The mass slaughter on a new industrial scale in the 1914-18 war has haunted me from my childhood days. From an early age I was aware of the long shadow of all those deaths. As a young boy I skirted the remaining stark bomb sites of my home city of Canterbury and asked how they came about. I gradually discovered the dreadful truth that twice the UK had been plunged into long and terrible wars, the second in a way following on from the failures of the peace imposed after the first.
All our families have been scarred by these events. My family was relatively lucky. One grandfather survived army service on the western front unscathed, and the other came home after a bad wound and recovered. Many lost sons and brothers in the First World War as the carnage in Belgium went on for four years. All were promised that the First World War would be the war to end all wars. Instead it was the great European war that led inexorably to another.
Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, famously said 100 years ago “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. It was a strange statement from a man participating in a mighty and fateful decision for our country. It was certainly true that Europe entered an era of darkness and mass killing. It was not true that the lamps would remain unlit for that generation. The advent of much new technology and private enterprise progress meant that the 1920s did put the lights on again.
Today is a day to remember all those who died in that long and brutal conflict, and to honour their memory. Now all the combatants are dead including all those spared unnatural slaughter, it is also time to ask was it the right thing to do? What can we learn about the conduct of diplomacy and the relationships of nations to nations that means we might benefit from their tragedies?
The UK declared war on Germany. She did so to protect the neutrality of Belgium. Germany responded to the UK’s ultimatum to Germany to leave Belgium alone by saying that Germany would send an army to France through Belgium but would not annex any Belgium territory. The UK government, instead of working on that weasel message, declared war in default of a complete promise not to send troops onto Belgium soil on any pretext.
The UK committed herself to huge land war without in the first instance having the army to fight it. She could bottle up the German surface fleet, but still had great difficulties at sea dealing with the submarine menace. It is difficult to see how it was in the UK’s national interest to put so much at risk when the UK could not protect Belgium. It took many months before the UK could recruit, train and develop enough men to have a chance of winning in conjunction with her allies.
I fear that the UK’s decision to go to war in 1914 was another example of the fatal attraction of the continent to UK politicians. That time it cost us so many lives, destroyed so much wealth and peaceful purpose, and left a Europe less capable of withstanding the ideological evils of Nazism and Soviet communism. The warning to us is surely to be more careful about our European involvements. The UK is a nation of islands, whose destiny lies in free trade, fair exchange and cultural involvement with the wider world, not just Europe. The UK has not in the past usually been able to remodel the map of Europe for the better.
In the twentieth century the UK did not recruit, train and equip a mighty army to control the borders of Europe and the actions of other European powers. Her decision to fight two wars against German aggression forced her to expand, equip and train armies once the war had started, and to seek allies with more powerful land forces to enable eventual victory to be won.In 1914 the first battle of Mons was a difficult rearguard action for a small army outnumbered by its foes. In 1940 the British army had to retreat in haste from Dunkirk, as it was overwhelmed by massively stronger forces.
The UK did have the means to defend these islands, by basing her peacetime defence preparations on naval and air power. In 1914-18 these were so large that they were never directly tested. In the battle of Britain in the second world war the margin was uncomfortably small but just sufficient for victory.
These experiences should remind politicians that we should only expect our armed forces to carry out tasks away from home that they have a good chance of being able to do successfully, because they have the people, the equipment and the training to do so. Our prime defence spending should be on ensuring our home islands are always safe from aggression. One of the many sadnesses about the conduct of the First World War is why the UK high command, who had been thinking about a war against Germany for some time, had done so little to prepare and expand our army for the scale and nature of the conflict that lay ahead.