Look Back in Anger! The Great War, its Aftermath, and its Relevance Today

D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover opens with a stark and powerful truth: “ours is an essentially tragic age… the cataclysm has happened, we are amongst the ruins.” It perfectly captures the despair and incredulity that embodied the views of so many people who continued to suffer from the scars of World War One. Unprecedented in human history, the Great War plunged humanity into a noxious cauldron brimming with butchery, slaughter and grief of carnal and interminable proportions. The war was to cast a shadow over global proceeding for decades to come. Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary in 1914, was more accurate than he anticipated when he remarked that “the lights are going out all over Europe and I doubt we will see them go on again in our lifetime.” Indeed, the disastrous aftermath of the Great War induced a paralysis of international relations and inadvertently planted the seeds of destruction which would lead to the unfolding of a Second World War. This year’s centenary commemoration provides a poignant opportunity to gaze back at the war and its aftermath, and try to educe a nugget of wisdom from the lessons of history.

Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums, ©1918, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums, ©1918, some rights reserved.

The First World War remains so significant because it fundamentally altered the way that war was waged and perceived. After 1918, war could no longer be conceived as a chivalrous pursuit, fought on distant battlefields, for the jingoistic glory of the Empire. Yet in 1914, without the benefit of hindsight, the cream of English youth followed their blind patriotism to fight for ‘King and Country’. Patriotic verses, such as the St Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, were successfully invoked to invigorate ‘heroism in the abstract’. In Vera Brittain’s immortalising classic, ‘A Testament of Youth’, even the scholarly and progressive Roland Leighton declared in conversation that he saw war as “ennobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising.” This is a fine example of the nauseating jingoism which captured the imagination of an entire generation. Those who failed to volunteer immediately were soon met with posters designed to intimidate men into ‘doing their bit’ for their country. One particularly effective poster, with a charming homely scene in the background, depicted a young girl sat on her father’s knee asking, ‘Daddy, what did you do in the last war?’

Yet, this eruption of jingoistic fervour was soon dampened by the bitterness of reality. The slow decay of time ushered in a deadly realism tinged with grievous loss, profound suffering and abject misery. For the first time, the home front was inescapably drawn into the abyss of war, with rationing and conscription imposed on all citizens. Another modern first was the threat of death by bombing. It seemed that even civilians were no longer safe. In total, the war claimed 9 million souls, an astronomical figure, with the bulk of a generation being decimated and left to rot in the fields of Flanders. For anyone in search of an illuminating glimpse of the squalor these soldiers endured, priority status must be given to the majestic war memoirs and poetry of literary titans such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Through gazing at these deeply personal and heartfelt accounts, the natural questions crops up: why on earth did such horrors have to be endured in the first place?

One substantive answer to this lies in the psyche of contemporaneous military leaders, whose visions were blinkered by a domineering strategy, known as the ‘cult of the offensive’. This pernicious attitude believed that victory could only be won by launching all-out strategies of conquest. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan is the best embodiment of this prevailing idea that “attack is the best form of defence.” Yet, this seemingly unanimous embracing of a fundamentally false set of political and military myths meant that military leaders failed to recognise the many advantages of pursuing defensive strategies, and failed to recognise the obstacles that aggressive tactics would be forced to confront. Indeed, British and French leaders were so perturbingly convinced that superior morale would overcome the superior defensive firepower hurtling from the German trenches, that troops were ordered to climb out into ‘No Man’s Land’ for what they knew would be almost certain death. Failure to follow this gruesome command would result in execution for cowardice. After four years of fighting, Germany sued for peace after suffering an almost capitulating defeat in battle. The long-lasting legacy of the war is annually recalled in a collective manner through the wearing of poppies as an enduring symbol of remembrance for the fallen.

In terms of the war’s repercussions, it is not an embellishment to say that the Treaty of Versailles was one of the most heinous political flops in history. It humiliated Germany through the parching of national pride, the stripping of territorial assets, the infliction of torturously high reparations, and the expurgation of her military forces. Regrettably, leaders in Britain and France heeded the opinions of their newly enfranchised democratic populaces, who espoused retributive rhetoric such as ‘Hang the Kaiser’ and ‘Make Germany Pay’, and imposed punitive treaties upon the now subjugated and defeated nations. Winston Churchill once declared, “In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Goodwill.” Contrary to the noble ideals of Churchill’s statesmanlike remark, there was a fatal absence of goodwill and magnanimity in the peace negotiations of Versailles and elsewhere. Indeed, the extreme vindictiveness of Versailles ushered in an age of uncertainty; thus providing extraordinarily amenable conditions which facilitated the growth of totalitarian ideologies and dictatorial regimes. Unequivocally, World War One and its aftermath must accept a prominent responsibility for Hitler’s ascendancy.

From 1917 onwards and throughout the inter-war years, a blizzard of change swept through the European continent. Vast autocratic empires crumbled into dust, ancient monarchies were toppled, the air became tinged with revolutionary fervour, and Europe became polarised by the ideological extremes of fascism and communism. This was an epoch that required strong hegemonic leadership in order to cultivate the nascent democracies, guard them from undesirable political extremes, and lead them to fruition and prosperity. Unfortunately, the initial optimism of Wilsonian idealism ended in colossal disappointment. Without the military backing and the threat of force, the League’s potential to be a force for good was ruinously curtailed.

In this period, the League desperately needed a liberal hegemon to carry forward the flame of Wilsonian liberalism, and ensure that democracy was upheld in lands still unaccustomed to its practices. Yet, not a single nation had the stomach to grab the reins of leadership. Former hegemons sunk into a stupor of depression, and the Wall Street Crash led to the exacerbation of defence-spending parsimony. France and the United States retreated into a shell of reclusive isolationism, and Britain followed tradition by refocusing its gaze on imperial matters.

The inability of the stronger League of Nations powers to uphold collective security and peaceable international norms stimulated apathetic attitudes towards the growth of totalitarianism. Britain, along with many other countries, was immersed in the grip of a pacifist dream. Forward-thinking and progressive intellectuals began to garner prestige as their cosmopolitan ideas gained currency. E. M. Forster captured the spirit of the age by remarking: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” The infamous 1933 Oxford Union Debate similarly epitomised this shift in values, when it declared that ‘This House will not fight for King and Country.’ This ambivalence to constructively interacting with the international community, engaging in tough decision-making, and cultivating long-term national strategies meant that the democratic powers were woefully unprepared to deal with the unprecedented threats posed by belligerent fascist regimes determined to wage war at any cost.

The prevailing lesson that can be learned from the First World War and its dire aftermath is that complacency can act as the enemy of common sense. When faced with the alarming and unprecedented challenges of the twenty-first century, it simply will not do to idly sweep these problems under the carpet of inertia. Norman Angell’s 1909 classic The Great Illusion sensibly propounded that Europe’s increasingly globalised economies were integrated to such an extraordinary extent that war would be unthinkable. Even though this was a widely accepted truth, the world was still eclipsed by war in 1914.

One thread of similarity that unites us with our forebears a century ago is the troubling resurgence of nationalism as a political force, especially in the BRIC nations. Nationalism is a scourge of humanity, and represents a malignant and mutated offshoot of the more benign patriotism. Throughout the world, nationalism is being whipped up at a truly alarming rate. In China, the all-powerful state is energetically cultivating a growing Japanophobia. In India, Narendra Modi (a Hindu nationalist who resolutely refuses to apologise for a pogrom inflicted on Muslims in the regional state he controls, and who, if elected to power, would have his finger on the nuclear button in a potential conflict with neighbouring Pakistan) might get elected next year. Moreover, Putin is pursuing a strategy of nationalistically flexing Russia’s military muscles, most recently over the political debacle in Ukraine.

Perhaps above all else, the First World War teaches us that nothing is so fragile as the illusion of civilisation, and assuming reason will prevail is not enough. The single biggest threat to global security is an isolationist America. Presently, and in contradiction to his supposedly progressive values, Barack Obama appears to be pulling back from regions of the world where an American presence is most required. Obama’s rather lethargic attitude towards foreign affairs has meant that he has not applied enough effort to building bridges of dialogue with the Middle East, and consequently a groundswell of suspicion lingers between the United States and the Arab countries. The US President has similarly adopted an unashamedly laissez-faire attitude towards the tragic turmoil engulfing Syria.

Problematically, Obama has done little to warmly assimilate the emerging BRIC giants into playing a strong and constructive role in the development of a more equitable international framework. The BRICs will be less likely to pursue quests for aggressive hegemony if they can engage in productive dialogue with the West, and more particularly the United States. Alas, after six years in office, Obama’s lack of appetite for engaging in foreign affairs phenomena is unlikely to change. Let us ardently hope, that if Hillary Clinton becomes President in 2016, the United States will rise up to the challenge of playing a fruitful role as the world’s foremost hegemon.

The US thrives as a nation when it undertakes an internationalist view of global events. Winston Churchill once declared: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing, and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” America needs to be roused from its deep sleep of complacency, and remember that the mantle of the free world still lies in the palm of its hand. Domestic pressures are no excuse for shunning the problems facing the international community. The world needs a benign policeman, equipped with the harmonious qualities of democratic values, progressive liberalism, and a reservoir of goodwill. We look back to history to gain a greater sense of who we are, and where we are going. Looking back to World War One and its aftermath, we should begin to appreciate that the rise of nationalism, belligerent strives for hegemony, and indifference by the West, should all give cause for concern.