Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lest We Forget....

I'm a historian at heart and, consequently, I'm very much enjoying the various World War One documentaries which are bombarding our TV screens to mark this year of the Centenary (of the start of hostilities) such as Max Hastings insightful programme which was repeated on BBC 2 last night. The causes of WWI are a question on every history student's mind at some point or other and it seems fascinating to me that, all this time later, there is any debate about it. But, as Sir Max points out, indeed there is. Was it merely the shooting of the Arch Duke Ferdinand by the Serbians which then dragged all the others allies to a stand off? Or was it the expansionism of an imperial Germany? Max Hastings asserts that Kaiser Wilhelm was almost certainly suffering from some chronic, psychotic disorder, if not madness, which made him all the more willing to enter into hostilities. I'm sure that historians will still be debating all of this in another 100 years time but, for the rest of us I wish we could forget the whole sorry business after this year. I realise that this is a forlorn hope even though now everyone who took an active part in the Great War is no longer with us to tell the tale. But I for one think that it does us no good to keep dredging up this dark episode in our past. That said it has always fascinated me to think that there are, apparently normal people, walking among us in Tonbridge who carried acts or war beyond the comprehension of most of us. Just imagine for a moment what an veteran of the world wars has seen and done. Has he killed one or many of his enemies? Did he shoot them or even kill them with his bare hands? How can these men then go back to being an upholsterer, mechanic or teacher once they've witnessed anything like that? I hear many a story form visitors to Mr. Books of Japanese camps and falling from the skies having been shot down and they are all fascinating. But my hope is that one day the two World Wars will become such  distant events that they will be talked of only in the same way as the Napoleonic Wars are today....


Paul Bailey said...

I have written quite a lengthy piece to go with this post, and will need to publish it in two parts, as there is a limit on the amount of text which can be accepted by blogger, for each comment. Here is the first part of my comment:

Like you TB, I am interested in history, and with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching, I have also been pondering what actually tipped something which had begun as posturing, into out and out total war. I missed the Max Hastings programme you refer to, so will have to catch it on i-Player. What was equally fascinating was the two-part BBC programme screened a few weeks ago now, about the relationships between the British King, the German Kaiser and the Russian Czar; all of whom of course, were royal cousins.

King George V and Czar Nicholas were quite alike, as their mothers were both sisters. They were also Danish Princesses who had a hatred of Germany because of the annexation of the former Danish provinces of Schleswig-Holstein by Prussia several decades previously. Kaiser Wilhelm II was older, being the son of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Vicky. He wasn’t destined to rule the German Empire quite so soon as he actually did; but the unfortunate early death of his father from throat cancer, just 3 months after the passing of the latter’s own father, saw him thrust into the limelight at an early age, with tragic consequences for both his felow countrymen and the rest of Europe.

He thought he could rule without advisors, and made the serious mistake of dismissing the vastly experienced Bismark from the post of chancellor. Following a series of further diplomatic blunders he ended up leaving Germany isolated, and surrounded by potentially hostile countries, which forced him into an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire; an empire that was in decline, but which still thought it could throw its weight about. The assasination of Franz Ferdinand gave the Austrians the excuse they were looking for to threaten neighboring Serbia, and the German government foolishly backed them with the so-called “blank cheque”, (do what you feel is necessary, and we will back you!)

Because of his ancestry, and troubled childhood, Wilhelm had a love-hate relationship towards Britain. Like you suggest, he had some serious personality defects, but the point that came across in the programme was he was also a buffoon and a blusterer who desparately wanted to be liked. He was prone to a bit of sabre rattling, but when he fully realised the consequences of his actions, would pull back from the brink. Unfortunately in 1914, realising things were moving towards war, he tried to stop Austria-Hungary from launching their attack on Serbia saying that German guarantees didn’t actually include invading your neighbour! This time though, he was out manoeuvred by his politicians and generals, many of whom un-doubtedly wanted war. Once this had happened there was no turning back, as events moved too quickly, alliances were called into action, and troops mobilised. Before Europe knew it, the major powers had almost sleep-walked into an unstoppable war.

Paul Bailey said...

For those of you who have waded through the first part, here is the second:

The real mystery though is why Britain got involved. Throughout most of the previous century, with the exception of the Crimean war, we had purposely stayed out of major European conflicts. We could, and should have done the same in 1914. Germany and Austria-Hungary’s quarrel was with Russia and France; not with us and, unlike in 1940, Germany posed no real threat to Britain. We could of course, have settled the issue by using our naval power to blockade the Central Powers, without committing land forces to the conflict. In the end, it was our naval blockade which played the decisive role in the defeat of Germany, by depriving her war machine of raw materials, starving her population and provoking a revolution which over-threw the Kaiser and the rest of the German government.

Instead of following this course, we ended up losing the “flower of a generation” in pointless bloody battles on the fields of Flanders, for the gain of a few yards of ground. Like in Germany, there were people in Britain who actually wanted a war, as was the case all over the continent. People in all the combatant countries flocked to join the colours,; all believng “it would all be over by Christmas.” Perhaps it might have been if we had stayed out of it, but instead four years of bloody stalemate, and horrendous slaughter on all sides ensued, and in the end it took the intervention of the United States to tip the balance in the Allies favour.

The war also seriously weakened the British Empire, and whilst it lasted until the after the following World War, as an institution the empire was fatally wounded. The treaty which ended the First World War also sowed the seeds for the bigger war which followed in 1939.

Nothing about this totally futile and pointless war though detracts from the bravery shown by our troops and the often heroic sacrifice made by many in the face of the enemy. As we remember the anniversary of this tragic war in the months to come, let us not forget the sacrifice made by these brave men, but also let’s try and learn from the mistakes of the past to prevent these terrible events from ever happening again.