The First World War led to over 15 million deaths and 20 million casualties. It also ended the political, economic and military dominance of Europe. Four empires, Austria-Hungary,Germany, Ottoman and Russia disappeared. Two empires,France and Great Britain were terminally weakened. The war has haunted every generation since then. Worse still, it was refought, on an even more catastrophic scale, twenty years later.
I have been horrified and fascinated by the Great War since I was a child when I stood with my parents in silence on 11 November.
This fascination grew for two reasons. The first reason is that, unlike with the Second World War, I never read a convincing justification of why the war took place at all. The second is that the torment of the fighting men in the Great War seemed so dreadful. The thought of living in a trench for any period of time is appalling. The thought of clambering out of it and advancing into a hail of machine-gun bullets is beyond belief.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course. I have always assumed that nobody really had an idea of the horror of what they were embarking upon. As the years pass, I begin to suspect that they were much more aware than I realised, and therefore, much more culpable.
I began to wonder why the governments of Europe didn’t end the war when they realised how terrible the casualties were. I had assumed that there was no mechanism to end the war. So I have recently been shocked to read that the Swiss and American governments made strenuous efforts to get the belligerents to the negotiating table but without success. Could the ruling class have really been that arrogant and unyielding?
And only a few days ago I read a second piece of information which made me question the whole madness of the politicians and the times.
When Lord Kitchener was made Secretary of State for War he appears to have been the lone voice who predicted that the war would last many years and cause terrible casualties. ‘It will be over by Christmas’ seemed to be the belief not just of the public but of the politicians as well. I assumed that the politicians did not believe Kitchener’s wild prophecy.
Two days ago, however, I read ‘Kitchener’s army: the raising of the new armies, 1914-16 by Peter Simkins.
In fact,Kitchener told the Liberal government that the war would last beyond 1917 and that Britain would have to build an army many millions strong to throw into the balance when France began to feel the strain. The government immediately began to put his plans into effect, asking for half a million men to enlist immediately. These were the men who would be slaughtered on the Somme in 1916.
It is clear, therefore, that British politicians were prepared to launch a war knowing that it would destroy the lives of a generation.
I can only assume that they were not the only European government who knew this.