ordained.
interpretation lies at the heart of the book by Douglas Newton. He argues that the
interventionists” in the Cabinet, who included the Prime Minister and,
with some waverings, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, steered what was a
pro-neutralist majority in the Cabinet towards war, frustrating their demand
for a “credible, active diplomacy of mediation”. Newton and other
writers also draw attention
to the significant role of the Conservative opposition. If the Li beral
government had fallen, the Tories would have come in and gone to war anyhow,
and the neutralists in the Cabinet held back because of this argument. Furthermore,
Winston Churchill, although a Liberal at the
time, was regarded by the Conservative leader Balfour as their man in the Cabinet.
As Newton shows,
Churchill took several decisions unilaterally (in his role as First Lord of the
Admiralty) which helped make British intervention more likely.
do not have to accept 100 per cent any one version of events offered in these sbooks.
But we should accept the overall picture shared by nearly all contemporary scholars,
which is that the war was extremely complex in its origins, that the decisions
of individuals did matter, and that chance played a significant part. And they
also show that the decision to go to war was contested in every country, not
only on the streets but within the governments. There were voices for peace as
well as for war: the tragedy is that the voices for peace did not prevail.
coverage of WW1: Finally now, let
me move on to the way that the war has been dealt with in the British media in
the last year, focusing on the BBC. This is not exactly easy. The BBC
has promised some 5,000 hours of
radio and TV broadcasts over the next four years, divided between more than 130
programmes, and there have already been about 30 programmes and a couple of
hundred hours of viewing or
listening. A lot of this is serious and
thoughtful. I have no doubt that sooner or later, on one channel or another,
everything that we want to hear or see will be said and shown. But most people
will only listen to a fraction of the output, and their interest is likely to
wane as time goes on. So the choice of the flagship programmes which have launched
the BBC’s World War One coverage is
the issue of how the war started. The first flagship programme, watched by
millions, was Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s
Great War, broadcast in January on BBC1 at the prime time of 9 pm. And in
the opening episode he gave his verdict on who was to blame in his usual
forthright way. Here it is.
[Paxman] In 1914 Britain faced its greatest
nearly a thousand years.... The Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm, aimed to
dominate all of Europe by invading both France and Russia. He also had his eyes
on a chunk of the
the opposite view, that the causes of the war were much more complex than that,
we could listen to Christopher Clark in a series of 15-minute lectures, under
the title of Month of Madness, broadcast
in June on Radio 4 at 9.45 am (when
most people are at work) and again at half past midnight. Not perhaps quite
the same exposure as that
given to Jeremy Paxman.
there is no smoking gun,
or rather there is one in the hands of every major character. The crisis… was
the fruit of a shared European political culture. It is multipolar and
Britain was right to enter the war, and whether the consequences would have
been better or worse, if it had not entered the war, was debated on two other flagship
programmes with Max Hastings on the one side, and Niall Ferguson on the other. Ferguson
represented the anti-war case but his position is confined to the argument that
Britain would have been better off by not intervening – and indeed might then
have been placed to intervene at a later stage. Ferguson did not present the
case against Britain joining the war, as
argued at the time by the neutralists in the Cabinet, by socialists and
radicals in Trafalgar Square, and by the Manchester
Guardian and other liberal newspapers, and this case has not come over
clearly in any of these early
should also mention the three-part feature film “37 Days”, which presented in
dramatic form the build-up to the war mainly through the debate and decisions
taken in Berlin and London, by the Kaiser and his ministers, and by the British
cabinet. This, in my experience, is the
programme which most people have watched, and it was excellent drama and fairly
good history. But it can be criticised
on several counts. It showed very little of the decisions taken in Paris and
especially in St Petersburg, so that the importance of the Russian decision to
mobilise was minimised. It failed to show the strength of the case for British
neutralism which was argued widely both inside the Cabinet and outside in
sections of the media and public opinion. And it left the impression that it
was the German invasion of Belgium which forced Britain into war, although key
decisions had already been taken in that direction. Perhaps the question is
not whether this
feature film should have presented a more complex picture – never easy for a
dramatic production – but whether there should not have been other flagship programmes
to debate these issues properly.
I have to mention the BBC website which includes some very moving interviews
with veterans of the war from the BBC archive. But there is also quite a lot of
material which is problematic. There is a clearly expressed desire to expose
what are regarded as the “myths” about the war: the website has even hosted a
debate about the influence of Blackadder
on popular images of the war. And the military historian Dan Snow has been
enlisted to “debunk”, as they put it, “ten big myths about WW1.” Here we appear
to be entering Michael Gove territory.
of these myth-busting arguments are
pretty shaky. For example, Mr Snow says that the chances of dying on the Western
Front have been exaggerated and that only 10 per cent of those serving on the Front
were killed, He does this by taking the percentage of total deaths to British
forces during the war, wherever they served, and applying the same percentage
to the soldiers in the trenches. This is
just bad statistics. It is fairly obvious that one’s chances of being killed
were higher at the front in France than, for example, at a quartermaster’s
stores in Aldershot.
Snow, BBC News Magazine] Like
any war, it all comes down to luck. You may witness unimaginable horrors that
leave you mentally and physically incapacitated for life, or you might get away
without a scrape….
Many soldiers enjoyed WW1. If they
were lucky they would avoid a big offensive, and much of the time, conditions
might be better than at home. …Many young men enjoyed the guaranteed pay, the
intense comradeship, the responsibility and a much greater sexual freedom than
in peacetime Britain.
shall leave you to read for yourselves what Mr Snow has to say (above) about everyday life on the Front. I regard it,
particularly the end of the last paragraph, as flippant and verging on the
distasteful. It may seem excessive to spend so much time discussing the BBC
website. But this material and a lot more like it, I should remind you, will
presumably remain on the website for the next four years. The subject of real and imagined memory is a
serious one, but it needs to be dealt with seriously. To describe certain views
as “myth”, and to set out in this way to demolish them with gusto, is
simply not serious history.
should we assess, as peace historians, or better still as non-specialist
members of the public, the coverage of
the war so far in this first centenary year? My conclusion is this: If you read
a couple of the new books, you will get a fair and balanced picture. (I would
recommend Newton for the detailed
British narrative, and either Clark or Macmillan for the broad diplomatic
background). If you listen to the BBC you will get a patchy and incomplete picture. If you pay attention to the pronouncements of
our political leaders, you will get next
should we expect in the next four years?
I hope that more attention will
be paid to those who opposed the war
while it was in progress and to the misgivings of many who had at first supported
it. This should of course include the pacifists, and conscientious objectors
and other advocates of peace (I would very much like to see a full account of
the extremely active and varied role of Bertrand Russell not only in setting
out the case against the war but in giving practical help and support to war
resisters). But it should also give proper weight to the various peace
proposals which came, as the war went on, from significant political and
religious figures, including for example Pope Benedict and the Tory peer Lord
Lansdowne, and to the complex diplomatic dialogue in 1916-17 which involved all
the major belligerents at various times. Peace does not stop being important
when there is a war: it actually
becomes more important.
should also hope that more effort will be made in the next four years to treat
the First World War not as past history but as a living history lesson for the
present and the future. These words from Margaret Macmillan in her new book are
very much to the point.
It is easy to throw up
and say the Great War was inevitable but that is dangerous thinking, especially
in a time like our own which in some ways, not all, resembles that vanished
world of the years before 1914 …. We
need to think carefully about how wars can happen and about how we can maintain
I would like to conclude by reading out to you the final verse – as moving
as the first which I quoted
when I began this lecture -- from Thomas Hardy’s poem On the Armistice:
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery;
The Sinister Spirit sneered “It had to be!”
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”