SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Rewriting history

The Unquiet Western Front

By Brian Bond

Cambridge University Press, 2002, £17.50

Forgotten Victory

By Gary Sheffield

Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 2002, £7.99

Reviewed by

Geoff Jones

EVERY TOWN and village in Britain has its memorial to the dead of World War I (1914-18). Most people see the death of a million British soldiers in that war as a pointless slaughter. But a new group of ‘revisionist’ historians, represented by Brian Bond and Gary Sheffield, deride this as a ‘myth’, perpetuated by ‘lefty’ non-historians. According to them, a whole generation has been misled by the play and film, Oh What a Lovely War. And worse (in a story set to enter right-wing demonology), it is alleged that in some schools the TV programme, Blackadder Goes Fourth, set in the trenches in France, is the main GCSE exam text for this period!

The revisionists make three main assertions. First, that Germany started the war and Britain had a duty to fight to preserve ‘her interests’. Second, that the British troops were not ‘lions led by donkeys’ (a remark on battles in 1915 made by German colonel, Max Hoffman), uselessly massacred on the orders of incompetent generals. And that only the failures of 1915-17 are recognised, ignoring the victories of 1918 when the British Army ‘single-handedly’ smashed the German forces.

The German high command had been planning since 1905 for a war to defeat France and Russia. The actual trigger, the assassination of Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914 was almost immaterial. The real reason for the war was economic: the struggle for raw materials and markets. By the beginning of the century, Germany’s economy had surpassed France and Britain. But continued expansion necessitated colonial exploitation, and the rest of the world had been parcelled out already between Britain, France, Russia and the USA. Expansion for Germany meant wrenching an empire from one of the others. The only way was through war.

Every belligerent wrapped itself in patriotic colours: Germany fought to defend the ‘fatherland’, France for its ‘lost provinces’, Britain for ‘gallant little Belgium’. And the leaders of the workers’ parties fell for this lie, acting as recruiting sergeants, while only a few socialists called for workers’ unity against the war. At first, leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, the Bolsheviks in Russia, James Connolly in Ireland and Keir Hardie in Britain, were isolated and reviled. But as the war ground on, workers came to realise the truth. By 1917, anti-war strikes, protests and riots were common in all the countries involved, culminating in Russia with the collapse of tsarism.

All war is abomination. But the ‘Great War’s’ western front was a particularly static, pointless abomination, its horror best described by poets and novelists like Wilfred Owen and Erich Maria Remarque. The new revisionists have the effrontery to suggest that these ‘sensitive’, ‘middle-class’ writers just could not cope with the conditions in the trenches in the way the rough ‘proles’ could. In fact, they expressed the revulsion felt by the ordinary soldier. And it is no accident that works that can only be described as ‘anti-war’ have survived while the many jingoistic ‘pro-war’ ones are forgotten.

As early as winter 1914, the war had congealed – an ‘iron curtain’ of trenches stretched 350 miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Generals on both sides had planned a mobile war with sweeping advances and cavalry charges but modern weaponry, such as fast-firing, accurate rifles and, above all, machine guns made this impossible. Attackers had to break through an enemy front line consisting of tangles of barbed wire, mines, row upon row of strongpoints, trenches and more barbed wire. If that was achieved, they had to advance faster than the defender could bring up reinforcements to plug the gap, which was practically impossible. However, that would leave them so weakened that they could not exploit their breakthrough.

The first to realise this was the German Commander-in-Chief, von Falkenheyn. Throughout 1915 the Germans were on the defensive. When they resumed the offensive in 1916 it was with a new strategy, brutally but accurately described as ‘the meatgrinder’. The idea was to destroy enemy armies by a process of attrition, forcing them to sacrifice their troops uselessly against strong defensive positions until the soldiers mutinied or ran away.

For reasons of arrogance and incompetence, French and British generals could not accept the facts. In the British case, there was also a real lack of experience. The British empire had developed via overseas trade. A large conscript army had never been necessary. Instead, a relatively small regular force ensured the safety of the imperialist exploiters and kept indigenous peoples under control. That army was more or less wiped out by early 1915. Its replacement, built at high speed, had minimal equipment, minimal training and very few experienced officers.

British soldiers were lions certainly, led by men who had to learn on the job. But the generals deserved the name of donkeys, refusing to learn any lessons. They refused to accept when an attack had failed, leaving the majority of their infantry hanging dead on the barbed wire. Driven by a belief that ‘just one more push’ was needed, they continued to feed ever more soldiers into the meatgrinder. The battle of the Somme in 1916 started on 1 July and continued until November by which time the German line had been pushed back around seven miles. The losses were 600,000 killed, wounded or missing on either side.

The revisionist historians complain bitterly that people only hear of bloody disasters like the Somme and never of the British Army’s victorious advance between August and November 1918. The truth is more complex – and it is more than simply a military question.

The battles of 1918 resembled the 15th round of a slogging match between two heavyweight boxers, both at their last gasp. In March, a major German offensive drove west 40-50 miles before losses and the inherent advantage of defence brought it to a halt. From August, allied offensives pushed the Germans back eastwards 50 or 60 miles. Nonetheless, the front line on armistice day, 11 November 1918, was still many miles west of the German frontier.

So what had brought the German government to sue for peace? The army command had realised that it could not win militarily: the USA entering the war had provided Allied armies with abundant new munitions and the promise of more than a million troops by 1919. But the overarching reason was revolution at home.

At the beginning of the war, workers’ parties had been swamped by the chauvinist flood. But as early as 1916, there were anti-war demonstrations of tens of thousands in industrial areas of Germany. War weariness and opposition to the slaughter grew during 1917, and the Russian revolution triggered anti-war strikes and demonstrations involving millions of German workers. This opposition spread like a tide towards the front line: troop trains had messages scrawled on their sides like, ‘We’re not fighting for Germany’s honour but for the millionaires’. Officers were stoned and even shot at in stations. New troops marching up to the line met calls of ‘blackleg’, or ‘you’re prolonging the war’. On 28 October the sailors of the High Seas Fleet mutinied, raising red flags. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils were established in all the main industrial areas. It was the uprising of the German working class that brought the war to an end.

The revisionists deride the majority view of the ‘Great War’ as stemming from the ideology of the ‘radical 1960s’. The myth they are trying to create, however, is a hangover from the Thatcherite 1980s – there was ‘no alternative’ to war to safeguard ‘British interests’ and, having gone to war, there was ‘no alternative’ to the meatgrinder. But in whose interests? The war was fought to defend the interests of British imperialism, which subjected a quarter of the planet to destitution. Far from being a battle ‘for freedom and democracy’, it was a battle for the right of British and French capitalists to continue to exploit the workers and peasants of Africa and Asia. This was the ‘cause’ that condemned a million men to death in the trenches and the mud of Flanders. There was of course an alternative: that taken by the Russian workers in 1917 when they smashed tsarism; and the German workers who threw out the Kaiser in 1918, only to be betrayed by their leaders.

The revisionists are as wrong now as British field marshal Douglas Haig and his gang were then. The popular view of the war is the right one, Blackadder and all.


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