Following Remembrance on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, the time seems right to view the BBC’s 1964 documentary series ‘The Great War’. All 26 episodes, each 40 minutes long, are easily found on YouTube – just search on google for ‘BBC Great War 1964 YouTube’ and the first episode will come up. For obvious reasons, it’s in black and white, but the use of original newsreel and photographs, plus interviews with those who fought, offer a first-hand experience of history – the only factor that pins it to the era of its making is the posh pronunciation of the narrators (better, though, than the grunters and mumblers of today!).
I’m watching it again because the anniversary prompted me to examine and contemplate the causes of this most terrible of conflicts, at a time when our Great Leaders persistently attempt to draw the West into wars (sometimes successfully, sometimes not – yet). Some people call this ‘historical revisionism’; I call it ‘finding out the real story’.
The ‘Schoolbook Version’ is essentially the narrative which the BBC series follows – understandably, a television series cannot delve into the minutiae of paperwork. Our schoolteachers and basic history books told us that ‘treaty obligations’ to ‘protect plucky little Belgium’
pulled us into the fight, as well as a need to slap down the Kaiser’s German Empire and its threat to the Royal Navy. These are the cliches.
But some more serious study leads you to the conclusion that it was not Britain’s fight; essentially it was a continental conflict, which aimed at implementing Germany’s key foreign policy – Lebensraum, or expansion eastwards towards Russia.
But first, Germany had to remove France from the equation so as to avoid fighting a war on two fronts. Their priority, as in WW2, was not the Western Front, but the war in the East. Lebensraum was not a Hitlerian idea; it had been German foreign policy from the moment it became a nation state mid-19th century. It still is: Note
(German-dominated) EU meddling in Ukraine.
I did some research, which included reading relevant passages from Hansard (the minutes of Parliament), and came up with the following
1) The treaty that took Britain into the war ‘to protect plucky little Belgium’ was signed in 1839, a full 75 years before 1914.
2) There was nothing in this treaty that obligated Britain ‘to go to war’ to protect Belgium. It only required signatories to RESPECT Belgian neutrality.
3) No war was provoked in 1864 when Germany invaded Schleswig Holstein. Why this time?
4) In 1870, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, Prime Minister Gladstone thought so little of the 1839 treaty that he signed NEW treaties with France and Germany to protect Belgium, overriding the
1839 one. These treaties DID obligate a war in the event of an invasion of Belgium, but were set to lapse just one year after peace broke out. By 1914 only the non-obliging 1839 treaty remained.
So there are very good reasons to regard the relevant treaty a spurious pretext as the cause of the war. It was just a very old piece of paper.
In addition, I found that Germany had given a guarantee to Belgium that if the country allowed its army to pass unhindered on its way to take Paris (as required by the Schlieffen Plan) it would do no harm to people and property. Unfortunately for Europe, Belgium stupidly did resist, thus delaying the invasion of France. You could well argue that the curbing of the Plan’s intended quick execution led directly to the armies’ getting bogged down in Eastern France; and therefore to four terrible years of trench warfare.
Then I read selections from Hansard, and especially from the speech of the Foreign Affairs Minister Edward Grey. This was clearly a very mendacious effort, which included half-lies and omissions, designed to force a call for war. Tony Blair, anyone?
The Commons debate on entering the war lasted all of two hours, and NO VOTE was taken.
All the above has been examined in recently published books by well-regarded academics. But none of the above was mentioned in school history lessons or in set schoolbooks. We were just meant to swallow the ‘we went to war to protect plucky little Belgium’ mantra (despite the fact going to war DIDN’T protect Belgium at all), and we are expected to blindly accept this as justification for the most disastrous event in modern history.
If this is ‘historic revisionism’, I’m all for it. We should use this example to ensure that we step back from the version that is presented to us and look behind the agenda, for there is plenty of evidence that we have been kept in ignorance as to the true nature of many events.
Now as much as then: WMD, ‘beheadings’, Putin’s aggression, etc, etc.
The ‘Schoolbook Version’ says one thing; real life is often different.
There’s very good reason to question schoolbookery. If you don’t question it, you are – to paraphrase the cliché – doomed to repeat the mistake, as the West seems intent on doing at present.
It is clear from the real events of 1914 that someone in authority wanted a war. People who join the dots understand that the propaganda (those nasty Germans, bayonetting Belgian babies!) which whipped up patriotic fervour was part of the same plan. Ordinary people bayed for war; trumped-up treaty ‘obligations’ got it for them.
Despite the propaganda, there is strong evidence from contemporary documents that a significant minority of the public did NOT want a war. But schoolbookery favours the sweeping statement that ‘everyone wanted war’.
It’s often said that old men send young men to fight their wars; and that if the young men refused to go to war, there wouldn’t be any. But it’s our misfortune that young men have always champed at the bit that’s offered. Look at those heading today for Islamic State.
So young men went to war in 1914 for excitement and adventure, at least as much to fight for King and Country. Imagine if you’re a hefty lad whose life will be spent pulling up mangolds in a muddy field in Norfolk, or bashing rivets in a factory in Bolton. Of course you’ll want to go; it’s exciting!
And the said young men may well pretend, even to themselves, that they are going for some other reason – to free Jerusalem, to fight the dirty Hun, to promote Islam, whatever.
Folk who insist it was only ‘patriotic fervour’ that motivated them should check the written evidence. I’ll offer two pieces here that just happened to be saved in my computer; I am sure a serious search would uncover more.
The first is an extract from an anthology of contemporary sources and memoirs. Note particularly the last paragraph:
One hundred years ago exactly, in the summer of 1914, teenager Len Thompson was thrilled by the prospect of war.
‘We were all delighted when war broke out on August 4,’ he would recall, ‘bursting with happiness.’
It was not that the hardy, blue-eyed teenager from East Anglia was particularly blood-thirsty. Or politically minded. Or jingoistic. But soldiering for King and Country held prospects for him that were otherwise far beyond his poverty-stricken reach.
He was ‘damned glad to have got off the farms.’ No wonder that hundreds of thousands of young men like him flocked to the colours.
Thompson’s account of his recruitment – included in a profoundly moving new anthology of memoirs and contemporary letters and diaries collected by Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks and professor of English Hope Wolf – reminds us that the eagerness with which a generation of young men offered themselves up for sacrifice was both appalling and fascinating.
In the beginning, the youthful wish for excitement was as important as the rush of bash-Kaiser-Bill patriotism. It would be over by Christmas – everyone said so – so don’t be left behind, get in quickly and grab your piece of the action.
The second comes from an article by columnist Simon Heffer, who wrote that his father joined up aged 16 in September 1914. This boy’s own father encouraged him: ‘It will be over by Christmas. Let the boy have an adventure.’
Adventure… It is no slander to admit young men’s need for excitement.
In examining the causes of war, we should look at the full picture rather than reverting to the thought-free default mode of sweeping statements of ‘patriotic fervour’ and the schoolbook ‘treaty obligations’ excuse.
As the columnist Peter Hitchens recently wrote: ‘The contrast between the myth of 1939-45 and the reality of history is so huge that most people, confronted with any part of the truth, just goggle, gibber and angrily refuse to believe demonstrable facts.’ This could just as easily be applied to the myth of 1914.
And why do folk continue to gibber? I think it’s because they are in denial. If the official version – the schoolbook story – is wrong, then they are forced (kicking and screaming, fingers in ears) to question the motives of those in authority, and possibly will have to reach the conclusion that our leaders are not the benevolent beings we wish them to be. And that would never do, would it?