South Leeds Life has published two stories already and this week the national press has been full of debate sparked by Michael Gove’s attack on various historians and the writers of Blackadder. The schools project that will flesh out what the war meant for real people in South Leeds is very exciting and I’m sure there will be many similar projects happening up and down the country.
Mr Gove is trying to set some national context and re-assert that there was good reason for all those millions of (mostly) young men to die. No one doubts the bravery or the patriotism of the troops, but were they really fighting for a noble cause?
Was Britain defending democracy? The period leading up to the war is famous for the Suffragette movement fighting to win the vote for women. But most men still didn’t have the vote 1914 either. And choosing the autocratic Tsarist Russia as an ally to fight for democracy is a bit odd too.
Germany was certainly expansionist, it wanted more territory, but this wasn’t Hitler’s “Lebensraum”. Germany wanted colonies.
I think it was Clausewitz who said “War is politics by other means” and politics mostly boils down to economics. Back in 1914 we didn’t have today’s globalised market. If you wanted raw materials you had to control the land they were extracted from. Britain and France had large empires with colonies stretching across the globe, Germany had a toe hold in Africa and a scattering of Pacific islands.
Germany was late to the imperial party, having only formed a unified state in 1871. It was however the biggest industrial power having overtaken Britain’s industrial revolution (which as we know started in Holbeck). Germany needed a new economic settlement that would give it access to raw materials on the same footing as Britain or France. That is the root cause of the war, no matter what happened to Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo (a note for younger readers: I’m not referring to the band Franz Ferdinand, but the events that triggered the outbreak of war).
By the way this economic problem was also the root cause of the Second World War. The economic situation had not changed, in fact Germany had lost the few colonies it had in 1914. The problems were overlain with the horror of the Nazis, but in many ways there was one world war in the twentieth century, played out in two parts.
So that’s the causes of the war dealt with, who needs AJP Taylor? What about the conduct of the war, what about “lions led by donkeys”?
Michael Gove is appalled by the idea that British officers might not have known what they were doing. I don’t know a great deal about the war in France, but it seems to me that once you’ve tried sending men with rifles to attack trenches defended by machine guns and it hasn’t worked, you can only repeat that tactic so many times before you come in for some criticism. And the pre attack barrage, the softening up by artillery before the infantry advance doesn’t seem to have ever worked, except to alert the enemy that an attack was imminent.
I have some sympathy for the argument that the generals hadn’t seen this type of warfare before, but wasn’t the American Civil War the first industrial war? Had they learned nothing in the intervening fifty years? They did adjust their tactics as the war progressed, but only marginally.
The breakthrough of November 1918 came about because the German line disintegrated as they ran out of food and munitions. The First World War was a war of attrition and once the Western Front settled into the stalemate of the trenches, it was always going to be won by the side with more resources. The side that could afford more losses in men and shells and bullets.
As I said, the men at the front were clearly very brave and went through unbelievable hardships. They were patriotic, but I’m not sure that was a good thing. Surely patriotism blinded them to what they were really dying for. It wasn’t democracy, but their bosses access to markets and greater profits.
Mr Gove has opened up this argument in an attempt reinterpret history in a way that justifies his view of the world where we all know our place: “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”. His over-confidence that he could win this argument seems to be misplaced, let’s hope so.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.