There’s something about the greatest political and social upheavals in world history that make them particularly well addressed by poets. The First World War was no exception, with one poet in particular having a reasonably good go here:
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
What, indeed, were they doing there? For what reason(s) did the 65 million men around the world enlist – or were conscripted – to serve on the North Sea, the East African plains, the Italian Dolomites and Russian Caucasus, the Ukrainian Pripet marshes, the Mesopotamian desert, the beaches of Gallipoli, and the muddy fields of Flanders? Doubtless a Brazilian soldier’s motives for getting involved will have been different from those of a Bulgarian soldier, but by the war’s third year the vast majority of all those serving on the conflict’s various fronts were content principally with sheer comradeship and a desire to ‘get the job done’ as motives. To many soldiers there certainly seemed few other worthwhile reasons for the ever-mounting butcher’s bill.
As the cliche goes, the Great War turned out not to be the War to End All Wars, as the then British prime minister David Lloyd George had so rashly proclaimed in the House of Commons on 11 November 1918. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that the Great War was considerably more consequential than most other conflicts. Above all, the imperfect peace treaties that concluded it, and the passions that they sparked in the defeated powers, were important causative factors in the Second World War. Additionally, had it not been for the War the United States would not have risen to its pre-eminence (or at least not so quickly as if peace had held in 1914), and there would have been no Russian Revolution (or at least, not the kind that ultimately happened). The War gave fresh impetus to the forces of nationalism in Ireland and India, and the years afterwards saw the beginnings of the decolonization process. The War’s dissolution of two great empires – the Habsburg and Ottoman – created new nations and new grievances, the outworkings of which are still being felt to this day. The massive economic shock the War dealt to the world created conditions that would explode in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The advances in technology necessitated by total war also spilled over to the civilian economy, leading to the development of things like wireless radio and wristwatches, and there were also improvements in medical care and treatment. Finally, the appearance of women as police officers and munitions workers did wonders for their emancipation: it is no coincidence that most European states enfranchised women in the years immediately following the War. Put simply, the First World War made possible a lot of the world in which we live today.
It still begs the question, of course, as to whether it was all “worth it”, given the conflict’s immediate consequences: ten million military deaths, six million civilian deaths, and over 20 million wounded – and that’s not including the more than 30 million dead from the ‘flu pandemic that would grip the world in 1918-19. The last Tommy, Harry Patch (1898-2009) of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, had his own stark view as to whether the First and Second World Wars had been worthwhile, in an interview he gave on a TV documentary in 2003:
I came out of the army, and the more I thought about it the more I came: Why should two civilizations go out and shoot one another? Nothing but murder. If there is any God at all, why didn’t he cut the Kaiser down, and why didn’t he cut Hitler down, and not sacrifice all those lives?
I’m often minded, though, whenever I hear critics (mainly from the left) saying the First World War was a conflict in which Britain should never have got involved, to say ‘OK, tell that to the Belgians. Tell that to the Serbs. Do you reckon they think it was all a waste of time?’ Nonetheless, there is no getting round the fact that the colossal losses endured by the conflict’s combatant nations had a deep impact, psychologically, on people all over the world – in AJP Taylor’s words, it ‘cut deep into the consciousness of modern man.’ Arthur Halestrap (1898-2004) of the Royal Engineers Signal Division, believed in a TV interview that the Great War’s main achievement was to produce the modern pacifist movement, and opened his view with a quotation from Laurence Binyon’s poem For The Fallen:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
We will have endured, and we will have suffered, and so many men will have been slaughtered, and their names are now at the Menin Gate – tens of thousands with no known graves. I very often wonder whether the sacrifices that were made are worthwhile – that is, Had the years condemned us? – because there was still war, and still talk of war. Has it all been worthwhile? Yes, I think it will have been worthwhile, because I think that the consciousness of Europe, anyway, and most of the world, has been roused to the futility of war, and that is what I hope will eventually be the result of the two World Wars.
Professor Gary Sheffield, Britain’s best historian of the War, is unequivocal in his belief that it was a just one:
To claim that the First World War was “futile” because it was succeeded within twenty years by an even worse conflict is akin to proclaiming the Second World War futile because dissension among the victors led to the Cold War. In both cases, the victories over Germany produced “negative gains”: in other words, they prevented something from happening. To argue that the world in 1919 would have been a better place if the Great War had not taken place, or more parochially, if Britain had not become involved, misses the point. A German victory in the First World War would have produced a situation significantly worse than the imperfect “real” world of 1919. The First World War was a just and necessary war fought against a militarist, aggressive autocracy. In Britain and the United States it is a forgotten victory. It has remained forgotten for too long.
As for the poet whose words open this article, he was also one of those Tommies who was determined to see the conflict through to the end, whatever his reservations about the point of war in general. Nonetheless, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was killed in action exactly a century ago (and his family in Shropshire endured the appalling pain of receiving the telegram informing them of his demise exactly a week later, on Armistice Day), would certainly have joined the pacifist movement, had he made it through the War. He planned to publish his poems in a book at war’s end, and offer these thoughts as a foreword:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
‘My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.