World War One was a brutal and unnecessary waste of human life and sowed the seeds for the second war, argues Chris Bambery
Combat along the Western Front ceased on 11 November 1918 at 11am. This is the date which is being commemorated as the close of the First World War. In fact, if you look at many British war memorials the dates for the Great War are given as 1914 to 1919. That is because the formal peace treaties were only signed then, in palaces outside Paris. The British kept up their naval blockade of Germany, which had seriously impacted on the civilian population until the peace treaty was signed at Versailles.
Fighting did cease in France and Belgium but along what had been the Eastern Front it continued. German irregular units fought against the former territory of the Reich being incorporated into the new state of Poland, and helped defeat revolutionary forces in what became the Baltic States (where the new governments had to turn them out by force of arms). German troops had already been fighting the new Soviet Union in former Czarist Russia. In 1919 troops from Britain, France, the US, Japan and a score of countries, intervened to try and topple the Bolsheviks. They and the White armies they funded and armed failed because the Russian peasantry had been given the land and realised if the counter-revolution won they would lose it.
The peace treaties meant the British Empire was geographically ever greater; expanding into what is now Iraq, Palestine and Jordan. But in Iraq, Egypt, and above all Ireland, it faced nationalist rebellions which in the latter case it could not repress.
The British had also occupied Istanbul, hoping to control the sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The Lloyd George government egged on Greece to invade what is now Turkey, but a Turkish nationalist movement, backed by revolutionary Russia, defeated the Greeks and forced a British withdrawal. In the wake of that, Lloyd George, who led a coalition government, was forced from office by his Tory allies.
Political polarisation in Europe meant the inter-war years were little more than an armed truce, and the Great Depression would see Germany under Hitler, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and Japan, try to rescue their economies by pushing to undo the partition of the world agreed in 1919 for the benefit of the Allies (Italy felt it had been cheated by Britain and France).
One great myth developed in Germany among the right wing that the German Army had been stabbed in the back by a conspiracy of Communists, Jews and Liberals, with the German Army undefeated in the field. It is a myth crucial to the rise of Hitler.
In recent years another myth has developed among British military historians that in the summer and autumn of 1918 the British army vanquished its German enemy on the Western Front. This has been held up as Britain’s most notable military achievement. That myth was created to counter the view that the British Army had suffered unacceptable losses because of its incompetent commanders – as exemplified in Oh What A Lovely War and Blackadder.
In March 1918, the Germans, able to transfer troops from the Eastern Front after forcing a draconian peace on the Bolsheviks, launched a series of offensives. One drove towards the Channel ports and the British commander Haig envisaged a military evacuation back to Britain while his French counterpart, Pétain, pulled back his troops to defend Paris. The British and French governments intervened to stop this and forced the appointment of one single Allied commander, the French Marshal Foch (it took four years to take this step). The Germans attacked again and seemed to threaten Paris but they could not maintain the momentum. Firstly, as they advanced further away from their railway supply lines those supplies could not keep pace, having, as they did, to cross devastated territory. German troops were shocked too at the abundant Allied supply depots they over run.
Back home they knew the civilian population was going hungry, in part because of the British naval blockade but, even more so, because of the failings of the German war economy.
Unrest was growing on the home front with strikes and protests. Until now the mighty Social Democratic Party had backed the war, with only a small minority around Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht daring to oppose the blood bath. But after the Russian Revolution in October 1917 there was a break away by a section of the party who wanted peace immediately. Germany was moving left.
That unrest began to spread into the rear areas of the German Army.
When the Allies began attacking in successive blows, the German Army had to pull back. It did so largely in good order right up until 11 November, when it still stood in France and Belgium. The Allied Command planned for the war continuing into 1919, when the newly arrived Americans would be ready to take the lead.
But the German High Command understood that they could not win. German troops were too thinly spread, propping up their Austrian Turkish and Bulgarian allies and having to occupy huge swathes of the Ukraine and western Russia they had annexed. As those Allies were knocked out of the war, Germany could not defeat France, Britain, and the US on its own. They also realised revolution was on the rise at home and feared it would infect the army.
Revolution did infect the Navy when it was ordered to launch a kamikaze attack on the Royal Navy’s North Sea fleet. Mutiny broke out and spread to the whole North Sea and Baltic Fleet. The sailors allied with the dockers and workers of the port cities and sent delegations across Germany. Workers, soldiers and sailors councils were elected which echoed the creation of soviets in Russia.
The German High Command decided the game was up but rather than throw in the towel themselves, they handed responsibility over to a new civilian government, having told the Emperor to abdicate and sling his hook into exile in Holland. That government approached the Allies for an Armistice, a halt to fighting pending negotiation of the final peace.
After, German generals blamed those politicians for surrender, stabbing them in the back. But they knew they could not win. Better to cut their losses now while they still occupied chunks of France and Belgium.
The Allied commanders knew the German Army remained intact and understood an armistice might only bring a temporary end to a war which could resume when Germany recovered. But they faced unrest at home and in the ranks, once word of the German offer got out, why would their troops keep fighting if it was refused.
So the armistice was signed. The eventual peace treaty with Germany was nowhere near as draconian as was later painted. In fact it pales in comparison with what would happen in 1945 when the Third Reich was fought to its destruction. The Allies then effectively destroyed the German military elite and enforced a partial demobilisation which holds even today (German governments are happy for Britain and France to carry the military costs for European interventions and wars).
The stab in the back was a myth because it concealed the fact that the German High Command backed an end to the fighting. They just let civilians achieve that and then turned on them. The British army had not defeated the German army either. It marched back intact over the Rhine. Large parts of it were then swept up in the revolution; others particularly elite units, officers and NCOs joined right wing paramilitary squads who fought the left, Poles and murdered Jews.
Let us now turn to Britain. The sun had never shone on so much territory where the Union flag fluttered as it did in 1919 after the peace treaties had partitioned the world anew. But the British ruling class were well aware that could not mask a relentless decline which continues to this day. Britain in 1914 lagged behind the US and Germany industrially, now it faced the fact that the City of London had been overtaken by Wall Street. Britain was in debt to the US. Its old staple industries of cotton, coal, iron and steel were uncompetitive, lacking investment. Unrest at home seemed to threaten revolution in 1919 and 1920, and while contained, working class discontent never went away in the grim inter war years. In the summer of 1921 the British state and elite had to accept they could no longer rule the majority of Ireland. In Bengal eager Indian nationalists began eagerly reading the accounts published by IRA commanders.
Britain no longer even ruled the waves. During the war it had relied on its Japanese ally to hold the Pacific sea routes and even had to get its warships to protect the Mediterranean. Now the Americans, who saw the Japanese as bitter rivals in Asia (China above all) demanded Britain break its alliance with Japan. In hock to the US the British had no choice. In a treaty signed in Washington they had to accept naval parity with the US.
As the great and the good assemble in Whitehall on 11 November to mark the end of World War One, they know that despite herculean efforts, the war is still seen in popular eyes as a ghastly bloodbath presided over by generals who could not care about the butcher’s bill. They know too that this was a Pyrrhic victory because it was followed by a further loss of industrial, financial and military power.
Both my grandfather’s fought on the Western Front. One became a stretcher bearer and simply never talked about the war, he was traumatised for ever after like so many others. The other volunteered with his two brothers, probably to escape being shale miners. One still lies outside Ypres, killed in July 1917. My grandfather was unemployed until the outbreak of a new war after the mine shut in 1924 (shale mining collapsed). He was bitter about the politicians and their promises of a “Land fit for Heroes.”
Come October he would never wear a poppy because it was, as he pointed out, the Earl Haig Appeal, and Earl Haig was Douglas Haig, British commander on the Western Front from 1915 until 1918. Haig he told me was a butcher and he would never wear anything associated with his name. So I will not wear one in his memory and honour.
I have visited my grand uncle’s grave. Standing their looking across Flanders and seeing so many other war cemeteries, visiting the battlefield and the excellent museum in Ypres reinforced my belief that this was an imperialist war fought over the division of the globe. It made me thankful too for those Russian and German workers who rose in revolution to ensure that slaughter ended.
Today we need to know about that slaughter to grasp what our rulers are capable of and why they can’t be trusted with our planet.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.