Making sense of the war a century on
The Great War of 1914-18 ended where it began, at Mons in Belgium. Just yards apart in the town’s St Symphorien Military Cemetery can be found the graves of the first and last British fatalities: Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment and Private George Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. In the years separating their deaths, another 700,000 British soldiers were killed in action. So, too, were 250,000 men from Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, India and other corners of the Empire. Indeed, it was the Canadians who recaptured Mons on November 11, 1918, and one of their number, Private George Price, would become the final casualty of the British Empire, shot by a German sniper just two minutes before the Armistice took effect at 11am. He, too, is buried in St Symphorien. This was, then, a fitting place for Theresa May to visit yesterday before she attended a gathering in France of those who today lead the countries that 100 years ago had been locked in one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.
The editorial in this newspaper on November 12, 1918 was headlined “The Surrender of Germany”. Therein lay the seeds of what would happen 21 years later, when war would engulf Europe once more. The four-year conflict was supposed to be the “war to end all wars”. Tragically, it wasn’t. The cessation was described as an armistice, which in German eyes meant they had not lost even though in reality they had. Perhaps sensing that, in Britain if not France, there was remarkably little animosity towards the German people, this newspaper reported how they had been led to disaster by the “Hohenzollern tyranny” of Prussia, much like a generation later they were said to have been immured in catastrophe by the Nazis. It wished them well as they tried to cope with the ignominy of defeat and fretted about the outbreak of anarchy and revolution, mindful of what had just happened in Russia.
On the home front there was unalloyed delight and relief. It was, said the Telegraph’s leader, “a great deliverance.” In the House of Commons, MPS adjourned to a service of thanksgiving before focusing on the terms of surrender. Germany had to hand over all its submarines, its capital ships and thousands of guns. The blockade of Germany was to continue and the Reich was to evacuate all occupied territory within 14 days, as well as returning Alsace and Lorraine to France, the provinces ceded after the war of 1870. The Rhineland was to be occupied and control of the bridges into Germany handed to the Allies. The French finally had their revenge for the humiliation of 1870, and Germany’s continental aggrandisement had been thwarted; but at what a cost in blood? Within hours of the Armistice, the Chancellor sought approval from Parliament for a vote of £700million (£38billion in today’s money) adding to a debt that would not be paid off until 2014.
Our continued fascination with the First World War owes much to its carnage and a sense that has grown over the years that it was pointless. Once, what mattered most was remembrance. From the interment of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey; the erection of the Cenotaph in Whitehall; the adoption of the poppy as the symbol of commemoration; even the publication of the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon: all played to a sense of loss and a need to pay homage. Until the Second World War, the traffic and the factories would stop at 11am on November 11 as a mark of respect. The two-minute silence many now observe on Armistice Day became confined to Remembrance Sunday before being restored only 20 years ago.
Today, it often seems that what matters most about the First World War is to try to understand why it happened at all; and yet at the time there was no suggestion, as there has been subsequently – particularly since the Sixties – that it was futile. The soldiers did not see it that way, for to do so was to concede that their great sacrifice had been for nothing. Moreover, this war was not a selfcontained event but another manifestation of Europe’s fractious and bloody history. It differed from what went before only in scale because industrialisation had made previously unimaginable levels of destruction possible. Even if the fire was lit in the Balkans, it was a continuation of the war of 1870 between Germany and France, drawing in other nations through mutual protection treaties.
Moreover, the Armistice was not an end but an interregnum before hostilities broke out again in 1939, pretty much between the same protagonists. Its impact on European civilisation was greater than any event since the Reformation, dismantling empires, breaking apart nations and deposing autocratic rulers. The Telegraph leader wrote: “We have saved an Empire, with all its liberal traditions, and have brought salvation, not for the first time in our history, to the continent of Europe when it seemed doomed to pass under the heel of a cruel and callous military autocracy.”
Indeed so. Just 30 miles from Mons is the battlefield of Waterloo, fought 100 years earlier to end a war against a different tyranny. Within a generation, the guns would start up once more.
‘This was not a self-contained event, but another manifestation of Europe’s bloody and fractious history’