One-hundred-years-ago today – July 31st 1917 – the first shots were fired in the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
It is this battle that most of us picture when we think about the First World War of 1914-1918.
Torrential rain for much of August 1917 turned the Passchendaele battlefield into knee-deep mud, forcing soldiers from both sides to live and fight in atrocious conditions. Most of us considering the Battle of Passchendaele from the distance of one-hundred years cannot begin to imagine the reality of those soldiers: constantly wet, scraping mud from boots and leggings, uniforms crawling with lice, trenches infested with rats, and all this before being committed, over the top, to fight; trying to run through mud, running into gunfire from enemy trenches.
The battle-ground at Passchendaele consisted of just five-miles of Belgian countryside. After three-months the British-led Allies secured victory, only for much of the land to be lost again in later conflicts. In total, estimated figures suggest more than half-a-million men, from both sides, were killed or wounded at Passchendaele. This figure, which some argue underestimates the actual total, works out at almost 4,000 casualties every day. Try to picture four-thousand men standing before you: then imagine all of those men falling, killed or wounded...every day, for three months, and all for five miles of mud.
Today, on broadcast news channels, we see official ceremonies commemorating the Battle of Passchendaele. In the UK, the news reports lead with Prince Charles reading a poem. Of course, today's British royal family are ancestors of the German and British monarchs who 'ruled' as men from their countries killed each other at Passchendaele and other horrific battles during the First World War. The ancestors of Prince Charles – King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II – were cousins.
The bravery of the men who fought in the First World War was incredible. It is right we mark battles such as Passchendaele and never forget the price men paid for what they believed was a just cause.
Today, on one of the British television channels, a UK Government minister said, “These men fought for the freedom we enjoy today.” Presumably, one-hundred-years-ago, the soldiers in German uniforms also believed they were fighting for freedom. So, what was the purpose of two armies killing each other in the name of freedom?
The soldiers, on both sides, certainly believed they were fighting for freedom but, in reality, Britain and Germany plunged into all-out war in 1914 to secure economic dominance. The First World War was all about imperialism.
Most of the soldiers, on both sides, marched off willingly to fight for ‘King/Kaiser and Country’, but few 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.
In both Britain and Germany, so-called 'ordinary' men and women were whipped-up into a jingoistic fervour by capitalist-owned newspapers, with the working class 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.
One-hundred-years later, the real reason for the First World War and the inhuman carnage of battles such as Passchendaele is still not being told. Today, in UK broadcast news-reports, we are hearing of bravery and courage, which is as it should be. However, we should also acknowledge that so many 'ordinary' men were killed and maimed, not for freedom, not to save their country, but in the interests of capitalism, exploitation and financial profit.
A modern version of the capitalist media-owners who whipped-up the jingoism that drove men into the knee-deep mud of the trenches at Passchendaele are, today, hiding the true reason for the First World War. It is not in the interests of the capitalist exploiters for 'ordinary' men and women to know how we have been used, and continue to be used, to make the rich even richer, while our lives, and those of our families, remain expendable.