I had the privilege last week of speaking at Exeter University Debating Society, opposing the motion that “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I am pleased to say that those present voted against the motion by seventy votes to forty.
The motion was proposed by Andrew Murrison, a minister for Northern Ireland and the government’s Special Representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. He was supported by Daniel Steinbach, a historian from King’s College London. I was pleased to be joined in opposing the motion by Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition. The debate was chaired by Exeter student Lewis Saffin.
Prior to the debate, I had pointed out on my blog that Andrew Murrison’s support for the motion undermined his stated desire not to glorify the first world war. When it came to the debate, Andrew said he did “not like” the wording of the motion but would instead argue that World War One was a just war. This is hardly the same thing, so I’m not clear why Andrew agreed to propose the motion. However, in voting against the motion, the students seemed to be ejecting his claim about just war as well as the wording of the motion itself.
The text below equates roughly to the words I used in the five minutes I was given at the beginning of the debate. Having drafted it beforehand, it inevitably varied slightly in practice, but the substance remained the same.
What is a victory? How can anything that leads to the deaths of tens of millions of people be described as a victory? How can something that leaves a world in ruins, that leaves millions of people starving to death and susceptible to disease be a victory? The notion of victory in war, any war, is an absurdity. As Jeanette Rankin, who in 1917 became the first female member of the US Congress, put it, “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake”.
The ending of the war was not great for the British people. The war led to a massive national debt, next to which the current British debt – about which we hear so much – pales into insignificance. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, promised that after the war Britain would be “a land fit for heroes”. Instead, there was mass poverty and unemployment. My own great-grandfather, who fought at the Somme, was awarded five medals during the war. After the war, unemployed and struggling to feed his children, he was forced to sell all five medals in an attempt to survive. What “great victory” did he have – or the thousands and thousands like him, thrown into poverty by a government for whom they had fought?
The poverty in Germany by the end of the war was much more severe. The British government, backed by the pro-war media, had justified the war on the grounds that Belgium must be defended from German aggression. It is true that Germany invaded Belgium and that atrocities were committed against Belgian civilians by German troops. I don’t deny it for a moment. I condemn those atrocities. Yet as the war went on, the British navy blockaded Germany with a clear intention of starving Germans into surrender. Thousands of German and Austrian civilians were starved to death as a result, killed by the British government as surely as if British troops had been sent to stab their bayonets into them directly. There is nothing great about mass murder.
Justifying war with reference to Belgium was a piece of staggering hypocrisy. In 1914, newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Times, which only days before had been condemning proposals for home rule for Ireland, transformed themselves overnight into champions of “the rights of small nations”. British troops had been committing atrocities in colonial wars for decades. Horatio Kitchener, who was made Secretary for War in 1914, had himself commanded the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre in 1898.
This year, with the centenary of the outbreak of war, we’ve been focussing a lot on how the war started. I wonder if we’ll be any more honest in four years’ time, when we consider how the war ended. From 1916 until 1918, there was increasing discontent among working class Germans, both civilians and troops. There were strikes in German arms factories and occasional mutinies, encouraged by the spread of socialist ideas and the realisation of the injustice of the war. By October 1918, with Germany starving and losing the war, there were mass mutinies in the German navy and working class protests around Germany. The Kaiser abdicated. It was not the Kaiser but his successors who signed the armistice. Yes, allied troops were winning the war by October 1918, but it was the German working class who ensured that the war ended at this point. If only British troops had also mutinied in large numbers at the same time, things might have turned out a let better for people in both Britain and Germany.
Even now, there are those who tell us that World War One was necessary to defeat German militarism and stop Germany dominating Europe. I don’t know how that sounded to people in India or Malawi or Ireland, whose countries were controlled by a British Empire whose rulers spoke about resisting German imperialism. The reality is that most people in Britain and Germany had more in common with each other than they did with their rulers. That’s why, on the eve of war, over 100,000 people demonstrated against war in Berlin. Thousands more demonstrated throughout Britain – including 15,000 in London and 5,000 in Glasgow, according to media reports at the time.
Contrary to the impression given by the majority of books and documentaries on World War One, there was an active pacifist movement in Britain throughout the war. In July 1915, a territorial army officer in Lancashire, a Captain Townroe, wrote to Kitchener reporting that “over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the leading peace group at the time, produced a semi-illegal newspaper that had 100,000 readers in 1916. These figures hardly fit with the oft-repeated claim that almost everyone supported the war. Over 6,000 people in Britain went to prison for opposing the war. The majority were conscientious objectors who were denied exemption from the army, while others were locked up for illegal activism, such as handing out pacifist leaflets in the street.
The end of the first world war was not a victory, for millions of people were killed or impoverished. It was not a success for the British people, who had far more in common with their German counterparts than with their rulers. And it certainly was not great. It is not being British that makes us great, but being human. We can only be truly great, and we can only end war, when we give our loyalty not to a nation-state, but to humanity as a whole.