This is a very special Armistice day, marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. It ends four years of anniversaries that commemorate the events of that terrible conflict.
There can be little doubt that we are more aware of the First World War as a consequence of the huge effort that has gone into events marking the centenary. Financial investment from the Lottery, Arts Council and governments have been supplemented by books, films, TV and radio programmes. But has that investment challenged some of the common myths, or done enough to recognise that the conflict didn’t just affect young white men on the western front?
The Scottish Government’s Commemorations Programme has attempted to widen the subject with events covering the sinking of the SS Tuscania off Islay and the Quintinshill rail crash. A conference and exhibition celebrating the work of Dr. Elsie Inglis was an example of highlighting the role of women – the Serbian post office even produced commemorative stamps. However, despite these efforts, the abiding memory will be of Scots who died in the battles on the western front – important of course that those events were.
There has been an effort to acknowledge the role of the four million non-British soldiers that fought in the conflict – David Olusoga’s TV series and this week’s focus on the Indian Army are good examples. There has also been more about the home front and local histories. However, in the main, they have been drowned out - the western front, poppies and Tommies remain the most familiar iconography.
Other important fronts get very little coverage. I suspect very few people understand the role the Macedonian campaign played in ending the war, even though it involved two British Corps. With Serbian and French troops they advanced as far as Austria. Let alone the huge battles on the eastern front, Italy and the Middle East – and lesser-known campaigns in Africa and the Far East
On many of these fronts, the war and its consequences didn’t end on Armistice Day. The crumbling of empires, the Russian Civil War and the related Polish-Soviet War went on until 1921. The Greek-Turkish War resulted in the ethnic cleansing of 1.6 million people. For many countries, November 1918 marks independence or the dismembering of their state. Hungary lost half its population and two-thirds of its territory.
Many of these events have a bearing on the Europe we live in today. As Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrede put it;
“The point is not that a unified narrative should be imagined. Rather, it is that we would all gain from better awareness of the mosaic of European memories of 1918. The Europe we live in today still has its roots in that past.”
The same is true for the wider world. The British and French ended the war with even bigger empires in the Far East, Africa and the Middle East. These created the conditions for future conflicts and were certainly a poisoned chalice for Britain.
Our perspective of the First World War has changed over the years. In the 1920’s the monuments used the language of glory, honour, dominion and power. As the war poet, Wilfred Owen said: “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est; Pro patria mori”.
At the other end of the spectrum, I was brought up in the period of, ‘Oh What a Lovely War!’ and the ‘Lions led by donkeys’ view of WW1 generals. There have been some revisions of that view and lessons were learned as the war progressed and generals unlearned the lessons of the last war. The BBC ‘100 days to Victory’ series covers some of this.
The BBC History Magazine asked two historians of the conflict the question, Was it Worth It?
As Professor Richard Evans says, it is not the job of historians to tell people in the past what they got wrong, but rather to explain how and why things happened. However, he reminds us that millions of British soldiers who fought in 1914 didn’t have the right to vote – so it wasn’t a war for democracy. He argues that it actually ended progress towards greater democracy in many countries and replaced it with brutal and corrupt dictatorships. Much of this was caused by the economic disaster that was another consequence of the war.
On the other hand, Professor Gary Sheffield argues that imperfect though the world undoubtedly was in 1919, it would have been much worse if there had been a German victory. Even if the Royal Navy kept Britain free from occupation, it would have faced the nightmare of a hostile continental Europe and the end of liberal democracies.
Whatever view we take of the historical events, it remains the case that millions gave their lives in the conflict and afterward, for a cause that, at the time, most people supported. They made the ultimate sacrifice and it is right that we should remember them - red or white poppy, in the way we each deem to be appropriate.