“A wide road leads to war. A narrow path leads home” – Russian proverb
On 4th August 1914 we declared war on Germany. By the time the war ended more than 8.5 million soldiers were killed on all fronts – this is a conservative estimate based on U.S. War department figures from 1924.
More than 21 million men were wounded; bodies and faces disfigured, limbs missing, minds shattered. “Of every 20 British men between 18 and 32 when the war broke out, three were dead and six wounded when it ended.”
“Higher than the military toll were the civilian deaths, estimated at 12 to 13 million” – lives lost to military bombardment, air raids, famine and disease created by blockade, spread of harmful bacteria due to damaged water and drainage systems, diversion of valuable resources to supply the war at the expense of the civilian population, ethnic cleansing, such as the Armenian massacre for which the war was an excuse.
During the operation of the war democracy was suspended for all countries participating; British propaganda insisted we were fighting German militarism for the freedom of plucky little Belgium while in reality it was a war about protecting empire, capitalism and trade. Declarations of War are never the purview of democracies. (NB. Talk of democracy must be qualified – in 1914 all women and 40% of men were disenfranchised).
The Treaty of London has often been cited as the excuse we needed to engage in war with Germany, we were committed by that treaty to safeguard Belgian neutrality, but the Foreign Office at the time concluded that that might not be the case.
Prime Minister Asquith spoke to the house on 6th August declaring that this was a war not over Britain’s self-interest but instead he spoke of a moral crusade; that, in spite of our declaring war on Germany 2 days earlier, we were not the aggressors, but like some romantic mythical knight we were defending principles “vital to the civilisation of the world.” (Sound familiar?).
Four days after declaring war on Germany, the British government passed the Defence of the Realm Act which gave the government wide ranging powers, such as the requisition of buildings or land or the creation of regulations making any act it chose a criminal act. Enabling such laws is easy when you declare war, whether it is a war on terror, drugs, or austerity.
By sentimentalising the Great War and distancing ourselves with ritualised acts of remembrance we are in danger of suspending our critical faculties and failing to learn from the events of history. Ironically, Acts of Remembrance work to distance us from the reality of the world of those we seek to remember. These rituals distract us from critical examination of our own society and from noticing how willingly, and undemocratically our leaders continue to suspend democracy and take us into war.
To end all Wars – Adam Hochschild
Blighty – Gerard J de Groot
The Lost History of 1914 – Jack Beatty