We do a huge disservice to the dead of World War I to say they died in vain
Published 08/08/2014 | 02:30
‘War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, listen to me. War, it ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreaker.’ So go the opening lyrics of ‘War’ by Edwin Starr released as a protest song during the Vietnam War.
This is exactly the question a new book named after the song tries to answer. The author, Ian Morris says war is sometimes good for something.
He says that in Stone Age societies the percentage of people who died violently was between ten and twenty percent. At the height of the Roman Empire the death rate by violence had dropped to about five percent. Rome achieved this through conquest.
The number of deaths by violence then ebbed and flowed according to whether there was a strong ruler in charge who could impose peace, or else continual chaos and anarchy of the sort we’re currently witnessing in much of the Middle East.
Morris’s paradoxical thesis therefore is that when a clear victor emerges from war, lives are saved over the long-run, especially if the victor is relatively benign. It’s an extremely utilitarian approach to the topic, but suppose he’s right?
One war practically everyone thinks was good for absolutely nothing was the First World War. Our view of that war has been almost completely conditioned by poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. They have taught us to think the ‘Great War’ was an exercise in futility.
So, for that matter, has the likes of Blackadder Goes Forth. Anyone who watched that remembers Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Robinson (Baldrick) as the doomed British soldiers going over the top and dying seemingly for nothing in the final scene of the final episode. For a comedy, it was a very poignant moment.
World War I was unique in British history up to that point because it was the first time ever Britain used conscription and the first time ever that Britain committed millions upon millions of men to a fight that went on for several years.
By the time the war was over, more than nine million British and Commonwealth soldiers had taken part in the fighting and nine hundred thousand had died. My wife’s grandfather joined the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (the ‘ANZACs’) and was wounded at the Somme.
In every war Britain had fought in up to that point, it committed smallish armies of professional soldiers to battle and the battles were mostly like the Battle of Waterloo, that is, fierce engagements that lasted a day or two but no continual front with vast armies facing each other.
So Britain had never experienced a war like World War I. This is why World War I is so etched into the British imagination and now, retrospectively, we are trying to etch it into our own imagination.
Other countries suffered vastly more than Britain did in that war. France obviously did. But Serbia suffered worst of all losing fully one quarter of its population.
Wilfred Owen’s most famous poem about the supposed futility of World War I is Dulce et Docorum Est. Owen vividly paints the litany of woe that is war and then invites the reader to believe that those who died in the First World War died for nothing when he condemns as a lie, ‘Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori’ (‘It is sweet and right to die for your country’).
But that is not how many of the men who fought in that war felt about the matter. This is crucial. Some felt as Owen did but lots did not. Their testimony demands to be taken seriously and does not deserve to be overshadowed because they were mostly ordinary men who did not write poetry.
One of the leading historians of the First World War is Hew Strachan. Strachan points out that when the first edition of Owen’s poem was published in 1920 it sold only 730 copies.
Another 700 printed in 1921 did not sell out until 1929, that is, they were bought at the rate of less than one hundred per year.
Another poet who fought and died in the war was Rupert Brooke. Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, which said the deaths of the soldiers was not in vain, sold 300,000 copies.
Strachan points out that Owen did not become popular until the 1960s when the composer Benjamin Britten incorporated nine poems by Owen in his War Requiem.
Strachan says that for years after the war, veterans would meet to mark Armistice Day and these were occasions for “reunions and drinking, for celebration as well as commemoration”.
Max Hastings in his book about the first months of the war, ‘Catastrophe’, quotes one veteran, Henry Mellersh, who completely rejected the notion that the war was a futile waste.
Mellersh said: “I and my like entered the war expecting an heroic adventure and believing implicitly in the rightness of our cause; we ended up greatly disillusioned as to the nature of the adventure, but still believing that our cause was right and we had not fought in vain”.
And how could their effort have been in vain? The only alternative was a German victory.
Hastings points out that Owen and Sassoon never set out a realistic vision of how the war could be brought to an early end without conceding victory to Germany.
Germany that had invaded Belgium triggering British entry into a war it did not want.
So long as Germany insisted on staying on the field of battle with the intention of conquering all of France, what choice did the Allied powers have but to keep fighting?
The answer is they had none. So the Owen and Sassoon view that the death of the Allied soldiers was in vain, while it appeals to many people, is a huge disservice to those soldiers and we ought to know that for their sake.