The Great War – Myths or Facts?
As the one hundredth anniversary of that terrible European conflict dawns, we are inundated with documentaries, films and press articles about an event that took place such a very long time ago.
Do we need to be reminded so graphically about something that resulted in the loss of so many lives?
I believe that for anyone who has an interest in history – especially accurate history – then the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
I have to confess that prior to the current blanket coverage of this long ago conflict; my own knowledge of WW1 came from such tid-bits as the TV comedy, Blackadder Goes Forth and anti-war movies, such as Oh what a Lovely War.
I didn’t study WW1 in school, and cannot recall reading anything about the Great war in my younger years, yet when that classic Blackadder series was shown on TV in the 1980’s I somehow felt that I already knew this war. I somehow already knew that WW1 could only be described as a criminal farce.
I already knew that the volunteers were just ‘cannon-fodder’, that the officers were cowards, stupid and totally incapable of waging modern warfare, that millions upon millions of British lives were needlessly lost, that deserters and soldiers suffering from Shell Shock, (post-traumatic stress), were summarily shot at dawn, that the war was prolonged to allow rich industrialists to profit from supplying the insatiable war machine….and so on…
How did I know all this? I’m not sure, but I did know it, and when TV shows like Blackadder surfaced, they only served to reinforce these already deeply held views.
So am I deluded? And has my knowledge of the Great War become somehow badly distorted?
it would certainly seem that this is indeed the case.
Over the past few weeks I have watched two recently produced BBC documentaries, listened to an excellent documentary on BBC Radio 4 and have read extensively from reliable information sources on the internet. There will be many more details to absorb over the coming months and I shall probably return to this subject again on my blog, but I have already learnt enough to offer a few comments.
From the radio documentary, which contained interviews of survivors along with a number of learned historians, I learnt that when the Germans invaded Belgium at the start of the war, they committed unspeakable atrocities on thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians – including women and children. I mention this because when the war ended, these atrocities were more or less covered up and few if any of the Germans were brought to account for these crimes.
The allies, including the Brits, didn’t have the will to prosecute, and they actually allowed to Germans to prosecute their own generals. You can imagine what the outcome of that was. Pretty much zero.
If you want to know what really happened, ask the descendants of those Belgians who suffered horrific numbers of deaths and casualties – most of which were unnecessary, as they took place in occupied towns, long after the local populations had been subdued.
Yet 10 years after the war ended, the British press convinced the British public that stories of atrocities by the Germans in Belgium was purely government propaganda and was simply untrue. They even used articles from the GERMAN press – published during the war – who quite naturally, were desperate to discount such unpopular stories being reported by the British government.
But the atrocities were true and it remains a mystery why the pacifist, German-loving British press of the late 1920’s tried to say otherwise. The truth is that the Germans had shown their true colours as long ago as 1914, and we all know what occurred a mere ten years after the press tried to convince us that they didn’t commit any war crimes n Belgium. (To say nothing of the pointless shelling by the German navy of Hartelpool, Scarborough and Whitby which alos resulted in many casualties amongst non-combatant women and children).
Indeed it was because of the lack of trust in so-called government propaganda that it took so long for the public to believe the stories coming out of Germany and Poland in the 1940’s about the concentration camps.
I use the above example to illustrate how easy it is to fool an entire population (including me), that events didn’t always happen the way we may have been led to believe.
There are many untrue ‘myths’ surrounding the Great war, and I for one used to believe many – if not all – of them.
After my recent re-reading of the facts, I will try to de-bunk some of these myths.
It was the bloodiest war in history to that point, and millions of Brits died. – Wrong!
The bloodiest war in UK history, relative to population size, is the Civil War which raged in the mid-17th Century, when over 4% of the population died, as compared to 2% in WW1.
In WW1, Six million British soldiers were mobilised, of which 700,000 were killed. That’s 11% of the armed forces. A much higher percentage of British soldiers were killed in the Crimea War (1853-56).
Altogether, about 17 million soldiers and civilians died during WW1, but fifty years earlier, some 20-30 million died during the Taiping rebellion in Southern China.
Men lived in the trenches for years on end – Wrong!
The British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system, and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual for men to be out of the front lines for a month.
The upper class got off lightly – Wrong!
The Upper classes provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.
Some 11% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – 20% of those who served.
The British army was ‘Lions led by donkeys’ – Wrong!
During the war more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured. Most generals visited the front lines every day. In battle they were considerably closer to the action than generals are today.
Naturally, some generals were not up to the job, but others were brilliant, such as Arthur Currie, a middle-class Canadian failed insurance broker and property developer.
Rarely in history have commanders had to adapt so quickly to a radically different technological environment. British commanders had been trained to fight small colonial wars, now they were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the British army had ever seen.
Despite this, within three years the British had effectively invented a method of warfare still recognisable today. By the summer of 1918 the British army was probably at its best ever and it inflicted crushing defeats on the Germans.
Gallipoli was fought solely by Australians and New Zealanders – Wrong!
More British soldiers fought on the Gallipoli peninsula than the Australians and New Zealanders put together. The UK lost four or five times as many men in the brutal campaign as the Anzac contingents. The French also lost more men than the Australians.
Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure – Wrong!
Never have tactics and technology changed so radically in four years of fighting. It was a time of extraordinary innovation. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells.
They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. In the air, planes that in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance.
Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy – using only aerial photos and maths, they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks had gone from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years – changing war forever.
No-one won – Wrong!
The UK and her allies convincingly won. Germany’s battleships had been bottled up by the Royal Navy until their crews mutinied rather than make a suicidal attack against the British fleet.
Germany’s army collapsed as a series of mighty allied blows scythed through supposedly impregnable defences.
By late September 1918 the German emperor admitted that there was no hope and Germany must beg for peace. The 11 November Armistice was essentially a German surrender.
Unlike Hitler in 1945, the German government did not insist on a hopeless, pointless struggle until the allies were in Berlin – a decision that saved countless lives, but was seized upon later to claim Germany never really lost.
The Versailles Treaty was extremely harsh – Wrong!
The treaty of Versailles confiscated 10% of Germany’s territory but still left Germany as the largest, richest nation in central Europe.
Germany was largely spared occupation forces and financial reparations were linked to its ability to pay, which mostly went unenforced anyway.
The treaty was notably less harsh than treaties that ended the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and World War Two. The German victors in the former annexed large chunks of two rich French provinces, part of France for between 2-300 years, and home to most of French iron ore production, as well as presenting France with a massive bill for immediate payment.
Versailles was not harsh but was portrayed as such by Hitler who sought to create a tidal wave of anti-Versailles sentiment on which he could then ride into power.
The war was universally unpopular – Wrong!
Many soldiers enjoyed WW1. If they were lucky, they would avoid a big offensive, and much of the time, conditions were better than at home.
There was meat every day – a rare luxury back home – cigarettes, tea and rum, part of a daily diet of over 4,000 calories.
Absentee rates due to sickness, an important barometer of a unit’s morale were hardly above peacetime rates. Many young men enjoyed the guaranteed pay, the intense comradeship, the responsibility and a much greater sexual freedom than in peacetime Britain.
Women were allowed to work in the munitions factories and as a result they asserted their rights and won the vote. The servant/domestic classes started to break down social and sexist barriers and in many ways the war changed Britain forever – much of it to the benefit of the poor and socially deprived.
So put all that in your Great War pipe and smoke it……