Sunday 17 December 2017

Reason lost in fog of war

The so-called Great War 
was not fought for democracy and justice as the statesmen of the day insisted it was, writes Anthony Cronin

British soldiers in Belgium in 1916. Photo by Fr Browne, from ‘Father Browne’s First World War’.
British soldiers in Belgium in 1916. Photo by Fr Browne, from ‘Father Browne’s First World War’.

Anthony Cronin

Some time, I think, in the late 1930s, the British Legion put up a hut for its members in my native town, Enniscorthy. It had barely room for a billiard table and a bench alongside it for spectators to sit on. It was in the worst part of town where sociability was concerned, down by the river near the gasworks, a place deserted after dark by all except for occasional obnoxious urchins throwing stones at lamp-posts. Thus were rewarded the survivors of the more than two hundred men from the town who had enlisted to take part in the Great War, or the World War I, which began, as far as Britain and Ireland were concerned, one hundred years ago tomorrow, and which was a disaster from which humanity has still to recover - from which indeed it may never recover, morally at least.

There is still a vague impression, fostered by various presidents and other politicians who have joined with their British contemporaries in ceremonial remembrances, that the war was actually fought for democracy and the rights of small nations as was proclaimed at the time, and that these were somehow in jeopardy and had to be defended. It is perhaps worth noting that no politician has ever stood at a memorial to those who died in any conflict and said, "the war in which these men perished was a blunder of gigantic proportions. And furthermore it was not fought for the reasons the statesmen of the day said were just and necessary. It was fought for quite other reasons which were never disclosed."

Britain's participation was decided after a lengthy cabinet meeting at which David Lloyd George, who had been expected to take the opposite stance and could have prevented Britain's voluntary subjection to calamity by doing so, eventually came down in favour of war. Ireland's wholehearted support for the war policy was urged by John Redmond in what appears to have been an impromptu speech at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, and in a more considered oration in the House of Commons. Redmond had cards in his hand. The most charitable thing to say about him is that he either didn't play them at all or he played them with astonishing ineptitude.

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