Sunday, July 30, 2017


Passchendaele 1917

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the Passchendaele battle, which was a series of linked battles, in terrible conditions that have come to many people to personify the Western Front. My family like far too many others in Wales and elsewhere lost relatives in the First World War, one of my grandmother’s lost two brothers in the First World War, including her elder being a regular soldier, who wrote home and told them not to allow his younger brother to join up and to come out to France, but he did answer the call and was killed in action in the spring of 1918 and buried near Amiens.

Remembrance Sunday this year will fall at the end of three years worth of former P M David Cameron’s (£50 million pounds worth) "historic" commemoration of the centenary of the First World War I. I have absolutely no problem remembering those who lost their lives and the courage and endurance of those who served in the First World War and other conflicts (including some of my relatives); but I have no time for rose tinted nostalgic flag waving foot tapping pap as peddled by the usual suspect red top newspapers, much as it was peddled some one hundred years ago.

In Flanders fields...
As US President Abraham Lincoln rightly noted that the fallen have given their last full measure of devotion. Soldiers don’t die for the politicians, for patriotism or even us but for their friends and comrades who they serve with. Too many lie in corners of foreign fields, are names on a war memorial, faded photographs, faded memories or have no grave at all. The Lions may well on occasion have been led by Donkeys (even if the original quote was made up), but from our (21st century) perspective they were governed by bumbling incompetent secretive idiots who were entirely out of their depth and managed to plunge the UK into an entirely unnecessary war.

Fritz Fischer’s suggested that the Imperial German government’s foreign policy was developed after Social Democratic gains in the 1912 election and that it aimed to start an aggressive war in 1914. He developed this idea in Germany's Aims in the First World War (1961) and War of Illusions: German policies from 1911 to 1914 (1969). Fischer suggested that a War Council held by the Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Reich's top military-naval leadership on December 8, 1912 was a key point in the run up to a war of aggression set for the summer of 1914. The Kaiser and the Army leadership wanted to start a war in December 1912 but Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, successfully argued that the German Navy needed more time to prepare and asked for the war be put off until the summer of 1914.  Fischer later denied claiming that war was decided upon at this meeting.

Fischer’s work revealed Imperial German government documents which called for ethnic cleansing of Russian Poland and colonization to provide Germany with living space as a war aim, showed disturbing continuity between the foreign policies of Germany in 1914 and 1939. Andreas Hillgruber suggested that the Imperial German government tried to break the Triple Entente (Russia, France and Britain). Austria-Hungary was encouraged to invade Serbia on the assumption that Paris and London would have no interest in another Balkan crisis and would not support Russia. Austria attacked, Russia mobilized, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg panicked and activated the Schlieffen Plan against France and a relatively localised Balkan crisis rapidly became a general European and world war.

A.J.P. Taylor's 1969 book War by Timetable, suggested that none of the great powers wanted a war but all of them wanted to increase their power in comparison with their rivals. This fatal combination of an arms race and complex railway timetables for mobilization came to a head in 1914 when a perceived need to mobilize faster than their rivals trapped the political leaders in a mesh of complex logistics. Mobilization failed to deter war and led to military action.

In 1972 US historian Paul W. Schroeder, in his "World War I As A Galloping Gertie" essay, blamed Britain for the war. He suggested that the war was a "Galloping Gertie” that it got out of control, dragging in the Great Powers into an unwanted war. The key to the situation was British foreign policy which as anti-German and even more anti-Austrian. Britain never took Austria-Hungary seriously, and British diplomatic policy aimed to constantly force concessions from the Dual Monarchyregardless of any consequences to the balance of power. So 1914 was basically a preventive war forced on Germany to maintain Austria as a power, which was faced with a crippling British encirclement policy aimed at the break-up of that state.

Not everyone has bought into this theory, Samuel R. Williamson (a US historian) laid the blame on the Austro-Hungarian elite rather than the Germans in his 1990 book, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. Niall Ferguson (the Scottish Historian) in his book, 
The Pity of War(1999) rejected the Fischer thesis, and squarely laid most of the blame on British diplomatic bumbling. More recently, David Fromkin (a US historian) in his book Europe's Last Summer(2004) blamed military elements in the German and Austro-Hungarian leadership.

Fromkin argued that there were two key war plans; one by Austria-Hungary (and the German Chancellor) to start a war with Serbia to reinvigorate a fading Austro-Hungarian Empire. The other one, a secret plan created by the German Military aimed create a wider war with France and Russia.  The German military leadership, in the middle of a European arms race, thought that they would be unable to further expand the German army without extending the officer corps beyond the traditional Prussian aristocracy.

Thus Austria-Hungary was encouraged to go to war with Serbia; Russian intervention would provide an acceptable excuse to launch a preventive war. This theory suggests that the German military believed that by 1916–18, they could not win a war with France, Russia and Britain. Fromkin argued that Kaiser Wilhelm II was kept in the dark, as the German General Staff believed that he tended to resolve crises short of war. He also noted that all participating countries (especially the Central Powers) systematically destroyed or forged documents to shape future understanding of the origins of the war.

Some forty five years after its publication Fischer’s theory is still not without its critics. Annika Mombauer (Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the Open University) suggested in her book, Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War (2005) that despite the debate and research there was no direct evidence to suggest military decision-makers understood December 1912 as the decisive moment when the date of a future war had been set.

Christopher Clarke, in The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (published in September 2012) argues that the Europe (of 1914) was actually in a more of a mess than we realise with clashing ideologies, terrorism, political and economic militancy and chronic instability. To make matters worse Europe was lumbered with an exceptionally ineffectual set of political leaders. The rulers of Europe, who boasted of their modernity and rationalism, in reality stumbled through crisis after crisis and until they ended up at war.

In the hundred years since its outbreak interpretation of the origins of the First World War has often been shaped by politics. Certainly since 1918 the left (from Karl Liebknecht onwards) has always been more comfortable blaming militarism for the First World War rather than their own failure to stop it at least until the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Soviet Union (1988 – 1992).  The old SPD argument that within pre war Germany there had been an alliance of agrarians and industrialists who with the Prussian aristocracy had encouraged militarism and this led to war.

The idea that militarism fed the industrialists and fed popular state nationalism helping to reduce the influence of the left is still popular in some circles. It sounds good; the problem is that it’s too simple and explanation, and was probably not true, as noted by Niall Fergusson amongst others. There were other factors which were increasingly important in the run up to 1914. In many countries the franchise was expanding (if admittedly only slowly in some countries) and political parties with an anti militarist streak were rising in popularity. Industrial discontent and strikes had also pretty widespread between 1910 and 1914 across much of Europe.

Closer to home, across the water in Ireland home rule was the key issue and probably the most significant issue in domestic politics on the UK mainland. Britain in 1914 rather than enjoying a post Edwardian summer was on the verge of civil war over Irish Home Rule and faced massive industrial unrest. Italy had been rocked by the Red Week of June 1914, France and Germany were also faced with ever-increasing political strife. To the east, Russia itself also faced a huge wave of strikes and Austria-Hungary also faced rising ethnic and class tensions.

So rather than marching in step towards war political anti militarism was increasing. Most businessmen, financiers and bankers (including the Bank of England) were pretty unenthusiastic about the prospects and consequences of war because of the loss of markets and the economic disruption that war would bring. Liberalism itself was in deeply trouble, collapsing in face of challenges from the extreme right and left in Britain, France and Italy while it was pretty non-existent in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

August 1914
The key factor as the countries on the European mainland blundered into war in 1914 due to a complex web of treaties and mobilization dependent war plans may have simply been ineptitude on the part of their leaders. The British state drifted into the ensuing conflict because its rulers were not bright enough to manage to stay out of it. Britain went to war in 1914 for no particular great principal and certainly not for the sake of Belgium’s neutrality. That alleged great principal was only created after the fact to hide British diplomatic blunders and miscalculations which resulted in the death and maiming of millions.

Putting the historical analysis to one side, I personally have a major problem with wrapping up the consequences of a combination of idiocy, short sightedness and lack of any understanding of basic consequences on the part of a mostly public school dominated nominally democratic elite in miles of bunting and union flags. Britain (in 1914) was barely a democracy, votes for all (at 21) did not finally come in until 1928, and post war governments soon found that live heroes (‘Homes fit for Heroes’) cost far more to remember and honour than dead ones.

From former PM Cameron’s perspective even the choice of dates to be 'celebrated' proved potentially controversial in itself? June 28th (2014) marked the anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo that started the European slide into war. Yet the Brits never really got involved in the mounting crisis until the very end of July 1914. August 1st saw Germany declare war on Russia and Serbia, France mobilized on the evening of August 2nd, when Germany invaded Belgium and attacked French troops. On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France. August 4th proved understandably more significant on this side of La Manche, as Britain declared war on Germany, nominally because of the invasion of Belgium. 

Fusiliers at Mons August 1914
When it came to selecting battles to commemorate the choice was interesting with Mons (23rd – 24th August 1914) and La Cateau (26th August 1914) both relatively small and largely British battles. What followed in rapid succession was First Marne (5th and 12th September 1914), First Aisne (13th September – 28th September 1914), La Bassée (10th October – 2nd November 1914) and First Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914).After the Mons and La Cateau much of the fighting of 1914 (on the Western Front) largely involved mostly French and Belgian troops attempting to hold off the German Armies.

Britain's involvement (aside from at sea) was initially limited to its small regular army and the Territorial Army. The larger British army’s never emerged until 1915 and 1916 (after conscription came in). One result of the brutal and sustained fighting of the autumn and early winter of 1914 was that by the end of the year the precision instrument that was the regular army had almost ceased to exist. The grim battles of Flanders halted the German advance short of the Channel Ports and Picardy and established the trench line that would become the Western Front of 1915 – 1918.

It is worth noting and worth remembering that Wales lost more men per capita than any other nation involved in the conflict. After the Somme, Ypres became the grim focus of the Western front. Back in 1917 where there was significant Welsh involvement with the 38th (Welsh) Division, the 29th Division with the 2nd South Wales Borderers and the 2nd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment and the Welsh Guards in the Guards Division all serving time at the Salient.

Many Welshmen who served in many other Welsh units and non Welsh units throughout the Salient from 1914 onwards and also in the multitude of non-Welsh units, not to forget the artillery, medical, supply and Tunnelling Companies, amongst other units. The grim battle of attrition lasted from the 31st July to the 6th November 1917.

It was fought in the heaviest rain for 30 years, which made the mud so deep that men and horses drowned. The battle ground to a halt when British and Canadian forces captured Passchendaele, this village was barely five miles beyond the starting point of the offensive. There were approximately 325,000 Allied casualties and some 260,000 German casualties by the battles end, amongst the many Welsh casualties was the poet 
Hedd Wyn.

Homes fit for Heroes
During the last 16 years successive Westminster governments have worked hard to ensure that our service personnel have had a much higher profile, making use of various important anniversaries of previous conflicts, sporting occasions and regularly promoting armed forces day.

The direct involvement of UK service personnel in the cycle of Blair’s wars has wound down, but we should remember how Westminster (with the honourable exception of the 1945 Labour Government) has treated our war veterans after previous war’s ended and faded into memory. We all need to work to ensure that never again does a Westminster Government makes the decision that dead heroes are cheaper and less trouble to maintain than live ones.

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