On August 4th 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, which had, in the preceding few days, declared war on Russia and France, and invaded Belgium. These events unleashed the First World War and previously unimaginable human carnage on an industrial scale.
A recently-announced 12-strong panel of ‘experts’ has been formed to recommend a preferred approach for Scotland’s commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the so-called Great War and the blood-soaked battles that followed. The panel has also been tasked with delivering a programme of events remembering what took place from the fields of Flanders to the shores of the Gallipoli peninsula.
Sitting on the panel that will decide how the First World War is remembered are retired former senior members of the British armed services – including a Brigadier, a Lieutenant-General, a Commodore and a Group Captain. The military men are joined by historians and Scotland’s largest land-owner, the Duke of Buccleuch, who is there by virtue of his title as Captain General, the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland, Royal Company of Archers.
I could be wrong, but the membership of the advisory panel suggests the focus of commemoration might be on the military history that pitched armies against each other in tactical battles that ultimately determined the outcome of a global conflict. If that turns out to be the case, what are the chances we will also see a jingoistic British press bombarding us with Union Jacks and stories of how ‘we’ in Britain fought together against a common enemy and were all the stronger for it – just as Scots go to the polls in the Independence Referendum.
There is no doubt that people from across the British Isles fought together in the First World War, most of whom marched off willingly to fight for ‘King and Country’. But how many of those men fully understood the nature of the conflict they were about to take part in? Not just the new mechanised killing they would encounter, but the actual reasons for the war.
Whipped-up into a jingoistic fervour by capitalist-owned newspapers, the working class of Britain were told they had to ‘do their duty’ by defending their country when, in fact, the war was all about the imperial aspirations of the ruling class and the wealth they could accumulate through colonial expansion and exploitation. In a situation unchanged since medieval times, ordinary men were to fight and kill each other at the behest of their lords and masters. One unattributed comment perfectly summed-up the reality of the First World War when it described the close-quarter use of the bayonet fixed to a rifle in the following terms: “A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end.”
Any commemoration of the First World War must tell the story of so many lives destroyed – on both sides – working class men sent to kill other working class men, while capitalist arms-producers on both sides amassed personal fortunes running into millions of pounds.
Will the military men on the First World War advisory panel commemorate the 1915 Rent Strike in Glasgow, led by women who rebelled when capitalist landlords hiked-up rents for overcrowded, unsanitary and damp homes while the men were away at the front?
Will the story be told of how, faced with rocketing inflation, which severely diminished the value of already poverty-level wages, and ever-increasing demands for greater productivity as part of the war effort, engineering workers in Glasgow took unofficial strike action? Will we hear how the British Government’s reaction to the Glasgow strike involved the introduction of ‘treasury agreements’ that saw workers’ rights removed for the duration of the war, including the right to strike?
The story of the First World War is one of suffering on a previously unimaginable scale. Next year we will see newspaper and television reports showing men in trenches, but from the distance of 100 years we can not even begin to imagine the horror.
What we must not have is the war portrayed as a British success story, accompanied by waving Union Jacks and the strains of catchy music hall tunes. The First World War was fought for imperialist and capitalist gain, with the working class of many nations paying the price in blood.
First published in the Scottish Socialist Voice – Edition 414 (March 29 2013).