Commemoration and the First World War

We begin 2014 in the midst of renewed discussions about the appropriate ways to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the First World War’s outbreak. In England this is evident with the recent column by Education Secretary Michael Gove and the numerous responses to it. Commenters on various sides of the political spectrum are using the anniversary for political advantage and most public discussion is for 21st century purposes. In this context, there are a few things that have come to my mind about the anniversary and its commemoration.

The first of these is that many people have difficulty separating the actions of ordinary soldiers from the overall war aims or military strategy. Whatever one thinks of the war’s justness or the effectiveness of its conduct, 15 million men died. On both sides, these were mostly hard-working men about whom we would think positively on a personal level. Similar things can be said about the survivors. Many people’s likeable grandfathers risked lives and endured misery in Belgian trenches. However, the same can be said for those who fought in the German, Austrian, Ottoman and Russian armies. To honour the soldiers and remember the war’s massive impact, need not justify it.

Another important thing to remember is that many soldiers enlisted for reasons that had nothing to do with the war aims. One of these was unemployment. The outbreak of war collapsed global trade and triggered a deep recession in August and September 1914. In the midst of unemployment and few prospects for better circumstances, it is easy to understand why many enlisted during those months. Another factor that affected military enlistment, particularly in Britain, was the relatively high pay and good food of soldiers. Robert Roberts recalled his childhood in the poor Manchester suburb of Salford in The Classic Slum. He describes that when war broke out those who enlisted were properly nourished for the first time in their lives and came back for leave after the first month’s training an inch taller and a stone heavier. With higher wages and more opportunities than back home, it is easy to understand why some men enlisted in the war whether or not they had any opinion on Prussian militarism. Separating the actions and motivations of ordinary soldiers from war aims and strategy would allow us to critically evaluate the latter without it being superseded by individual heroism in the Somme.

There is also a tendency in the English-speaking world to discuss the war’s effects without considering the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It is very difficult to imagine that these would have occurred without the preceding two and a half years of war on the Eastern Front. They also led to more deaths than the formal fighting between states generally associated with the First World War. In terms of longer-term impact, the Soviet Union was also the most significant consequence of the war. It is possible to argue that despite the deaths in the Russian Civil War, it made the world a better place. I don’t subscribe to that view and I highly doubt that Michael Gove or Stephen Harper do either. To argue that the war improved the world without considering the Russian Civil War, failed communist revolutions in Europe or the loss of global trade that John Maynard Keynes lamented in The Economic Consequences of the Peace is to look for heroes on the battlefield rather than understanding its actual effects. Given that the Russo-Japanese War had ended in a revolution in Russia in 1905, the 1917 Revolution was also foreseeable consequence of the First World War. In fact, as the war began Albertan newspapers predicted both the war’s scale and the likelihood that it would end in revolution.

Public commemoration of the First World War would be more intelligent and less polarizing if we acknowledged that the valour of soldier’s need not justify the war, that they didn’t necessarily enlist in support of war aims and that its consequences were heavily tied up in the Russian Civil War.

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