First World War

In Britain popular interest in the First World War runs at levels that surprise almost all other nations, with the possible exception of France. For a war that was global, it is a massively restricted vision: a conflict measured in yards of mud along a narrow corridor of Flanders and northern France. It knows nothing of the Italian Alps or of the Masurian lakes; it bypasses the continent of Africa and Asia, and it forgets the war’s other participants – diplomats and sailors, politicians and labourers, women and children.

Casualty figures do provide a satisfactory explanation for such insularity. British deaths in the First World War may have exceeded those of the Second, and Britain is unusual, if not unique in this respect. The reverse is true for Germany and Russia, as it is for the United States.

By the mid-1920s, the population of Britain, like those of other belligerents, was recovering to its pre-war levels. In the crude statistics of rates of marriages and reproduction there was no ‘lost generation.’ But the British and particularly the better educated classes, believed there was. The legacy of literature, and its effects on shaping memory, have proved far more influential than economic and political realities.


War as a general phenomenon: “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” is he insists, “an old lie.” – Wilfred Owen, killed in action on 4 November 1918.  His mother did not receive the news until after the fighting was over. The war both did for Owen and made him. The war gave him material which transformed him into one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century. For school children throughout Britain his verses are often their first and most profound encounter with the First World War. Owen did not achieve canonical status until the 1960s. The first edition of his poems sold 730 copies in December 1920. A further 700 copies printed in 1921 were still not sold out by 1929.

By then, the collected poems of another victim of the war, Rupert Brooke, had run to 300,000 copies. For Brooke’s “The Soldier” death in battle was both sweet and fitting. Of course, Brooke’s continuing popularity reflected in large measure the desire of wives and mothers, of parents and children, to find solace in their mourning. They needed the reassurance that their loss was not in vain. But it makes another point that the First World War was capable of many interpretations, and that until at least the late 1920s those different meanings co-existed with each other. Every adult across Europe, and many in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, had his or her own sense of the war’s significance. The conviction that the war was both wasteful and futile was neither general nor even dominant.


Units from the martial races from India were sent to France in the autumn of 1914

When the great powers of Europe embarked on war in 1914 popular conceptions of combat were shaped more by the past than by prognostications of the future. The literature of warning, both popular and professional, was abundant. But hope prevailed over realism, and in truth the circumstances of the outbreak created little choice: for every nation the war seemed to be one of national self-defence, and the obligations on its citizens was therefore irrefutable. By December 1916 the nature of war, its costs and casualties, and their threat of social upheaval were self-evident. But even then, none of the belligerents seized the opportunity of negotiations which the United States held out. The differences in values and ideologies look less stark than they seemed then only because we have been hardened by the later clashes between Fascism and Bolshevism, and between both of them and western liberalism. The very fact of the United States entry into the war in April 1917 makes the point. Woodrow Wilson had been “too proud to fight.” He was deeply opposed to the use of war for the furtherance of policy, and the evidence of the battles of Verdun and the Somme in 1916 should have consolidated that belief. So, when he took the United States into the war, he laboured under few illusions as to the horrors which men like Wilfred Owen had experienced at first hand. But he concluded that the United States had to wage war if it was to shape the future of international relations. It may have been a vision which the Senate rejected in the war’s immediate aftermath, but it still inspires American foreign policy.

This is of course the biggest paradox in our understanding of the war. On the one hand it was an unnecessary war fought in a manner that defied common sense, but on the other it was the war that shaped the world in which we still live. When the First World War began, historians, especially in Imperial Germany, identified a “long” nineteenth century, starting with the French Revolution in 1789 and ending in 1914. For their successors that was when the “short” twentieth century began, and it ended with the conclusion of the Cold War in 1990. The subsequent conflicts in the Balkans brought home to many the role played by the multinational Hapsburg Empire in keeping the lid on ethnic and cultural difference before 1914. Between 1917 and 1990, the Soviet Union’s ideological confrontation with the west performed a not dissimilar function. But the Soviet Union was itself an heir of the First World War, the product of the Russian revolution. Its authoritarianism established a form of international order, especially in eastern Europe after 1945. The sort of localized war which had triggered world war in 1914 was suppressed precisely because of that precedent: the fear of a big war now contained and defused the dangers inherent in a small one. However, for eastern Europe there was another lesson from the First World War, and it was a very different one from that which it is commonly associated in the west today. War was not futile. For the revolutionaries, as for the subject nationalities of the Hapsburg Empire, the war had delivered.

In the Middle East, the reverse applied. The war satisfied nobody. The British and French were given temporary control of large chunks of the former Ottoman Empire, thus frustrating the ambitions of Arab independence. Moreover, contradictory promises were made in the process, in particular Arthur Balfour, the former British prime minister, declared that the Jews would find a homeland in Palestine. The roots of today’s Middle Eastern conflict lie here.

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