Lions Led By Donkeys: In the classical image of World War I, Allied soldiers go "over the top". The Right are desperate to rehabilitate the elites whose decisions led to the deaths of 21 million human-beings. A close examination of the "Why?" of World War I, however, suggests that, contrary to 100 years of historical self-justification, those primarily responsible for the greatest disaster of the past century were France, Russia and, yes, Great Britain.
THE BRAYING of Tory asses in Britain inevitably elicits an answering cacophony of hee-hawing from New Zealand’s own conservative community. It is, therefore, only a matter of time before one or more of our right-wing commentators picks up on the historical inanities of British Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and repeats them here.
On 2 January The Daily Mail published an article by Mr Gove entitled “Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?” Billed as a series of “damning questions” to his socialist opponents, Mr Gove’s piece was actually a crude attempt to characterise all criticism of his Government’s plans to paint the First World War as a just, honourable and ultimately successful conflict as evidence of “at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion […] to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”
Mr Gove’s is but the first shot in the “History Wars” of 2014 and beyond. Like the First Word War, whose centenary we will commemorate in August, the struggle to define the truth about the most important event of the past 100 years promises to be prolonged, bitter and exceptionally costly to all concerned.
New histories of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War are constantly appearing in the nation’s book shops – and many more will follow. This is only fitting, because New Zealand paid an extraordinarily high price in blood and shattered lives for its privileged status as Britain’s far-flung farm.
The number of New Zealanders killed in the war was 18,052, with a further 41,317 wounded. The war dead represented 1.64 percent of the New Zealand’s 1.1 million population. Of the English-speaking countries participating in the war, only the United Kingdom paid a higher price.
Most of the new histories will be devoted to re-examining the campaigns in which New Zealanders were engaged (Gallipoli being the most traversed). Some will focus upon the battlefield contributions of New Zealand’s military commanders; while others will study the diaries and letters of ordinary soldiers to present a participant’s-eye-view of the conflict.
Very few New Zealand historians, however, will venture beyond the Who? What? When? and Where? of First World War history and into the dangerous territory of Why? It is across the field of the conflict’s causes; of its participants’ motives and conduct; and of their ultimate objectives; that Mr Gove and his ilk will direct their most deadly suppressing fire.
On “our” side, the First World War became the occasion for the most extraordinary propaganda campaign ever undertaken by the English-speaking peoples. Germans were transformed: from the civilised citizens of a modern state (enjoying more democratic rights than the British) they became the pitiless “Huns” – ravishers of women, bayoneters of babies.
So virulent was the propaganda of the First World War that when, in the 1930s and 40s, news of genuine German atrocities and the genocide of European Jewry leaked out to the West, the authorities – remembering the lies of 1914-1918 – dismissed it as crude misinformation.
There was, of course, a very good reason why the United Kingdom worked so hard to demonise the Germans during the war, and, when it ended, were so insistent that Germany accept the “War Guilt Clause” of the Versailles Treaty.
It was done so that the people of Britain and of her loyal Dominions would never be willing to accept the fact that it was France and Russia who masterminded the outbreak of war in 1914: or that the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, knew what was happening, but, in order to shatter the military and economic power of Germany and safeguard the British Empire from future Russian encroachment, he did nothing to prevent it.
There can be little doubt that, had Grey intervened, the war could have been prevented. The stark and unspeakable truth, however, was that Grey and the British Prime Minister, Asquith, didn’t want to prevent it. Germany was regarded as a threat and Britain was only too willing to let France (a vengeful army masquerading as a country) and Russia (a feudal autocracy masquerading as a modern state) tear her to pieces.
Once Russia ordered a general mobilisation, only France could call it back; and the only power capable of persuading France to call it back was Britain.
The First World War was “our” fault.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 January 2014.