As the world remembers the centenary of the end of World War 1, John Molyneux asks what those in the deadliest war in history died for, in an extensive three part series for Rebel.
World War 1, which began on 28 January 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918, was the largest and deadliest war in history up to that point in time and subsequently has only been exceeded in terms of scale and casualties by World War 2.
It was fought between the Allied (or Entente) Powers, principally Britain, France and Russia plus the United States after 1917, and the Central Powers, principally Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. However, over forty countries were drawn into the conflict including places that were completely peripheral to the main issues, such as Panama, Nicaragua and Liberia, or nations whose very existence remains unknown to most people today, such as the Dervish State, Jabal Shammar and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-20).
In all, WW1 claimed at least 37 million casualties, which can be divided roughly into 16 million or so dead and 20 million or so wounded. On the Allied side (the victors) there were 5,525,000 military dead, including about 49,000 Irish, and nearly 13 million military wounded compared to 4,386,000 military dead and 8,388,000 wounded on the side of the Central Powers (the vanquished). To these figures have to be added over 4 million missing from the Allies and 3.6 million missing from the Central Powers. Given that casualties on the ‘winning’ side substantially exceeded those on the losing side, it is very clear that victory was purchased with the lives of soldiers.
The question that leaps out from these bare but grim statistics is simply, ‘What did they die for?’ When one looks more closely into how they died – for example the 20,000 British soldiers, including over 3,500 Irish, who died marching into machine gun fire on the first day of the Battle of the Somme1 or the hideous calculated deaths from the poison gas used by both sides2 – the question only becomes more urgent.
Attempts to answer this question usually come from the perspective of a particular nation – what did Irish or British or German soldiers die for? And so on. This is understandable, particularly in the case of Ireland where precisely the absence of any clear national interest is so striking. As Yeats’s Irish airman put it:
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
– WB Yeats An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.
Nevertheless a nation-centred question favours a nationalist answer – ‘they died for their country’; British for Britain, Germans for Germany, etc. Instead in this essay I want first to pose the question in general terms, to ask what the war was about as whole for its various participants and on that basis return to the matter of what the Irish might be said to have died for at the end. I want to begin by considering the two currently dominant views of the origins and nature of the war:
1. The war was basically the responsibility of Germany or Germany and Austria-Hungary
2. The war was essentially an accident, or series of accidents and various governments sleepwalked into it.
It was Germany’s Fault
The view that the war was caused by German (and Austria-Hungarian) aggression was, of course, the line of the British, French and Russian governments, strongly backed by their respective media, at the time, as well as the basis on which Irish people were urged to participate and the premise for the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the War. It will also be the assumption underpinning the British Conservative government’s plans to commemorate the War’s centenary.
Proof that this view is still very influential in academic circles was provided by the BBC. In February of this year they asked ten leading British historians to answer the question ‘Who started World War 1?’ . Of the ten, six answered unequivocally Germany or Austria-Hungary and Germany. One answered Austria-Hungary and Germany plus Russia, three also apportioned some blame to Britain, France, Russia and Serbia and one held Serbia mainly responsible.
Sir Max Hastings said:
No one nation deserves all the responsibility for the outbreak of war, but Germany seems to me to deserve most. It alone had the power to halt the descent to disaster at any time in July 1914 by withdrawing its “blank cheque” which offered support to Austria for its invasion of Serbia.
Professor Gary Sheffield stated:
The war was started by the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Vienna seized the opportunity presented by the assassination of the archduke [Franz Ferdinand] to attempt to destroy its Balkan rival Serbia. This was done in the full knowledge that Serbia’s protector Russia was unlikely to stand by and this might lead to a general European war.
Germany gave Austria unconditional support in its actions, again fully aware of the likely consequences. Germany sought to break up the French-Russian alliance and was fully prepared to take the risk that this would bring about a major war. Some in the German elite welcomed the prospect of beginning an expansionist war of conquest. The response of Russia, France and later Britain, were reactive and responsive.
Professor John Rohl argued:
WW1 did not come about by accident or because diplomacy failed. It broke out as the result of a conspiracy between the governments of imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary to bring about war, albeit in the hope that Britain would stay out.
And Professor Gerhard Hirschfield stated:
Long before the outbreak of hostilities Prussian-German conservative elites were convinced that a European war would help to fulfil Germany’s ambition for colonies and for military as well as political prestige in the world.
The strength of this viewpoint, apart from being music to the ears of the British establishment, is that it does correspond to a number of well known facts about the actual outbreak of hostilities. It is true that the Austro-Hungarian government responded to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (which had not in itself caused much stir in Vienna) with a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia that was deliberately designed to be unacceptable. It is true that Austria-Hungary proceeded to mobilise even when Serbia accepted the ultimatum with the exception of two minor points. It is true that the German government gave unconditional backing to Austria-Hungary in this in the full knowledge that this was likely to lead to war with Russia and its ally France (though they hoped Britain would stay out).
Thus it is clear that Austria-Hungary and Germany both wanted war in August 1914 and that, as the German historian Fritz Fischer was to show in his famous work ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’, the German government consciously wanted to use the war to establish its own empire in Mitteleuropa, i.e. a corridor of German power from Berlin to Baghdad, as well as expanding its empire in Africa.
However, this position has two major weaknesses. The first is its focus on how the war actually started in contrast to the wider historical context in which the war was prepared. The second is that establishing the culpability of Austria-Hungary and Germany is not at all the same as establishing the innocence of Russia, France and Britain.
The question of ‘who fired the first shot?’ or ‘who started it?’, the traditional question posed in relation to the playground scrap, is completely inadequate in determining responsibility for wars. For example, the Algerian War of Independence was undoubtedly ‘started’ by the Algerian FLN on 1 November 1954, with a series of attacks on French targets, only if we leave out of account the inconvenient fact that Algeria had been subject to brutal French colonial rule since 1830. Similarly the Irish War of Independence was ‘begun’ by Irish Volunteers who refused to accept the further prolongation of centuries old British rule.
Gary Sheffield argues that Austria-Hungary acted ‘in the full knowledge that Serbia’s protector Russia was unlikely to stand by and this might lead to a general European war’ and that, ‘Germany gave Austria unconditional support in its actions, again fully aware of the likely consequences’. But if Austria- Hungary and Germany were fully aware of the likely consequences, why did this not also apply to Russia, France and Britain?
And if the likely consequences were European War then we also need to ask why that was the case. Take the example of Russia, which we are told was Serbia’s protector. Why was Russia Serbia’s protector? The idea that Tsarist Russia, the prison house of smaller nations from the Baltic to Central Asia, was deeply committed to the rights of the Serbian people has about as much credibility as the idea that America waged the Vietnam War out of its passionate concern for the freedom of the South Vietnamese (who they had been more than happy to hand back to the rule of the French). No, Russia was Serbia’s protector for the same reason that Austria-Hungary wanted to crush it – because this served their imperial interests in the area. From the standpoint of its geo-political interests, Russia, whether Tsarist, Stalinist or run by Putin, has always wanted to control as much of the Balkans and the Black Sea area as possible, regardless of the wishes of the local people. In reality Russia was not in the least forced or obliged to go to war over Serbia – it did so because it calculated that this was in its interests.
Exactly the same applies to France and to Britain. Nothing obliged them to go to war in solidarity with Russia except their own calculation of their own imperialist interests. To the argument that they were ‘honour bound’ to do so because of treaties they had made, there are several powerful replies. Why did they make those treaties in the first place? Britain, France and Russia were not ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ allies; for much of the 18th and 19th century, Britain treated France (not Germany) as its main enemy and they fought several major wars. In the Crimean War of 1853-56, Britain and France fought against Russia. The term ‘jingoism’ dates from a popular music hall song in 1877:
We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople
Moreover, the rulers who signed these treaties never showed any compunction about tearing them up when it suited them. The Italian government was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria but in August 1914 opted out of the alliance on the grounds that it only covered defence and stayed neutral until May 1915 when they declared war on Austria-Hungary, so clearly the treaties were not sacred. But, of course, there is a much deeper question involved here. Is it reasonable to sacrifice the lives of two million French and British citizens to keep ‘the word’ of a few aristocrats and emperors?
The role of Russia is important here for another reason. Germany had a (deserved) reputation for militarism and authoritarianism. Consequently the argument that Germany started the war was, and is, supplemented with the argument that it was necessary to resist Germany in the name of democracy and freedom. In truth there was very little to choose between Germany and France and Britain in this regard. In 1871 the German army had collaborated with the French army to suppress the Paris Commune, slaughtering 30,000 people on the streets of Paris in one week. Britain, obviously, recognised neither democracy nor freedom in any of its innumerable colonies, beginning with Ireland, and Britain was far short of being a democracy in 1914 with only a small minority of men and no women having the vote. But the fact that France and Britain were fighting in alliance with Russia destroys the argument completely as Tsarist Russia was known worldwide as the declared enemy of democracy, freedom and any kind of liberal progress. Because of this, the British pro-war propagandists of the time played down the role of Russia, concentrating on the behaviour of Germany, and this is still true today.
Conversely in Germany the pro-war propagandists of the time played up the war against Russia precisely so that they could present themselves as defending progress and ‘civilization’ against backwardness, reaction and barbarism. This was especially the case with the social democrat and ‘socialist’ advocates of the war3. In her anti-war pamphlet, ‘The Junius Brochure’, Rosa Luxemburg quotes extensively on this theme from the German social democratic press of August 1914:
When it comes to defending our country against bloody Czarism we will not be made citizens of the second class…
…the Social Democrats, since the fight is against Russian Blood-Czarism, against the perpetrator of a million crimes against freedom and culture, will allow none to excel them in the fulfillment of their duty…
We are fighting to defend ourselves not so much against England and France as against Czarism. But this war we carry on with the greatest enthusiasm, for it is the war for civilization.
But, as Luxemburg went on to point out, the German Kaiser and Russian Tsar were not only blood relatives and close personal friends, but had been political allies and partners in crime in crushing democratic, national and working class movements right up to the outbreak of war.
The role of ‘bloody Czarism’ in Germany was the mirror image of the role of ‘Prussian militarism’ in Britain. In both cases shining the spotlight on the (real) crimes of their chosen enemy, while leaving the rest of the scene in darkness, helped the rulers in each camp to conceal their own motives from their respective populations, i.e. those who would do the actual dying. In this respect World War 1 was much like most wars. Governments and their associated media always claim to be waging a defensive war against an evil enemy.
Continued in ‘What did they die for? – Part 2’
- Nearly 2,000 soldiers from cities, towns, villages and town lands of Ulster were killed in the first few hours of fighting, an event which seared itself into the folk memory of their community.
- See the graphic description in Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’. The use of poison gas performed by all major belligerents throughout World War I constituted war crimes as its use violated the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, which prohibited the use of “poison or poisoned weapons” in warfare.
- Up to August 1914 the German Social Democratic Party (SDP), which was a mass party of a million members, had been strongly anti-war but when the war actually broke out its leaders (along with the leaders of most of Europe’s socialist parties) switched to supporting the war in the name of ‘Defence of the Fatherland’