Sunday, November 11 marked 100 years since the of the end of the First World War, a global conflict that revolutionized warfare, shattered ancient empires, carved out new nation-states, and shaped the 20th century at the cost of some 15–19 million military and civilian deaths. Yet somehow this colossal, century-defining war has begun to fade from our collective memory, relegated to a single hour of high school history class, a short chapter in a textbook, or a few TV segments once a year on Armistice/Veterans Day, where even in these fleeting moments when the war comes to the forefront of the discourse, we fail to expose it for what it truly was, and instead obfuscate the nature of the conflict with patriotic dogma.
Images of world leaders hand-in-hand laying wreaths at memorials and large crowds in London and Paris observing a minute’s silence on November 11 give the impression that we remember the lessons learned, that we’ve moved on from the days of mechanized killing and mass suffering characteristic of the war. But don’t be fooled. These hackneyed tributes adorned with plastic poppies, pageants with the Royal Family, recitations of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” and utterances of trite phrases like “Lest we forget” and “Never again” are mere optics. The war and its lessons paid for in the blood of a generation of men and boys have been suppressed from our national consciousness by the agencies of contemporary militarism and capitalism.
Forget the trenches for a moment, and consider the way the war was sold to the young men of Europe. Marketing trench warfare and maintaining wholesale support for a ghastly, devastating conflict and its military and political leaders was no easy task, so the French and British heavily censored the death toll, outcomes of battles, and harsh realities of life on the front lines from the public, and instead perpetuated the centuries-old, romantic notion of war as the adventure of a lifetime.
The massive British recruitment campaign of 1914–1915 targeted military-aged men with propaganda to drum up patriotic fever for the war. To further encourage enlistment, the army formed Pals Battalions, units of volunteers from the same town, city, or village promising service alongside one’s friends, neighbors, and colleagues from back home. Little did they know that in single days of fighting, the entire male population of a town would be wiped out. British men who resisted the jingoistic propaganda became targets of the Order of the White Feather, an organization resolved to shaming men into enlisting. Many feminists and suffragettes were recruited to target young males in plainclothes and present them with a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, in public.
Nearly 2.5 million British men volunteered for what became known as “Kitchener’s Army.” This green volunteer force faced a baptism of fire at the Battle of the Somme in July, 1916, which claimed 57,470 casualties on the first day, 19,240 of whom were killed. At the end of the affair, nearly 420,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers became casualties. George Rudge, who was just 17 years old at the Somme, had no doubt “we were just meant to be sacrificed, as we ran into a wall of steel,” and recalled a “chap who had the bottom of his jaw blown off and still kept going forward till he dropped.” Walter Hutchinson, also at the Somme, remarked in a personal journal: “I was talking to these three men some 10 yards away and a shell dropped and killed all the three of them. It was an awful sight.” In early 20th-century European society your worth as a man was defined by your to willingness to become cannon fodder.
And for what exactly were these men from all corners of the earth thrown into human meat grinders for? It was not for the defense of democracy or liberty as modern media would have you believe. Nor was it the propaganda of their day, for honor and defending one’s borders from the Hun or Cossack savages. It was in the name of furthering state and capitalist interests, of securing new markets and territory through imperialism and exploitation.
At the time of the fighting, the so-called “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, was rife with internal conflict. Its vast, untapped oil reserves in Mesopotamia, strategic ports in Palestine, Egypt, and Persia, and control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles rendered it one of the sweetest prizes of the war. To knock the crumbling empire out of the war, Winston Churchill launched his half-baked Gallipoli Campaign in the spring of 1915, resulting in over 300,000 Allied casualties. Russian obsession over the straits in order to liberate the Black Sea, as well as the desire to probe further east in pursuit of a Pacific port and south into Persia underpinned her entry into the fray. In exchange for her allegiance, the Allies offered Italy swaths of Austro-Hungarian territory extending from South Tyrol to Dalmatia. Germany’s Septemberprogramm planned for the annexation of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the iron-rich regions of northern France, the placement of heavy war reparations to ensure perpetual French economic dependence on Germany, as well as territorial expansion to consolidate her African holdings in Togoland, Cameroon, German East Africa, and German South-West Africa. France sought the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine and territorial expansion in north and west Africa, southern Anatolia, Syria, and Indochina. As for the United States, President Woodrow Wilson, bankers, and arms manufacturers were happy to bankroll the carnage on behalf of Great Britain, France, and Germany as the soaring costs of the war emptied their collective vaults of centuries of imperial wealth.
Fundamentally, nothing has changed a century later. Colonialism has mutated from direct military and political control over territory and people into the arming of subversive paramilitary forces, the forceful overthrow of democratically elected political leaders in favor of brutal dictators protecting the interests of the colonizers, and the monopolization of natural and human resources by multinational corporations.
In 2018 the lust for economic and military supremacy necessary for the advancement of capitalism is as unyielding as the means by which these ends are pursued. And the means to achieving such ends are hardly different from those in 1914. Governments, under the flag-waving pretenses of “protecting freedom and democracy” and “defense of the homeland” still pit man against man, kill and maim millions in the crossfire, and leave behind nations in bloody ruins in the name of profit. But don’t let the government and media tell you otherwise like they did millions of bright-eyed teenagers, students, and family men in 1914 who rushed off to drown in the bottomless mud at Passchendaele, to asphyxiate on chlorine gas at Ypres as it burned their lungs, eyes, and throats, and to watch their guts spill from their abdomen as shrapnel shells ripped through them at Verdun.
True remembrance of the slaughter of a generation of men is active resistance and overthrow of the destructive forces of militarism and capitalism by which they were butchered. Only then may we understand the lessons of the First World War. Only then may their death and suffering not be in vain.
Photo by Frank Hurley.