John Gittings

Interpreting World War One
Peace writings
Journal articles
Newspaper articles
Family links

A critical assessment of how the war is being remembered in this first centenary year.

Talk at  the Peace History Conference, 2014, Imperial War Museum, London, organised by the Movement for the Abolition of War in association with the Imperial War Museum and the International Peace Bureau, 11 October 2014 (edited text).

[WorldWarOneWatch No.4]

Joseph Southall: The Enemies of Peace, 1918

         At 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.

         Up 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?

          All 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 Passion—scorching, cold,

And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,

Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,

Among the young, among the weak and old,

And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”

          Finally 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?

           Speaking 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.

          The 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.

         I 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 enquiry 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 it 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]. 

David Cameron: “…although there was an enormous amount of waste and loss of life, there was a cause that young men rallied to… “

Ed Miliband: …”hundreds of thousands of British soldiers gave their lives to protect the freedom that we still enjoy today.”

Nick Clegg:       ?

          Perhaps 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 of our  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. 

         The  Guardian: Where was the great historic statement that the people of this and other countries abhor the prospect of war in Europe?

          FT: [we should] commemorate… with dignified ceremonies and respect for the dead, but also with sober consideration of the lessons to be drawn…

          Independent:  The 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.

Recent 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.      “Twenty 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).

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914

Margaret Macmillan, The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War

Gordon Martel, The Month that Changed the World, July 1914   

Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War

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 Hochschild.

          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 all in 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.

          i/  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, 

         The 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 rotten system.

[Macmillan]   “[causes of the war include] the arms race, rigid military plans, economic rivalry, trade wars, imperialism with its scramble for colonies, or the alliance systems dividing Europe into unfriendly camps.”. 

           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.

          Most 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 better.

          iii/ 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.

        This 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. 

          We 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.

 BBC 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 particularly important. 

         First, 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 threat for 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 British empire.

       For 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.  

[Clark]… 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 genuinely interactive.

          Whether 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 BBC programmes.

          I 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.

        Finally 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. 

          Some 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.

         [Dan 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. 

         I 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.

          How 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 to nothing. 

         What 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.

         We 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 one’s hands 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 the peace. 

         And 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?”



   This text may be reproduced with acknowledgment to John Gittings and to the Peace History Conference, 2014, Movement for the Abolition of War / Imperial War Museum.