What have the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the shooting down of an airliner over Ukraine got to do with a First World War commemoration at Cockburn School last Friday?
The commemoration at Cockburn was done very well. A lot of work had gone into it, pupils had studied various aspects of the war, the singing was beautiful and poignant. But just like the real war there was more than an element of jingoism. We had union jack bunting, the national anthem and cheering when the German soldier was captured and then shot in the mock battle.
I was struck by something the Archdeacon of Leeds said, soldiers went to “fight for peace”. I’m sorry, no they didn’t. They may have thought that’s what they were doing, but they were fighting for the interests of their ruling class. The First World War was fought between empires over access to markets and raw materials.
Britain and France represented the old but still dynamic empires, for once fighting on the same side. Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman empire were on their last, feudal, legs. Germany and the USA were the new kids on the block with strong economies, but little land under their direct control.
Soldiers in all these countries were duped into thinking they were fighting for peace. The British and French were taking on German militarism whilst the Germans were fighting Tsarist absolutism. In fact they were volunteering go into the industrialised slaughter of the trenches. The winner would be the ruling class that could spend the most men, shells and ships.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t remember the war and especially those that died during it, almost exclusively below the rank of captain by the way. But we need to untangle the history.
For example the famous incident of soldiers fraternising across the front line and playing football on Christmas Day 1914 was celebrated at Cockburn. I celebrate it, but the British Army didn’t celebrate. They split up the men involved and sent them to different regiments in different parts of the line to try and contain and isolate such dangerous behaviour.
It’s less well known that there were numerous ‘no fire’ days when the opposing trenches agreed there would be no killing that day. As the war ground on there were more mutinies, on all sides, as groups of soldiers rejected the pointless slaughter.
It was strikes and mutinies that ended the war. The revolutions in Russia in 1917 and then the mutiny in the German navy that spread like wildfire through the country as workers came out on strike to support the sailors.
What has been the legacy of the First World War? The peace treaty of Versailles didn’t help much. General Wavell said if that was the war to end all wars, Versailles was the peace to end all peace. The punishment of Germany led pretty much straight to the Second World War (at least the European end of it), but it had many other consequences, especially in the Middle East.
When I look at a map of the Middle East the first thing that always strikes me is how the national borders follow straight lines. The borders aren’t formed by natural objects such as rivers or mountains, they were drawn on a map by a white man, literally a line in the sand. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, etc were all carved out of the old Ottoman Empire. They weren’t formally given to Britain and France, but were within a ‘sphere of influence’, so pretty much the same thing. There was trouble from the start, Bomber Harris of Dresden fame cut his teeth bombing local insurgents in southern Iraq in 1924.
In fact the legacy of the war has been a century of war. The periods of time when there hasn’t been a war going on somewhere on the planet can be counted in weeks and months.
The situation in Gaza flows from the Balfour declaration of 1917, the British and UN handling of the situation in 1948 and the Zionist movement that forcibly expelled Palestinians from their land. That has led to numerous wars and conflicts in the region and the lack of a settlement fuels the Muslim extremists of Al Qaida and Isis.
The shooting down of MH17 feels to me like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914. An apparently small, if terrible, isolated act. But one that could spark something much bigger because of the context. Sarajevo in the Balkans was being fought over by the crumbling Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Today Ukraine is being fought over by a crumbling Russia and a US-backed European Union. I’m genuinely worried that a world war could be just around the corner.
I was taken by a suggestion from my bother. A full list of the dead on each day from a century ago should be read on the main news each day for next four years. As he said “It might stop some of the more trigger happy politicians from reaching for their gunboats.”
I’ll be back in two weeks, after my holiday, with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.