‘Shot at Dawn’ and remembrance

With the ninetieth anniversary of the both the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising coming up this year, the Republic’s government has a number of things in train. Dermot Ahern speaking the Seanad yesterday introduced a report compiled by his Department for Foreign Affairs on 26 Irish born soldiers in the British Army who were shot for desertion during the First World War.Ahern provides the link between the two historic events:

One testimony from a member of the Irish division caught in a poison gas attack at Loos in 1916 gives an idea of the nature of this war and its overwhelming effect on the young men who found themselves in the middle of every awful aspect of it, namely, the shelling, the trenches, the charges into no-man’s land, the shell-shock and, in this case, the poison gas. He stated:

“Luckily for us, with the rising sun the wind began to change and we immediately counter-attacked and drove the enemy off, but the Dublin Fusiliers had been caught unawares and their casualties were very heavy. When it was over, I had the sad job of collecting and burying the dead. They were in all sorts of tragic attitudes, some of them holding hands like children in the dark. They were nearly all gassed and I buried about 60 of them in an enormous shell hole.”

A total of 338 Irishmen died in that attack. Tom Kettle, one time Nationalist MP for Tyrone, was killed at the Somme. That year he wrote to the leaders of the Easter Rising stating: “These men will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer.”

It is the intent of the Government that this is not how he or any of the Irishmen who fought in the First World War should be remembered and it is our intention, therefore, to honour their memory. As in the case of those “shot at dawn”, it is our objective to recover their memory from the dishonour that was done to them 90 years ago. It is an act of national solidarity with those of our countrymen who volunteered to fight in a truly terrible war and with the always complex and often tragic experiences of previous generations as a whole. It is the whole range of our experiences across all traditions that has shaped our present from which we are determined to build a shared future on this island never rewriting the past but always seeking to understand it better, and honour the memories, sacrifice and vision of all those who came before.

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  • Excellent speech from Mr. Ahern, and criminally overdue. It is the hallmark of a mature democracy that all threads of its history which have contributed to its current existence are given their due recognition. The involvement of Irish troops, both nationalist and unionist, in World War I is a vital aspect of our Nation’s history, and ought to be commemorated fully.

    As a side issue, surely as the Irish government took over the running of the country from the British, they have jurisdiction to retrospectively exonerate those Irishmen executed by the British for ‘dessertion’, just as they have the power to alter or repeal laws imposed by the British prior to the arrival of ‘freestatehood’.

  • Stephen Copeland

    It is interesting that the list of 26 seems to include many from the north (judging by surnames and the occasional family snippet). The Dublin government would not have direct ‘jurisdiction’ over those, but clearly feels a moral responsibility.

  • 9countyprovence

    It is indeed about time that such commemorations occur publicly and in a dignified manner. They believed that what they were doing was right for Ireland, be they fighting in defence of the Union, or fighting for Home Rule. And this spirit and sacrifice should be remembered. That quote from Tom Kettle hits a chord, and certainly rings true for the last 90 years. This is one area in which all communities have common ground, and this should be cherished as such ground is very hard to find these days.

  • Absurd and childish even by the miserable standards of Blank Cheque.

    Where next, though, for the bould Bertie? If historical actions can anachronistically be ‘righted’ [sic] by a wave of his hand like this, why there’s sooooo much suffering in the world, of long ago, he can set his mind to.

    Maybe it’s time for an official apology and policy of compensation to those of us whose ancestors were carried off by the Balorians?

    Seriously, you bunch* of mewling, PC-infested, wet blankets: the only ‘memory’ being dishonoured here is of those brave millions who did not desert. You think we, any of us, would have been better off if more of them, on our side, had? Do you even dimly understand that the German army finally cracked only in the second half of 1918 because the High Command could no longer cope with their rate of desertion?

    Ahern’s actions, if only they were properly understood as anything other than a compulsory groupthink hug, would be seen for the sublime arrogance they actually represent. How can Ahern, today, understand the values and mores by which those men lived and died nearly a century ago? Disclaiming, at zero political cost to himself, a series of right-on platitudes fit for the applause of today’s Irish Times says nothing to the men who laid down their lives in order that we might enjoy the infantile civilisation we presently do.

    Truly, I could not think of a way to insult the soldiers these islands sent to Europe 1914-1918 more precise and toxic than Ahern’s PC indulegence offered to those amongst them who tragically fell short of the courage that everyone else displayed. We can pity deserters, but if we respect the men who did not, we cannot esteem them.

    *Directed at the modern world in general, and not to anyone who has posted on this thread in particular.

  • Mick Fealty

    Karl Rove, I think you deserve a column on Slugger. You’d make a great blogger!!

  • Karl,

    If you had bothered to read the report, you would see it was Dermot Ahern, not Bertie Ahern. But why let facts get in the way of a good rant? The thrust of both Mr. Ahern and my comments were to recognise Ireland’s War Heroes. The ‘desserter’ issue is an adjunct, but that said, it is all very easy for you to criticise these people from your ivory towers. It is widely recognised that many of these so-called desserters were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and were not in full control of their faculties.

    The key issue is to honour those who fought in the war. Examining the issue of ‘desserters’ is separate, and in no way affects the former requirement. As Mr. Ahern said: “It is the intent of the Government that this is not how he [Tom Kettle] or any of the Irishmen who fought in the First World War should be remembered and it is our intention, therefore, to honour their memory.”

  • Stephen Copeland

    Karl Rove,

    Your rant appears to share the common dogma about:

    … the men who laid down their lives in order that we might enjoy the infantile civilisation we presently do.

    Maybe I am missing some intended irony there, but I think the overwhelming tragedy of WWI and the millions who died, was that it was for precisely nothing.

    ‘Civilisation’ was not saved, because it was never in danger. If the Germans had won … well, so what? They were the mirror image of the British Empire. Some colonies in Africa would have been ceded from King to Kaiser, Alsace would have remained Elzas, but, as on previous occasions, little else would have changed. Germany at the time was also a proto-social democracy, a capitalist industrial power, and a civilised society.

    Instead, thanks to the wrong side winning, we got Versailles, economic collapse in Europe, fascism, and the second world war. Had Germany won, we might never have had the Nazis, the Holocaust, or even the Soviet Union.

    So, by all means commemorate the stupid loss of life, on both sides, but don’t pretend that they died for any higher purpose.

  • middle-class taig

    Mick, are you trying to compete with A Tangled Web?

  • missfitz

    Actually, I found Karl Rove’s diatribe offensive. As ElMat has said, there was a deep misunderstanding of these men, and indeed many of those who were shot dead were simply gone mad from the scenes of death and horror they witnessed. They were constantly in fear of their lives, and witnessed whole sale death on scale that we cannot imagine in our sanitary lives.

    This is not about being PC, not about being political. Its just about righting a historical injustice and I do not think that is wrong.

    Sometimes it takes the passage of time for understanding to deepen and a different perspective must be used. This is true for the men who were shot at dawn.

    And it certainly does not besmirch or diminish the memories of the men who died in battle. The human mind is a fragile thing and it will snap when it cannot absorb any more. That does not make one man braver or more courageous than another, it is simply a fact of our human fraility.

    I’m sorry that Karl Rove’s rants are more to the liking of Slugger, it really saddens me. It’s easy to be loud, brash , rude and uncaring, and maybe like the papers it sells more. It’s a little harder to be balanced and considerate, but perhaps that is not what is needed here.

  • DK

    “I think the overwhelming tragedy of WWI and the millions who died, was that it was for precisely nothing”

    Do you really think that the nations went to war over nothing. “What’s on telly tonight?” “Dunno, hasn’t been invented” “Verdamt! Invade Belguim!”

    The war was a logical extension of the Prussian expansion that had started the previous century. The excuse was provided by the Austo-Serbian squabble, but there would have been another excuse if that had not been forthcoming. The train timetables for invasion were organised well in advance.

    Britain and France could not be compared to Imperial Germany – and the fate of the smaller nations that Germany would have absorbed would have been awful (the invasion of Belgium included the sacking of cities Attila the Hun style – remember Louvraine). Britain and France had no similar plans for Europe and had treaties protecting the smaller states. Imperial Germany was Nazi Germany with a King instead of a Fuhrer.

    We have a lot to be thankful for that there was an allied victory. A German victory would have left an Imperianl totalitarian power, far more powerful than Nazi Germany ever became, in charge of Europe and more than willing to throw its weight around. This is not comparable with the British or French empires which were beholden to the vagueries of political fortunes and largely obsessed with maintaining power-balances.

    An Imperial Germany, rushing into full industrialisation and with the same fundamental ideologies as the nationalists that replaced it would have viewed Russia as a resource (and a mortal enemy if communist). Only an Imperial Germany would then have gone on and won against Russia where the Nazis failed. Think about that and then wonder if it was all worth it.

  • topdeckomnibus

    Mick

    In the 60s there was a group of lads who provided voluntary ambulance attendants for night call outs of the ambulance.

    I did this. And so I got to know about a former 1st World War Captain .. who went through the whole war. He was in a wheelchair as he aged and no medical reason could be found. So it was called “Hysterical paralysis”.

    What it seemed to be, burdening him so much, was that he was at the Christmas truce in 1914 when the football was played. And his account was that afterwards men from both sides refused to return to trenches. The British and german Officers agreed and German fired on German refusers and British on British refusers.

    And he then saw the rest of that war through and the period of homes fit for heros, tythe war and depression and 2nd War.

    “We could have stopped it … if only we had stayed in the middle too”

    And that is enough to put any beggar in a wheelchair but nothing hysterical about it.

  • If anyone’s interested, I did a post on this issue a while back:

    http://elblogador.blogspot.com/2006/02/time-to-honour-irelands-war-heroes.html

  • Oh, and this one last year about deserters:

    http://elblogador.blogspot.com/2005/10/clear-their-name.html

  • Stephen Copeland

    DK,

    Do you really think that the nations went to war over nothing.

    They went to war for the same reasons. To maximise their imperial power, both military and eeconomic.

    The war was a logical extension of the Prussian expansion that had started the previous century. The excuse was provided by the Austo-Serbian squabble, but there would have been another excuse if that had not been forthcoming. The train timetables for invasion were organised well in advance.

    It was not just Prussia that was expanding its empire. Britain, Russia and even France (though a Republic) were all at the same game. You are being disingenuous by mentioning only the German side.

    Britain and France could not be compared to Imperial Germany – and the fate of the smaller nations that Germany would have absorbed would have been awful

    The fate of the numerous smaller countries that Britain and France had absorbed waas also awful. Have you forgotten the Boers, and how they were treated? Or the dozens of other peoples?

    (the invasion of Belgium included the sacking of cities Attila the Hun style – remember Louvraine)

    Attila the Hun? You’re joking, right? Or have you just been reading one-sided propaganda? And it is Louvain (or properly Leuven) thaat I suppose you mean.

    Britain and France had no similar plans for Europe and had treaties protecting the smaller states.

    What ‘plans’ are you referring to? Britain and France, like Germany and Russia and Austria-Hungary were all involved in power politics, and none of them gave a damn about the ‘small countries’

    Imperial Germany was Nazi Germany with a King instead of a Fuhrer.

    Rubbish.

    We have a lot to be thankful for that there was an allied victory. A German victory would have left an Imperianl totalitarian power, far more powerful than Nazi Germany ever became, in charge of Europe and more than willing to throw its weight around. This is not comparable with the British or French empires which were beholden to the vagueries of political fortunes and largely obsessed with maintaining power-balances.

    Thaanks to WWI the majority of the world was left with totalitarian imperial rule, some of it British, some Soviet, some French. Do you really think that was any better than what they would have got if Germany had won?

    An Imperial Germany, rushing into full industrialisation and with the same fundamental ideologies as the nationalists that replaced it would have viewed Russia as a resource (and a mortal enemy if communist). Only an Imperial Germany would then have gone on and won against Russia where the Nazis failed. Think about that and then wonder if it was all worth it.

    The Germans would have absorbeed a little bit more of Poland, maybe, but remember that Lebensraum was not a pre-Nazi thing. You appear to be conflating Imperial Germany with the Third Reich. And bear in mind that Imperial Germany did win its war against Russia, before it lost in the west.

    All in all, a tragic period of waste, without any redeeming features.

  • Mick Fealty

    Stephen,

    Might I suggest that if you’re going to ‘Fisk’ someone, you do it properly. ‘Rubbish’ tells us precisely nothing about the weakness of your opponents argument.

    missfitz,

    I’m generally not worried about questions of bias so much as diversity here on Slugger. At the moment, the ‘Liberals’ have possession of most of the ground.

    I fail to see what’s so bad about having some decent representation from the unashamed right. And the boy can write well, which is a help.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Mick,

    Try reading what I said rubbish to:

    Imperial Germany was Nazi Germany with a King instead of a Fuhrer.

    Can you think of a better comment than ‘rubbish’?

    How about: wrong, they were two different periods of history, two different states, two different leaders, two different ideologies, two million different actions, two different political systems, too many differences. In short, rubbish.

  • DK

    Stephen,

    “They went to war for the same reasons. To maximise their imperial power, both military and eeconomic.”

    Not all countries were the same in 1914. Imperial Germany was an extreme example at the time. Neither France nor Britain had designs in Europe, Imperial Germany did, and had plans to enact their aims – which they then subsequently did. Britain and France were defensive and Germany was offensive. The war was defensive against the rise of imperial Germany – that is what motivated so many people on both sides of the divide in Ireland to fight against Germany. The increase in firepower and it’s effect on the battlefield had not been anticipated by either side.

    I have a feeling that what anoys you is that Irish fought in the great war on the British side and you seek to minimise their contribution by equating the slaughter with a senseless war.

    If the war had a point, then their slaughter was not in vain – but, embarrasingly, to help Britain in a noble struggle. God forbid that Britain should ever do good in the world or that the Irish should help her. Doesn’t fit with your world image, so best revise history and fuck the dead and their sacrifice.

  • Tochais Siorai

    The said comparison, Imperial Germany = Nazi Germany was made without any supporting evidence to back up this claim. Is ‘Rubbish’ not an OK response in this or any other scenario when someone makes an unsupported Nazi comparison?

  • Stephen Copeland

    DK,

    Not all countries were the same in 1914. Imperial Germany was an extreme example at the time. Neither France nor Britain had designs in Europe, Imperial Germany did, and had plans to enact their aims – which they then subsequently did. Britain and France were defensive and Germany was offensive.

    I do not differentiate between Europe and not-Europe. All of the states involved were empires. Some had imperial possessions in Europe (Britain, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Russia) as well as elsewhere, others only ‘overseas’ (France). But so what? An empire is still an empire whether you are black or white.

    The war was defensive against the rise of imperial Germany – that is what motivated so many people on both sides of the divide in Ireland to fight against Germany.

    I don’t think that many people were motivated by much more than the effects of jingo-ism and crude propaaganda (your ‘Louvain’ things, for instance).

    The increase in firepower and it’s effect on the battlefield had not been anticipated by either side.

    Agreed.

    I have a feeling that what anoys you is that Irish fought in the great war on the British side and you seek to minimise their contribution by equating the slaughter with a senseless war.

    Ad hominem remark.

    If the war had a point, then their slaughter was not in vain – but, embarrasingly, to help Britain in a noble struggle.

    Not noble, merely greedy and self-serving. Was Britain fighting for democracy? No. For freedom? No. For better social condiitions? No. For what, then?

    God forbid that Britain should ever do good in the world

    What? The ‘colonies’ should thank Britain for conquering them? Did any of them vote to remain dependent (when they were eventually allowed – some democracy)? No.

    … or that the Irish should help her.

    Irish people formed a large part of Britain imperial army and navy. But you will have trouble trying to show that it was for political reasons. Remember that most of Apartheid South Africa’s army was black!

    Doesn’t fit with your world image, so best revise history and fuck the dead and their sacrifice.

    Ad hominem comment.

  • In my opinion conscription and “cowardace” are incompatible. If I was conscripted I would have to ask why the person who conscripted me and who calls me a coward for refusing to go to my certain death aren’t out there instead of me. I realise that the Irish weren’t conscripted, but as far as I’m aware the British were. You have to ask what you would do, at 17 or 18 years of age, with the possiblility of a whole life ahead of you, when somebody tells you to run into a bullet in an attempt to take some scorched bit of dirt that has already been taken and retaken 20 times. I’ll stick around and pass on my genes thanks very much, I’ll have the same life that the bastards in the war rooms have had.

    My great grandfather, for who I am named, lost his arm at the age of 16 (he lied about his age to sign up) fighting for the British in WWI. What if he’d lost his head instead of his amr? I certainly wouldn’t be here writing this. I’d rather he wasn’t put in that position in the first place. I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t go. He didn’t get a medal, he didn’t get recognition, in a short amount of time he was another “disloyal catholic” in Belfast.

    There is no thanks in dying for your country. There’s only insults if you don’t. Life is precious, there’s no hell and there’s no heaven, only what we make of ourselves with the one life we have. I think it’s the ultimate dishonour to yourself to needlessly throw that away for some rich fucker sitting miles away accross the sea to get a medal for changing a line on a map by 15 metres.

    Anyone who calls them cowards needs to go to Iraq right now and join the British or American army, or the insurgency, and get themselves killed. Otherwise for my money that are just spouting hypocritical shite.

    You go… NOW… you DIE… then talk about cowards.

  • * And the boy can write well, which is a help.

    Posted by Mick Fealty on Mar 29, 2006 @ 01:36 PM *

    in your unsupported opinion it might be, but I disagree.

  • 9countyprovence

    ” to help Britain in a noble struggle.”
    Britan ended up with control of Palestine and Iraq after the war didn’t they? Did they find it in their noble hearts to let these places go free? Or was it more noble to hold on to them since oil was discovered and was becoming a valuable commodity?

  • páid

    well they say courage is the noblest virtue but I wonder if we can draw a line between the courageous and the cowardly easily. I have acted cowardly in the past, and maybe courageously once or twice also. I could have won a medal, or I could have been shot. It is unfair that those who were shot should be damned forever as cowards and I support the campaign to ‘pardon’ them. But I would be just as slow to condemn their executioners from the comfort and safety of generations forward. Bloody awful business, war.

  • Rory

    My maternal grandfather, a labouring man, finding himself without work, signed on for the Army reserve in order that he might have the few shilling’s signing up money to put food on the table. When war broke out he was called up early and neither Redmond nor Connolly could save him.

    Within five days of his call up he was killed at Mons. There are those who argue that to wipe the stain of dishonour from the memory of those executed for cowardice would only dishonour the memory of men like my grandfather who did not desert but who fought and died “honorably”. I do not think so. Perhaps my grandfather was lucky that he did not live long enough to experience the hell of what was to come, to not have his nerves so shattered that he was unable to engage in battle once more.

    My grandfather did not die fighting imperialism like the men of 1916, but neither did he die fighting for it since he took the King’s shilling, not out of loyalty, but out of simple need of sustenance for his family. If anything he died attempting to survive imperialism as did many both in and outside of the theatre of war.

    At the end of the day those who fought willingly for the glories of imperialism, those who died in an attempt to end it and those who, like my grandfather, died merely trying to survive it, were, like those poor souls, executed for no longer being able to fight at all, victims of the same imperialism. Let us now honour all accordingly.

  • Dk

    “Imperial Germany = Nazi Germany”

    Maybe this will help understand why resiting the 2nd Reich was so important:

    Germanisation was a policy of Imperial Germany, aimed to expand the German language and culture in areas populated by non-Germans e.g. Prussian authorities settled German speaking ethnic groups in Polish territories. This was carried on by the Nazis. http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Germanisation

    Of course there were differences between the 2nd and 3rd Reich, but the expansionism and belief in superiority were present in both.

  • Reader

    Stephen Copeland: The Germans would have absorbeed a little bit more of Poland, maybe, but remember that Lebensraum was not a pre-Nazi thing
    Ahem. And what do you think of the terms of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk then? Imposed by Imperial Germany on a defeated Russia just before the Germans were defeated themselves.

  • Stephen Copeland

    DK,

    .. expansionism and belief in superiority … are present is all empires. That is what makes them what they are. It most certainly existed in the British empire. You surely aren’t suggesting that …. [STOP: Godwin’s Law Alert]

  • Stephen Copeland

    Reader,

    In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans forced the Russians (the Bolshevik regime) to withdraw from non-Russian parts of their empire.

    Regarding the ceded territories, the treaty stated that “Germany and Austria-Hungary intend to determine the future fate of these territories in agreement with their population”

    What that might have meant we will now never know, but it sounds a little bit democratic, don’t you think? As the article points out, it ultimately lead to the independence of the Baltic states, Finland, Poland, and others.

  • “Germanisation was a policy of Imperial Germany, aimed to expand the German language and culture in areas populated by non-Germans e.g. Prussian authorities settled German speaking ethnic groups in Polish territories.”

    Britishisation was a policy of Imperial Britain, aimed to expand the English language and culture in areas populated by non-British e.g. English authorities settled English speaking ethnic groups in Irish territories.

    That’s the nature of Empires… you can’t call one evil and the other good… all empires are evil.

  • Jo

    Is an intention to cause avoidable hurt vindicated because it is well-written?

  • Brian Boru

    A lot of these so-called ‘deserters’ were in fact suffering from shell-shock as we now know. They should be pardoned. It is a fact that Irish soldiers were disproportionately likely to have been executed for cowardice owing to the racism of the system.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Jo: “Is an intention to cause avoidable hurt vindicated because it is well-written? ”

    What, he should sit around the campfire and sing “Kum-by-yah” with the other hippies?

    Like it or no, blogging is about staking out a position and defending it. Karl, for what its worth, did a decent job of staking out a position, defending, not so much. He is entitled to his position, as bombastic and occasionally misguided it may be. Karl would be better undermined if it was pointed out more forcefully that he’s not even talking about the subject of the thread, but embracing a tangent that was lumped in for a feel-good moment by Ahern, in that now ubiquitous “victims, weren’t they all…” motif that gets everyone a little squishy and unwilling to rebutt some truly ludicrous notions.

    Also, a good blog, like a good bar, requires a range of personalities and characters. It would be a boring place if Slugger was made up of a bunch of people who bobbed and nodded their heads in unison like a collection of bobblehead dolls, neh?

    Feelings only get hurt if you let someone have that power over you.

  • Reader

    Stephen Copeland: Regarding the ceded territories, the treaty stated that “Germany and Austria-Hungary intend to determine the future fate of these territories in agreement with their population”
    What that might have meant we will now never know, but it sounds a little bit democratic, don’t you think?

    For a wild optimist, it seems “a little bit democratic”. As for “Ultimately lead to the independence..” – for goodness sake – the Kaiser went on and *lost the war* – It was the allies that ultimately allowed all those countries their independence.

  • Garibaldy

    and here’s me thinking these people, both those shot at dawn and the others, were fighting a nasty imperialist war over who would oppress the africans and chinese. do they really deserve commemorating, which is code for celebrating? and the oft-made argument that nationalists and unionist can come together for these events so they’re a good thing is facile in the extreme

  • I have a problem with this expression, which is used to illustrate how magnamamous the “allies” were…

    “It was the allies that ultimately allowed all those countries their independence.”

    Independence is not the gift of Imperial powers, it is an absolute right. No Empire can “allow” independence, they can only deny it.

    If I lock you up and beat you, then decide to let you go when I am sick of listening to you whinge, am I a generous person, do I deserve a pat on the back?

    If I pass you on the street and I choose not to break your nose with a hammer, should I be lauded?

  • Brian Boru

    People here bringing up the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Brings something to mind. That treaty concerned Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia agreed to cede Russian-Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states to Germany. Afterward WW1 that treaty was cancelled, but the Germans lost German-Czechoslovakia and their part of Poland. Austria-Hungary lost Hungary, its part of what became Czechoslovakia, Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia. Now, a point I am trying to make is this: They were made independent under what President Wilson called “self-determination” i.e. the principle that nationalities were entitled to their independence.

    Now I would contend that Ireland would arguably have been one of those countries getting self-determination if the war had worked out differently. I ask this question: considering this was 1914-8 and certainly not the genocidal Nazi German army, why was the British empire any less worthy of breakup than the German and Austrian ones? What made the latter on higher moral ground than the British one? How was the British conquest of 25% of the world’s population on lower moral ground than the German invasion of little Belgium (and I am not defending the latter). If the British were really fighting for “the freedom of small nations” then they should have started in their own empire by letting its colonies go.

  • Brian Boru

    Oops. Slight mistype. Should have said:

    “What placed the latter empires on lower moral ground than the British one? How was the British conquest of 25% of the world’s population on higher moral ground than the German invasion of little Belgium”

  • Harry Flashman

    Ach shure they were all just as bad as each other weren’t they? Er, no!

    (Just before I continue I would ask Stephen Copeland to desist from erroneous ad hominem attacks on my argument by accusing me of plagiarism, it’s not very nice and he still hasn’t apologised for the last time.)

    So the Germans invade Belgium, France and Russia, (in the process proving that the German army of 1914-18 was in principle just as willing to massacre captive civilian populations as their sons would be in 1939-45, the rape of Belgium is not propaganda, it happened). When those countries, with the assistance of their British allies, resist such a blatant act of aggression then you deem them all equally culpapble. Eh?

    So the householder who attempts to throw out a burglar is just the same as his attacker? If you say that the independence forces in British or other European colonies were in the same situation then I’ll agree with you, but that’s not what we’re talking about, we’re discussing the Great War in Europe and in that war there was a very clear aggressor and it was the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm.

    As for the Irish who volunteered to enlist, well remember they were volunteers, they followed the advice of their democratically elected leaders and fought courageously throughout the war without compunction, even in the months after the Rising. The Dubliners who spat on the Easter rebels did so in the belief that they were treasonous slackers who were betraying their brothers and husbands at the front. Don’t be fooled by thinking they were all protestant loyalists, some were, but most were ordinary, Catholic, working class Dublin women. After the war the IRA took exceptional pleasure in murdering Irish veterans usually calling them “spies”, I don’t hear any campaign to have these charges cleared, oh no, only the men the big bad Brits shot are the ones we Irish people worry about now.

    For anyone to say that the Allies and the Central Powers were as bad as each other you would have to show how the Allies enslaved and brutalised the German population when the German army retreated, you can’t. Just as after 1945 the Allies proved themselves more civilised than the Germans had been, so in 1918 did the Allies treat Germany better than a victorious Germany would have treated them. The Versailles Treaty was used as an excuse by the Nazis and of course guilt ridden moral equivalencers in the west, as always, signed up for this logic. In fact Germany paid very little of the reparations demanded of it and received vast loans from the US which were never repaid. The hyper inflation was caused by a world slump and incompetent German financial management and had nothing to do with Versailles.

    Hitler rose to power on the basis of a myth that an undefeated German army had been stabbed in the back by democratic politicians, Reds and Jews, a myth that was willingly embraced by returned German veterans who made up the backbone of the Nazi party, this tells you all you need to know about the sort of men the Kaiser’s soldiers were.

    By the end of the war the British army was the only one in the field whose morale hadn’t cracked, they held on till the end and then drove the once indomitable German army back in 1918. Such men were rightly proud of their achievement and were not very sympathetic to men who had been shot at dawn. They admired their officers immensely and turned out in their hundreds of thousands to salute the funeral of General Haig, the general who masterminded their great victory. In the 1960’s the fashionable myth of “Oh What a Lovely War”, and an obsession with the poems of a tiny number of rather sensitive junior officers in the school curriculum gave the idea of sheeplike soldiers sent to their deaths by callous generals. For the veterans of that war this was an outrageous slur, they were soldiers who fought and died bravely alongside their officers (100 British generals died in action in WW1, that says it all) and resented being treated as dumb idiots and not heroic and victorious soldiers. By the time the “Blackadder” bollox came along there were too few of them left to complain.

    Folks, try to put down your Sassoon and Wilfred Owen for a moment, read the accounts of the ordinary soldiers, leave the left wing pacifist propaganda to one side and try to find out the truth. The German army was an expansionist, brutal, aggressive force same as it had been in the previous half century and same as it was again in the following twenty years, it had to be stopped and it was by some of the toughest and most effective officers and men ever to have fought in the British army, they have alot to be proud of.

  • Jo

    “(100 British generals died in action in WW1, that says it all)”

    No, actually , it doesnt.

    1,600,000 British soldiers were killed. If you think that 100 deaths “says it all” what is it you are saying about the others?

    Nothing particularly respectful anyway.

    And citing a 1960s musical for changing the *real* situation to a perceptionsof sheep-like soldiers?

    That is taking a right-wing obsession with the “evil 60s” to quite absurd lengths.

  • Garibaldy

    “If you say that the independence forces in British or other European colonies were in the same situation then I’ll agree with you, but that’s not what we’re talking about, we’re discussing the Great War in Europe and in that war there was a very clear aggressor and it was the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm.”

    Can we really seperate the two in this manner? The war was fought in Europe but motivated in large part by colonial concerns.

    As for the capacity of non-German armies to brutualise civilians, what about British gas attacks on civilians in Iraq ordered by Churchill in the years after the war? Did the Germans do this? And was their disgusting behaviour in Belgium not motivated in part by their outrage at the guerilla tactics adopted by Belgians defending their homes, which they saw as the violation of the rules of war? Now, I’m trying to think of another example of an army in this period that reacted to guerilla tactics by brutalising, terrorising, and blaming large sections of the civilian population…

  • Harry Flashman

    Jo dear, calm down luv, 1,600,000 British soldiers did not die in the First World War, the figure is less than half that, given that for every general there would be tens of thousands of other soldiers under his command a figure of one hundred generals killed in action is very significant. I thought you came from a military background, surely you should understand that it is quite exceptional to have generals in the front line? So when one hundred of them are killed in combat you can be sure that those generals are leading from the front and not billetted in cushy chateaus in the rear as “What a Wonderful War” and “Blackadder” made them out to be.

    Garibaldy, like I say we are discussing the Great War in Europe, if you want to discuss gassing Iraqis in the 1930’s (I think you’ll find Churchill was out of office then) or the Irish troubles of 1921-22 then fine but it’s not what my post was about.

  • Jo

    Harry

    I can appreciate that generals would be as anxious as anyone else to avoid being killed in war and I can only assume that the casualty figure you qute stems from the first part of WW1 before it became clearer what a charnel house was being created on the western front.

    Thereafter I suspect that Generals beat a hasty retreat behind the lines. Militarily quite sensible, of course, but the wholesale slaughter of working class people is not defended by the initially risky action a command before it became clearer what bloodletting would be required to achieve stalemate for four years.

    This was a price paid in the blood of one class, rather than that from which British Generals were drawn…War? what is it good for….

  • Stephen Copeland

    Jo,

    This was a price paid in the blood of one class, rather than that from which British Generals were drawn…

    You are quite wrong. In numerical terms of course more working class soldiers were killed, but in proportional term the ‘officer class’ (aka the British upper class) suffered perhaps worse. An enormous numbers of sons of the aristocracy died, usually as junior officers, leading their men and armed with only a pistol. They apparently felt it was their duty to lead by example.

    War? what is it good for….

    Absolutely nothing [say it again!]

  • Garibaldy

    Harry,

    from http://www.againstbombing.org/chemical.htm

    All quotes in the excerpt are properly footnoted in the original book, with full references to British archives and papers. Excerpt from pages 179-181 of Simons, Geoff. *IRAQ: FROM SUMER TO SUDAN*. London: St. Martins Press, 1994:

    Winston Churchill, as colonial secretary, was sensitive to the cost of policing the Empire; and was in consequence keen to exploit the potential of modern technology. This strategy had particular relevance to operations in Iraq. On 19 February, 1920, before the start of the Arab uprising, Churchill (then Secretary for War and Air) wrote to Sir Hugh Trenchard, the pioneer of air warfare. Would it be possible for Trenchard to take control of Iraq? This would entail *the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death…for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes.*

    Churchill was in no doubt that gas could be profitably employed against the Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire): *I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.* Henry Wilson shared Churchills enthusiasm for gas as an instrument of colonial control but the British cabinet was reluctant to sanction the use of a weapon that had caused such misery and revulsion in the First World War. Churchill himself was keen to argue that gas, fired from ground-based guns or dropped from aircraft, would cause *only discomfort or illness, but not death* to dissident tribespeople; but his optimistic view of the effects of gas were mistaken. It was likely that the suggested gas would permanently damage eyesight and *kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes.*

    Churchill remained unimpressed by such considerations, arguing that the use of gas, a *scientific expedient,* should not be prevented *by the prejudices of those who do not think clearly*. In the event, gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with excellent moral effect* though gas shells were not dropped from aircraft because of practical difficulties […..]

    There’s a link on that page to a Guardian article discussing the same events, and Churchill’s part, in 1920. This, in my opinion, goes directly to your argument that the Germans were worse than the other powers.

    Secondly, World War I was exactly that. A World War. It is absolutely impossible to artificially separate events in Europe from the wider imperial context, even if you would like to.

  • Andrew

    There is no denying German was an imperial power, keen on conquest and willing to carry out massacres of civilians to do so. The invasion of Belgium and the massacre of civilians who attempted non violent resistance to the invasion reveals that.

    However there is also no denying Britain was an imperial power, keen on conquest and willing to carry out massacres of civilians to do so. The Boer war, the Amritsar massacre and indeed events closer to home reveal this.

  • Garibaldy

    Andrew,

    My sentiments exactly. Which is why I feel that WWI should be remembered only as the disaster it was for the entire world. For the 20m, overwhelmingly civilian, who died as a result of it, and for the peoples of Africa and Asia who were further oppressed and exploited by the colonial powers. It is not something that should be celebrated on any grounds, and the attempts to turn it into something positive because nationalists and unionists both shed their blood in the cause of imperialism are an insult. They pervert the real meaning of the War to serve narrow local agendas.

  • Harry Flashman

    Garibaldy

    I accept your sources and concede that I was incorrect in my assertion that Churchill was not involved in the Iraqi operation, thank you for putting me right as regards that. However, I still stand by my main assertion that in the seventy year campaign of aggressive German militarism from Bismark’s early wars right up until 1945 when it was finally defeated, the First World War was not some sort of aberration but in fact a continuation of brutal expansionism and that the western allies were perfectly justified in resisting it. Like I say Africans and Asians were also perfectly justified in resisting European expansionism but I just happen on this occasion to be limiting my discussion to the 1914-18 war in Europe as that was the topic being discussed in the original thread.

    As a matter of interest I think most casualties in the Great War were military rather than civilian but again I stand to be corrected.

  • Question:

    Does a conscript count as a military or civilian casualty?

    I would say civilian personally.

  • Harry Flashman

    Well PBF16 you’re entitled to your opinion of course but pretty much anyone else recognises that soldiers, whether conscripted or not, are members of the “military” coz otherwise the word “military” is meaningless, just my opinion, personally.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    DK: “Not all countries were the same in 1914. Imperial Germany was an extreme example at the time. Neither France nor Britain had designs in Europe, Imperial Germany did, and had plans to enact their aims – which they then subsequently did. Britain and France were defensive and Germany was offensive. The war was defensive against the rise of imperial Germany – that is what motivated so many people on both sides of the divide in Ireland to fight against Germany. The increase in firepower and it’s effect on the battlefield had not been anticipated by either side. ”

    Please… if I recall correctly, the order of affairs was as follows: Austria-Hungry declares war on Serbia, Russia declares war on Austria-Hungry, Germany declares war on Russia, England and France declare war on Germany. Ergo, the option to pass on the war was England and France’s, now wasn’t it? As for the losses, you can blame that on Moltke’s misunderstanding of the von Schlieffen plan, which would have allowed a war of maneuver, rather than a war of attrition.

    As for the implication of the new weapons, they should have been readily understood. The foolishness of 19th century tactics (the massed infantry charge against fortified postions had been proved wasteful with 19th century weapons (massed rifled muskets, rifled cannon, cannister shot, et. al.), so the addition of machineguns, modern artillery and poison gas should have led to some modification, at least after the first couple iterations of foolishness.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    DK: “Germanisation was a policy of Imperial Germany, aimed to expand the German language and culture in areas populated by non-Germans e.g. Prussian authorities settled German speaking ethnic groups in Polish territories. This was carried on by the Nazis. ”

    Please differntiate this from what the Victorian English referred to as “the white man’s burden?”

  • Uncle Ocalan

    Instead of following Churchill’s advice while in charge of Iraq, the clever British came up with Bomber Harris and the mass bombing of peasant villages instead.

    Don’t talk to me about the suffering of Belgium and the benign British Empire.

  • Garibaldy

    Harry,

    You might be right on the casulties. It seems on further inspection that no historiographical consensus exists. I can’t remember where I got that figure from. It seems to depend on what you want to include, and as Il Papa points out, there could be distinctions drawn amongst the various soldiers. I think it’s probably fair to say that civilians suffered more than any previous war, but less than WWII.

    What concerns me about the current fad for commemorations is this from Ahern: “honour the memories, sacrifice and vision of all those who came before”
    Not all visions and sacrifices are equal. Some are wrong. WWI was a nasty war fought for bad reasons. It seems to me that in the rush to be all-incompassing and nice to each other, we lose sight of the real issues about WWI. That seems to me to be an insult to those who suffered and lost their lives due to this war, both during it in Europe, and after it in Europe and elsewhere.

  • Harry Flashman

    No DC, your time line is a bit faulty, certainly France declared war on Germany after they attacked Russia but Britain didn’t come on side until Germany attacked France through Belgium. Sorry, but the fact remains that the aggressors were the Central Powers and chief among them was Germany, maybe Britain should have stayed out but the blame for starting the mess sits right where it did from the beginning with Germany and her policy of expansionist German aggression which had served her so well in the previous fifty years and which was not fully extirpated until 1945.

    I admire the clarity of your twenty-twenty hindsight with regard to the weapons available in 1914, I’m sure today’s generals would be fascinated to find out from you how the wars of the future will be fought before the shooting actually starts.

  • Jo

    Thank you all for an interesting, civil and informative discussion. 🙂

  • Mike

    For all those who have said talked about: a ‘pointless war’; ‘lions led by donkeys’; ‘Britain/France just as bad as Germany’; and all the other clichés. Please take the time to read Gary Sheffield’s “Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities”. It was published last year I think and is available in bookshops now.

    It busts amny of these myths and explains how they originated in popular culture right through from ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ to ‘Blackadder’.

    (PS as another aside, as a history graduate can I just point out that the most brutal and oppressive European imperial power in Africa was…Belgium.)

  • Mike

    This is the book I’m referring to (for illustrative purposes not advertising!)

    http://www.historybookshop.com/book-template.asp?isbn=0747264600

  • Thanks Mike,

    “PS as another aside, as a history graduate can I just point out that the most brutal and oppressive European imperial power in Africa was…Belgium”

    I’m going take this as fact and start telling people it, but you’ll forgive me if instead of saying “this guy on the interweb told me that…” I’m going to say “I have it on very good authority that…”

  • Garibaldy

    Mike,

    Surely there were people saying the war was pointless during the war. In every country. I don’t think that was dependent on ‘Oh what a lovely war’, but rather on what they saw as the waste of human life involved in an imperialist war. James Connolly is one example, Jean Jaures is another. And of course pacifists etc argued this too.

    Gary Sheffield teaches at a British Army training school. What does your historical training tell you we should think about that when we read his work?

    As you’ll know, there are a number of historians who now argue that the western front in WWI was an astounding miltary success for the British. Primarily on the basis that they worked out that the thing to do was to move their troops in behind a rolling barrage rather than sending them over the top like sitting ducks with no artillery cover. Only took around 3 years. The war was lost because Germany had bitten off more than it could chew, and it proved unable to feed both population and army. The Germans only surrendered once it became clear that the Americans were able to provide massive manpower and material, sufficient to break the deadlock on the western front. Britain successfully kept a massive army in the field until then. Hardly a resounding success.

    On points of historical accuracy, Belgium was technically not the imperial power in the Congo at this point. It was the property of the King of the Belgians. French imperialism was also very brutal, a shameful fact for a republic supposedly built on the legacy of 1789. So all the major combatant powers were responsible for oppressing other peoples for their own ends, and expected to gain greater opportunities for doing so in the future if successful in the war. I’d say that morally that does indeed make them all as bad as each other.

  • Harry Flashman

    Actually Your Holiness, should you wish to learn about the horrors of King Leopold’s mines in the Belgian Congo you could do alot worse than study the research of a man who studied them and compiled several damning reports of the barbarous condtions that existed there.

    The King of England awarded the researcher with a knighthood for his work, the name of this philanthropic, humanitarian knight of the realm?

    Sir Roger Casement

    Or you might just want to read Oul’ Roge’s private diaries instead, apparently they were much more interesting.