Samuel Johnson informed us a long time ago that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” and the sight of David Cameron, earnestly frowning to underline his sincerity, announcing that he was planning to make August 2014 a ‘truly national’ commemoration of the centenary of World War I brought home the accuracy of Johnson’s quip.
Cameron’s motives have all the underlying features of the classic scoundrel. A man who has helped to make the gap between rich and poor in Britain into a chasm wants to imagine that World War I was a time of unity – and if only we could recapture that mood! Cameron leads a party whose members are baying for a more openly aggressive and right wing policy on Europe, and are demanding that he uses more authoritarian policies against troublesome workers on the home front. They might just approve of him if he is able to bring the nation together in a mass patriotic ritual “that touches every, school, every business, every community”. And then there is Miliband’s ‘one-nation’ Labour party that needs to be upstaged too. Perhaps remembering a war that led to the deaths of about 37 million people is what is needed.
Cameron envisages a project that will get Britain working with him to create an ‘unforgettable spectacle’ – and inject the disabling poison of patriotism into the working class. Gove will demand that every school commits to the project while Wilshaw and the blood-hounds of his Ofsted regime look out for the backsliders who object.
The commemoration of the onset of World War I is a project that needs to explode in Cameron’s face. It is a blatant attempt to hijack our history and attempt to make political capital out of a mass slaughter that should have led to the complete overthrow of the system that caused it.
'They died that we might live'
This is the fiction that is wheeled out every year as November 11 and Remembrance Day approaches. The truth is rather more prosaic. They died pointlessly in a war about the desire of the ‘great powers’ to partition and repartition the world to suit their own imperial interests. The barbarity of industrial capitalism, heedless of the sufferings it caused the workers it exploited, and lusting after the resources and markets it needed to sustain its growth used unprecedented violence that wasted lives and resources in an orgy of death and destruction. The same callous indifference that was shown to workers before the war was repeated as the death toll mounted.
The initial enthusiasm of workers who rushed to join the ranks cannot be explained as sincere patriotism as the newspapers of the time attempted to argue. Trotsky explained the surge of enthusiasm in the context of the hum-drum, meaningless existence of working class youth in factories and mills that they wanted to escape. The drums of war sounded as an alarm call that might mean something exciting and glamorous – but it did not last long. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote in the spring of 1915:
“The cannon fodder that was loaded on the trains in August and September is rotting on the battlefields of Belgium and the Vosges, while profits are springing like weeds from the fields of the dead.”
It rapidly became clear to workers on both the military and home fronts that the war was being fought by workers for the profits and war aims of the rich. By the end of the conflict there was open class war across Europe. Revolution in Russia in 1917 swept Nicholas II from power, German workers rose up in summer 1918 and the Kaiser fled to Holland, and in Britain mutinies in the army in France were matched by a rising tide of industrial militancy that had the regime tottering.
But weren’t the soldiers heroes we should remember?
In my youth I talked to a number of survivors from the trenches. It was a tricky business. Most of them were reluctant to say too much because they didn’t want to crack. One explained to me why he never wore a poppy after I asked him if he thought he had acted heroically. He said that he had seen two people who he could call heroes out of the thousands he served with. He explained that warfare rarely allows heroism at all – you just wait to die.
He told me about a bunker that a shell had dropped on. The soldiers were playing cards and resting, or writing letters home, they had no chance to be heroic. He told me about ‘going over the top’ and how you risked a bullet in the back from officers on your own side if you refused to march into machine-gun fire. And he told me about ‘Field punishment number 1’ where insubordination led to soldiers being tied to the wheel of a field gun and left to stand there all day through heat or cold. When he came home on leave he learned how to act. He daren’t tell his mother and father anything about what happened in France because they would have kept him at home – and then he would have been shot for desertion. So he pretended it was all fine. He kept pretending and keeping quiet until his final years. I still have his words:
“The war wasn’t about heroism lad. There was fear, cold and wet. I remember never having dry boots for six months in the autumn of 1916. They treated us like dogs and then called us heroes at the end to pretend we were special to them. I have never wept since I came back at nineteen years old – I’d cried all the tears I had by then.”
Earl Douglas Haig began the Poppy Day appeal in 1921. He was the general whose military tactics of ordering British troops to walk into German machine gun fire led to the deaths of 600,000 men on the British side during the battle of the Somme.
A war to end all wars?
Cameron says he wants our kids to learn about war, and so he has tried to disguise the patriotic poison by coating it in some sugar. He wants us to learn from the war poets whom he ‘loves’. He wants trips to the battlefields so that kids can see the respect which the fallen have been given. But his schoolmasterly smarm is aimed to cover the most horrible truth of all – they all died in vain. ‘Victory’ in World War I gave us the horrors of World War II and another 75 million deaths.
You would think after a bloodbath like the 1914-18 war that some lessons would have been learned about what caused it and how to prevent it happening again. The key cause of the war was the rapid growth of Germany as an industrial and military power colliding with the attempts made by Britain, France and that other great democracy, tsarist Russia, to contain the threat Germany posed to their imperial interests..
A central lie that Cameron wants us to take in is that the war achieved a new world order where international law under the newly formed League of Nations replaced the international rivalry of the old order. But the ‘peace’ was an imperialist peace with racism, class conflict and more war built in.
Germany – How British policy led to Hitler.
The Treaty of Versailles blamed Germany for starting the war in order to make Germans pay for it. The Tory minister Geddes said “We will squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak”. Germany was disarmed, and all her colonies given to Britain in a straightforward piece of imperialist robbery. Germans were then handed a bill for the war amounting to £6.6 billion to be paid to France and Britain. This immediately put Germany into economic difficulties that resulted in hyperinflation, poverty and disease. The stated aim of this was to ‘prevent German militarism’ and ensure peace.
The national humiliation of Germany allowed a new form of militant nationalism to emerge – Nazism. Far from treating Hitler and the Nazis as ‘German militarism’ after ‘the war to end all wars’ Britain appeased the future butcher of 6 million Jews and allowed him to annex territory and build the most formidable military force the world had seen. The Tory dominated National government of the 1930s wanted a working and profitable relationship with Hitler. This was openly expressed in the pages of the Daily Mail whose owner Lord Rothermere met regularly with Hitler and was a huge supporter of Nazism along with many other British businessmen and aristocrats. During the Czech crisis the paper referred to critics of Neville Chamberlain who wanted to help Hitler annex the Sudetenland as ‘Jew lovers’. There is a clear and direct causal chain from British victory to Hitler and on to World War II. World war I was definitely not the ‘war to end all wars’.
The British Empire – a force for peace?
A key part of the Tories love affair with World War I is the attempt to get schools teaching patriotic British history. Brutish history would be a better name for it. The blood had not dried on French soil before British militarism was flexing its muscles again.
Winston Churchill wheedled £100 million out of the treasury during the civil war in Russia to give aid to the White army. The Red Army represented the anti-war Communist revolution and the White Army represented the tsar, nobility and the Russian Orthodox Church. Churchill was dismayed that Russian workers and peasants did not want to help fight Germany. He blamed the ‘schemes of the International Jews’ for revolution. The White Army he supported killed something like 60,000 Jews in southern Russia, the highest number of Jewish fatalities before the Holocaust.
Nearer to Home after the war ended the Irish were demanding something that the Versailles settlement had supposedly been based on – the right to national self-determination. The Irish War of Independence or the ‘Black and Tan War’ raged between 1919 and 1921. Britain resorted to the foulest violence to prevent the Irish from gaining their freedom as the following from a commanding officer of the mercenary killers known as the Black and Tans makes clear:
"If a police barracks is burned or if the barracks already occupied is not suitable, then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there – the more the merrier.
Should the order "Hands Up" not be immediately obeyed, shoot and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching (a patrol) carry their hands in their pockets, or are in any way suspicious-looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man."
Lt. Col. Smyth, June 1920
A similar scenario was played out in Amritsar in the Punjab where the commander of the local garrison Reginald Dyer ordered his garrison to fire repeatedly into a crowd of ‘rebels’ that had assembled in a park for a meeting and picnic. Over 1,600 bullets were fired at unarmed men, women and children. There were 379 deaths with another 1,100 wounded. Dyer refused the wounded any help, and then imposed martial law. Indians were forced to crawl down a street where an Englishwoman had been assaulted. School children were publically flogged until they lost consciousness. Dyer was not prosecuted and the Daily Mail ran a campaign of support for his ‘courageous act’.
In Iraq the demand for Home Rule ran into British oil interests. World War I had secured Britain the Mandate of Mesopotamia (Iraq). This was to be a trial run for the RAF’s aggressive bombing strategy. Despite the League of Nations constitution forbidding aggressive war and banning the use of chemical weapons the RAF dropped bombs with poison gas on tribesmen from Najd from December 1923 - January 1924.
Clearly World War I could never be the ‘war to end all wars’ because imperialism was both victorious (Britain)and vanquished (Germany) and this meant the unfinished business of deciding which capitalist nation would dominate the globe was merely postponed. In the meantime newer and more barbarous means of killing had been created. The horror of the trenches was replaced by the horror of blanket bombing and the deployment of nuclear weapons. The Russian revolution was the key to ending the carnage by breaking the connection between capitalism and war. The tragedy is that in both Britain and Germany too many socialists believed they could work through the democratic trappings of the capitalist state and get to a better world without confronting the power base of a violent and predatory monster. The smoldering ruin that was much of Europe by 1945 reveals the magnitude of the mistake they made..
Wear a poppy with pride?
Working class people up and down Britain will wear a poppy in the run up to Remembrance Day. For many they will do this to protest about the suffering that war generates. But there is something obscene about the war mongers like Blair and Cameron deciding how we should commemorate war. War should be researched and discussed around the questions of what causes it and how do we stop it. There is a massive audience in ‘every school, every business and every community’ for this debate. Let’s begin that debate now and help to connect the barbarity of cutting welfare to the barbarity of creating warfare.
And when it comes to creating the spirit of 1914-18 we should recreate for modern times the Bolshevik slogan “Peace on the cottages. War on the palaces. End imperialist war.” The Russian revolution aimed to end war and oppression, and the project may have been postponed but has never been abandoned. Cameron looks weaker and nastier by the day – patriotism is a last refuge of the scoundrel.
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