The Changing Views of WW1
The First World War. No war in history had demanded so much, mobilised so many, or killed in such numbers. When it was over, the men who fought began to ask questions “What was it for?” and “Was it worth it?” The way we think about the war has changed dramatically over the last 100 years since it ended. In Britain, many myths, opinions, politics and propaganda surrounding the Great War, shaped the way it was remembered. We no longer know what we feel about it, or even if we should celebrate it. Was the ‘Great War’ a triumph, or an unspeakable horror? Do we side with the War Poets that highlighted the war’s futility, or the Politicians and Generals, who resisted German militarism? We can not even agree how World War should be taught in schools. It has been a cultural battlefield for every generation that followed. Even different countries remember World War 1 in different ways. In Germany, which lost over two million men, the First World war is largely forgotten and has been superseded by the Second World War. Each new generation reinterprets WW1 in the light of their own values.
Armistice Day – A series of stunning Allied victories in the last hundred days of the war, had thoroughly exhausted the German army. Faced with starvation from the Allied Naval Blockade and revolution at home, Germany sued for peace. The two sides met in a railway carriage in the French forest of Compiegne. After three days of negotiation, Germany reluctantly accepted the Armistice terms. No one shook hands. Germany agreed to surrender all their Navy to Britain, leave all occupied land, and hand over vast quantities of weapons, equipment and prisoners. They also ceded the Alsace-Lorraine territory in the Rhineland to France, so that they too, would learn what it meant to be occupied. The Armistice was to begin at 11am, on the 11th November, 1918. It was a Ceasefire, not an end to the war. News of the Armistice did not reach Kenya for another two weeks, where fighting raged on until the 25th November. The armistice initially expired after a period of 36 days. A formal peace agreement was only reached when the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following year.
It is estimated that some 5,000 troops still died on the 11th November 1918, the final day of the First World War. It is believed that Private, George Edwin Ellison, of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, was the last British soldier to be killed at 9.30 am. Aged 40, he died on the outskirts of Mons, ironically where his war had began in 1914.
The Allies decided not to continue with war. They feared that Germany would defend the Rhineland and that more lives would be lost. They were reluctant to occupy a Germany on the verge of civil war and revolution. They also did not want to see a strong America, which was planning to bring 3 million more troops to Europe, dictating the Peace terms.
The news of the Armistice did not reach everyone at the same moment. There were no Televisions, radio news broadcasts, or social media to spread the news, back then. News of the Armistice spread by word of mouth, from town to town, village to village, by proclamation, newspapers and by telegram. The news was met with mixed emotions world wide, a combination of relief, sadness and pride. War Diaries suggest that soldiers at the front took some time to adapt to the Armistice news. They continued with their daily routine of sentry duty and cleaning of rifles, perhaps in bewilderment of what would happen to them next?
In London, news of the Armistice, sparked spontaneous outbursts of joy and celebration. While it was a time of sadness and mourning, the ending of the war was seen as a victory and there was great pride felt towards all the sacrifices made. Workplaces emptied, large crowds took to the streets. There was collective singing, dancing, some drinking and general merriment. The King stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to rejoice with the crowds below. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, addressed Parliament, hoping that the Armistice would be “the end of all wars”. Church bells began to ring, “Big Ben” which had been silent throughout the war, chimed again, “Peace at Last” was the headline on the newspaper billboards. The general excitement of the Armistice news, is captured in the newspapers of the time.
“Processions of soldiers and munition girls arm in arm were everywhere.” (DAILY MIRROR, NOV. 12, 1918);
“American soldiers in jubilation invaded Downing Street.” (DAILY MIRROR, NOV. 12, 1918);
“At Buckingham Palace, dense crowds were shouting ‘We want the King!’ The King, the Queen, Princess Mary and the Duke of Connaught appeared on the balcony and His Majesty spoke a few words. Indescribable scenes of enthusiasm followed.” (DAILY MIRROR, NOV. 12, 1918)
Sir Edwin Lutyens, the English Architect designed the Whitehall Cenotaph in 1919. Lutyens rebuilt the Cenotaph in white, Portland stone and went on to design many other memorials in Dublin, Manchester, Leicester and the Thiepval Memorial to the missing in France.
For many years, most people were keen to remember the two million dead, missing and wounded. Thousands of memorials were built throughout Britain, and many expressed words, like “Victory”, “Honour”, “Freedom” and “Glory”. This reveals a strong National pride that the sacrifices made would save the world from further wars.
Unlike today, Britain’s civilians were unable to watch the war unfold on television, or properly understand it’s horrors. Sometimes there was the distant sound of gunfire across the channel, but most opinions were framed by war time propaganda. The silence of the returning war veterans only added to the Great War’s mythology. This created mixed views about the war. While some saw the war as futile and an end to stability, many others saw it as a National celebration and revelled in the excitement and opportunities that the war brought. Soldiers celebrated war time comradeship through regimental reunions and by joining the British Legion established in 1921. War time Generals, such as Sir Douglas Haig, were seen as a National Saviour and his 1929 funeral in London and Edinburgh, attracted over a million mourners. The Whitehall Cenotaph, was erected in 1919 to remember Britain’s ‘Glorious Dead’. The Nation would stop for a two minutes silence at 11 am, every Armistice Day – on the 11th November. The Cenotaph became a popular and successful memorial and many Cities, like Hull, built their own Cenotaph. They provided a blank canvass for the British people to project their mixed feelings about the war.
The catastrophic losses and tragedy, ensured that the 1914-18 war became known as ‘The Great War’, or the ‘War to End all Wars’. British Politicians that had sent so many young men to their deaths formed a ‘League of Nations’. They hoped that this would provide the machinery to negotiate future disputes and prevent war happening again. Veterans and Civilians argued for more democracy and rights – “A Land fit for Heroes”. Once subjects of the Crown, the word “Citizenship” emerged in the 1920’s and 1930’s, which reflected people’s rights and desire for better housing, health and employment. Government’s concerned about the “Russian Revolution, the rise of Socialism, the growth of Trade Unions and the Labour Party were keen to appease these demands. Land was set aside for public housing, social security benefits were extended and women were given an equal vote in 1928.
1930’s – In 1928, on the 10th anniversary of the ending of the Great War, Britain again reflected on the War experience. West End Plays, like ‘Journey’s End’, and the publication of many memoirs, such as ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Cry Havoc’ and ‘Death of a Hero’, revealed the true horrors of the Great War. The terrible sacrifice, and pointless slaughter prompted a revulsion to war. A British pacifist movement established in the 1920’s, grew during the 1930’s. Some campaigned for disarmament and economic sanctions against military aggressors. Others campaigned for appeasement. Many organisations, such as the ‘No More War Movement’ and the ‘Peace Pledge Union’ were established to totally denounced war. This was to leave Britain very unprepared when the next World War began in 1939.
Post WW2 – In 1948, the British Government renamed the ‘Great War’, the ‘First World War’, to distinguish it from the ‘Second World War 1939-45’. ‘Armistice Day’ was also replaced with ‘Remembrance Sunday’ to remember those lost in all wars. These changes were significant. It highlighted that the the Great War was not the “War to End all Wars” and made people re-evaluate the purpose of the World War 1.
The 1960’s –
The 1960’s generation shaped our view again of WW1. 1964 was the Great War’s 50th anniversary. It was a chance for a new generation to discover World War One afresh, and their version of the war was futile. The emergence of a youth culture in the 1960’s viewed the war through the tinted nightmare of World War Two, the Vietnam War, and the possibility of a new nuclear war caused by the ‘Cuban Crises’. The 1960’s was a more egalitarian and less deferential generation. They mocked the attitudes of predecessors. They were more interested in the individual experiences of ordinary soldiers, rather than the posturings of upper class politicians and generals. Sir Douglas Haig, once a National Hero, was now labelled as as a villain, “The Butcher of the Somme”, and responsible for the needless deaths of thousands of young men.
The release of the 26 part, television documentary, ‘The Great War’, brought a ‘dead’ conflict back to life. Books, such as Alan Clarke’s, ‘Lions led by Donkeys’, and plays like ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, savaged the futility of war and also satirised the class war within it. Academics re-evaluated the Great War, as a war with no moral justification, or clear cause. It’s pointless carnage was only illuminated by the rediscovery of the long forgotten war poets, who had served in the trenches and highlighted the horrors, first hand. These poets now defined the war for an Anti War 1960’s generation. War Poems which questioned Patriotism, and the competence of Generals and Politicians, chimed with the times. Carefully edited selections of war poetry were repackaged, showing a poetic learning curve from Rupert Brook’s innocent patriotism, to Siegfried Sassoon’s angry satire and then Wilfred Owen’s bleak pity and horrors of war. Britain’s obsession for the soldier poets, would shape how World War One was taught in schools and would be publicly remembered for decades. The Great War would now be defined by the horrors of trench life on the Western Front. The ‘BlackAdder Goes Forth’ comedy series, which lampoons British Generals, and has been used as a teaching aid in schools, still echoes public perceptions of the First World War.
Recently – On the 25th July 2009, Harry Patch, the last British soldier to serve in the trenches, died, aged 111. Florence Green, the last living British veteran of the war, who served in the armed forces, died on 4th February 2012, aged 110. In a way, the deaths of these last survivors, marked the end of the twentieth century. Future generations will no doubt look at the First World war through Twenty first Century eyes, with a greater awareness of disability, and more empathy for the consequences of war, like stress, divorce and bereavement. The staggering loss of ten million soldiers, in largely static warfare, cannot fail to move people.
Rather than accepting just one view of World War 1, people now take a wider perspective. There’s a keen interest in the “forgotten” stories of the war. Many people are researching their families, on line, and reconnecting with their relatives from the First World war. Community groups are springing up to discover how the war affected their local town, or village. Many are also rediscovering the diversity of World War 1 – the pioneering role of women in the war, the stories of Chinese labourers, Indian Sepoy’s, West Indians, Africans, Aborigines, Maoris and Native Americans, who also served in the conflict. Archive “black and white film” of the war has now been restored in colour, breathing new life, depth and colour into the generation of 1914-1918. An explosion of commemorative events between 2014-2018, revealed that people, throughout the world, were keen to remember the Great War, in their individual ways. These included Commemorative Poppy displays at the Tower of London, or “Beach drawings” on the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Such events, have introduced the First World War to new audiences, in new ways. Whether these commemorations are sustainable remains to be seen. Just as no one in 1914, commemorated the Napoleonic Wars, it is possible that the First World War will also fade into history. However, this is unlikely in the short term. “Remembrance Sunday” which has been performed annually at the Whitehall Cenotaph for decades, is now evolving to give modern audiences, more meaning and relevance. Armistice Days now remembers servicemen and women lost in all of Britain’s conflicts and will soon include civilians lost in acts of Terrorism. Through these new acts of remembrance, it is hoped that the First World World War, which began them, will always be remembered. The First World War was a watershed moment in World history, and should always be remembered for the global social change it brought forward. The First World War also remains a painful reminder to the dangers of Imperialism, Nationalism and misplaced Patriotism.