Mak­ing sense of the war a cen­tury on

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters to the editor - Es­tab­lished 1855

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’

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