The First World War – not everyone fell in line

The First World War – not everyone fell in line

Michael Gove, until recently Minister of Education, took advantage of this year of remembrance of the outbreak of world war in 1914, and of his personal position of power, to vilify those who describe that bloody world massacre as anything else than a ‘just war’, a ‘noble cause’ fought by ‘conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.’

Sound familiar? Indeed, not only was this war a mere prelude to the hundred million people who died in the wars of the twentieth century but the repeated war incursions of the early twenty first century, and most recently into Iraq and Syria, seem equally based on no clear concept of what is meant to be achieved, either by the elites ordering the wars or by those obeying the call.

Just as today, journalists, music hall artists, schools and celebrities were recruited to the cause of war propaganda.  The Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, an influential writer, declared in a letter to The Times on 2 September 1914 that the war was “primarily a holy war… between Christ and the Devil.” Referring to Germany, he continued, “the infernal machine …will leave desolation behind it and put all material progress back for at least half a century. There was never anything in the world worthier of extermination, and it is the plain duty of all civilised nations to unite to drive it back into its home and exterminate it there.” The German invasion of Belgian with its brutal massacres and burnings of towns was used to justify the validity of this call.

Lord Kitchener, the Minister for War, asked the country to give him 100,000 volunteers. His advertisements billed the conflict as ‘the greatest war in the history of the world.’ Within eighteen months Kitchener had two million volunteers… adrenalin, hype and herd instinct all running high.

There were other voices. Two days before the declaration of war, Keir Hardy, socialist and pacifist addressed 10,000 people at an anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square. Hardy had campaigned vigorously in the hope that socialists across Europe would prevent war. Later, the ‘No-Conscription fellowship Manifesto’ of 1915 (written by ‘conscientious objectors’ or ‘the conchies’ as they were called) proclaimed “… we DENY the right of any Government to make the SLAUGHTER of our fellows a bounden duty.” Prison, labour camps, physical torture and humiliation would become the lot of the Conchies in Britain. More than 6,000 were sent to prison and were deprived of the right to vote after the war.

In France the war mobilisation was characterised by a sacrificing of the class struggle waged by the important French socialist movement in favour of the union sacrée demanded by French patriotism faced by ‘the enemy on the doorstep.’ Jules Guesde, a well-known militant socialist leader explained his support for the government: “When the house is on fire it is no time for controversy. The only thing to do is to give a hand with the buckets.”[i] A much-feared general strike by the anti-militarist left was never called. Jean Jaures the beloved leader of the French United Socialist Party and a committed pacifist was assassinated on 31 July 1914. In normal times riots would have ensued and, in fact, the cavalry were ready, but the workers remained calm.

An unusual call to arms came from the pages of the Bonnet Rouge: “Notwithstanding the ardent pacific wishes of the French government, we have now entered into war. My brother Socialists let us forget The International and our red flag. Our song is now The Marseillaise and our flag is the tricolor!” The full extent of the ‘solidarity’ of France in face of war was most evident in the day after mobilisation was proclaimed. On that day the French government virtually abdicated in favour of the army on the basis of a decree of 1878 which had the effect of suspending many civil liberties and putting general police powers in the hands of the Army; in practice, a declaration of martial law.

As patriotic and nationalistic fever mounted in all the countries involved, fighting on the Western Front degenerated into a war of attrition with the French army, particularly, bearing heavy losses. These included the 389,000 casualties of the 1916 Battle of Verdun. In December 1916, General Robert Nivelle, new commander-in-chief, persuaded the French and British Prime Ministers to back a major offensive against the Germans. His offensive centred on the Chemin des Dames ridge on the Aisne River, between Soissons and Reims.  General Nivelle carelessly boasted and broadcast his plans for the new offensive, scheduled to begin on 16 April 1917. The Germans, forewarned, withdrew their troops from their forward trenches to strongly fortified defences. They slaughtered the French infantry as it advanced with tremendous élan into what was now a deserted killing ground, laced with murderous machine gun and shellfire.

By the next day there were over 100,000 French casualties. Still, Nivelle insisted on further offensive waves, although it was soon obvious to all but Nivelle that the traumatised French infantry was incapable of further useful advance.

Rumours of the carnage spread back through the rear areas to stoke up the resentment that had already arisen concerning the unprecedented slaughter in the Verdun Salient. Of particular concern, was the report that the disillusioned men had advanced into battle baa-ing like sheep to the slaughter. Arrogant and faulty strategy, as well as lapses in security and timings, led to the French gaining 500 metres of territory at the price of 120,000 casualties by 9 May 1917. The morale of the troops crumbled and by the end of 1917 widespread mutinies swept the French army. Thousands of troops quit their front line duties. Nine infantry divisions went out of action. Forty-five others were considerably affected and refused any more futile offensives while pressing for better conditions.  Out of this misery came the famous French anti-war song ‘La Chanson de La Craonne’ which remembers that devastated village and invites the rich to come to the trenches where those with nothing were giving their lives to defend the upper class’s wealth.[ii] The song was prohibited in France until 1974.

Nivelle was finally replaced by General Petain who delivered better conditions whilst simultaneously rounding up the ‘ringleaders’ of the mutinies. Over 100,000 soldiers were court-martialled; 432 were sentenced to death; 55 were officially shot although many more were shot without sentence[iii].  A fragile order was restored. However there were strikes.

Black shawls and robes of mourning were prevalent amongst the women workers throughout France, many of whom were working in munitions factories. By the end of the Nivelle offensive, about one million French soldiers had been killed and yet the commitment to conflict continued relentlessly. The government and the media linked discontent and factory strikes to an ‘upsurge of defeatism.’ Anti-war French socialists who tried to attend a peace conference in Stockholm were refused passports. In November 1917 there was a crack down on strikes that had been called as a protest against hunger and inequality rather than against the war itself.

Similarly in England, in the severe winter of 1917-18, with fuel and food shortages causing starvation and malnutrition, strikes broke out. By May 1918 there were strikes in 48 towns involving 200,000 workers. Leaders of the strikes were imprisoned but eventually there were compromises made with the rationing system and, as in France, the government were able to quash any further politicising of the movement.

In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were imprisoned for their opposition to the war and had to mobilise from their prison cells as best they could. The social democrat parliamentarians backed the war and betrayed all they had previously fought for in a once powerful movement anchored in Karl Marx’s writings and actions.

But as the war entered its third and fourth years discontent grew, driven by hardship, poverty, hunger and discontent with the war. Inspired by the revolutionary events in Russia in 1917 large numbers of workers went on strike; sailors in the German navy mutinied and were supported by workers. The revolutionary events in Germany of 1918-19 are not the subject of this article but they demonstrated both the potential for change and role of the social democratic leaders in opposing it.

The screaming clatter of gunfire killed an average of five and a half thousand men every day of the war. It blocked out the voices of those who did not say ‘yes’ to this mass slaughter. However, there was no resounding international ‘no’ either. What was holding back the linking and strengthening of these protests across the nations? Would mobile phones, twitter, face book have been the missing link between Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Hardie, the French mutinous soldiers, the Conchies, the German strikers and the Russian revolutionaries? Or is there something that, even with all the communications technology of today, stops us from defining ourselves, before any national identity, as members of the international working class?

Book References

Minds at War, David Roberts, Saxon Books 1999

Dare Call it Treason, Richard M Watt, Simon and Shuster 1963

Conchies, conscientious objectors of the First World War, Ann Kramer, Franklin Watts 2013

[i] Brogan, France under the Republic, p483

[ii] The song’s chorus is sung in Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and several versions can be seen or heard on YouTube

[iii] The First World War – An Illustrated History, AJP Taylor, p177

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