War V: "Italy & America, 1918"

The Revd Brutus Green

In November 1916, at a time when more than a million casualties had accrued and the war was costing £5million a day, Lord Lansdowne asked if the British government might consider negotiating peace. If the war had ended then, and if, as the Americans had later tried to negotiate, the war had ended without winners and losers, history would have been very different. The October revolution might not have happened, Britain would not have ended the war bankrupt, nor the borders, finances and morale of Europe in so many ways broken. Without guilt, reparations and patched together new states, the history of the twentieth-century would have continued very differently. As it was Britain got its victory, as a Foreign Office memorandum put it: ‘We have got all that we want - perhaps more. Our sole object is to keep what we have and live in peace’.

The Duke of Wellington memorably answered a woman who hyperventilated at him the exhilarations of military success, “a victory is the most tragic thing in the world, only excepting a defeat”. Nowhere is this more true than in the First World War. Today, in the final week of our series, we come to reflect on the final stages of the war and the settlement, thinking particularly of how the war is remembered differently; differently over time and differently across nations. Our first letter speaks with the joy and wariness of the peace settlement for both sides, and especially those caught between, highlighted musically by the tragic romance of the American Captain and Madam Butterfly. Today’s poems reflect the mixed emotions of armistice, pride and thanksgiving, but also loss, loneliness and above all grief. Something of this can be heard in the American Bernstein’s ‘Simple Song’; and war is anything but simple. Again we hear those words of the psalmist: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence will my help come?’

The war song for this week, ‘Roses of Picardy’ was one of the most popular songs of the war. It was used to help soldiers suffering from shell shock recover their speech, even if the terrible battlefields of the Somme are in Picardy. Our Scripture passage is one of St Paul’s most eloquent and captures the heart of what these services are concerned with: the remembrance of the fallen before God and our trust in his loving remembrance of us all.


Last week we saw how 1917 was the decisive year of the war, first in the Russian revolution which by the end of year had closed the Eastern front, releasing half the German army to relocate to the Western Front. At the same time, though, Britain had intercepted the Zimmerman telegram sent by Germany negotiating an alliance with Mexico should the US enter the war, with the further hope of encouraging Japan to join the central powers. Since the sinking of the Lusitania and the submarine war’s impact on trade and food shortages, this telegram at last turned the American media on to intervention. Had Wilson been aware of the UK’s financial situation, French morale or the imminent Russian collapse he might have reconsidered. At the time he thought it would accelerate and allow some control of the certain Allied victory, rather than cause it. In this he underestimated Germany and overestimated France and Russia. While by January 1918 only 150,000 Americans had so far arrived, by the end of the summer the Americans had proved decisive, though at a loss of over 100,000 of their men.

After the armistice a great redrawing of maps occurred to cover the disintegrated Romanov and Hapsburg empires, creating the cordon sanitaire around revolutionary Russia and a host of new countries. The main desire of the peace process, though, was to ensure that this sort of war never occurred again. This was the thinking dosed with a measure of bitterness that created the treaty of Versailles with its ‘war guilt clause’. Accompanying some territorial losses, Germany was limited to a small army, occupied by a military force in West Germany and was put down for indefinite war reparations. Life for Germans in the 20s and 30s, caught between hyper-inflation, 30% unemployment and food shortages, was terrible, and as is well known led directly to the circumstances that were to bring about another war. The League of Nations, meanwhile, constructed to prevent the secret alliances and bellicosity of 1913 was hamstrung immediately when America opted out. Germany and Russia, of course, were not invited to join, which made it an excellent organisation for preventing war between Britain and France. As we this year remember the 100th anniversary of the war’s outbreak it should not be far from our minds that Europe commemorated the 25th anniversary with a more far reaching, morally repugnant and deadlier war.

We have in this series been remembering the Great War. We have already noticed how the British remembering of the war changed drastically in the late 20s. We also saw how a myth of secularism was later inaccurately grafted on to the war as the starting point of the death of Christian Britain. What is also striking about this conflict though is how for all that many nations suffered terrible dismembering, they all remember the war in different ways. For the States, lately - though decisively - arrived, it is the American Civil War and the Second World War that figure most in their memory. While Belgium, France and Serbia were all resisting invasion, the UK was not fighting directly for its homeland, and unlike the other powers did not later find itself later pushed back into its own borders or defeated. On the surface the war actually increased the British empire with gains from the Ottoman and German empires.

In many respects the war was for the British a moral war - it had a genuine casus belli for a just war in Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality and sovereignty, not to mention the destruction of its people, libraries and churches. And this had the unique consequence of the British army before 1916 being entirely made up of volunteers. Two and a half million men enlisted, nearly half the total who fought, making it the second largest volunteer army in history - second only to the Indian army of the Second World War. Even the States who only entered the war in the final stage enacted conscription shortly after entering the war in late 1917. On the other hand, in the Second World War Britain had no volunteer army and conscription began before the war had started. In this vein, David Reynolds describes the British as ‘Freely fighting for the freedom of others’, which also applies to the British Dominions, especially Australia who were made up only of volunteers throughout the war. All this, means that while the war is remembered ambiguously throughout the world, with the taint of guilt, defeat, radicalised politics, or the breaking and making of nations, Britain remembers it above all as a noble, moral sacrifice - though this is sometimes refracted as a naive betrayal of youth by politicians and generals.

The memorialising of the war dead, through the Cenotaph, two-minutes silences and poppies, the war cemeteries of the Western Front and the chiselled names, then, express a particularly British remembrance. We don’t often stop to think about it but it is highly cultic - highly religious - so naturally it fits very well alongside Anglican Remembrance Sunday now a liturgical feature of the church’s calendar. There’s a kind of blurring of history, poetry and religion that makes a service like tonight’s highly consistent, where otherwise and for other wars it might seem like a very odd thing to do.

It is also worth comparing our remembrance to that of other countries. In France, the Second World War obscured the more positive image of the first with the shame of defeat and collaboration. The Soviet Union had always dismissed memorialisations of the First World War as it was an imperialist war. There were no war memorials there until the 90th anniversary in 2004. Politically it didn’t fit, even though two million Russian soldiers died. In comparison, the Second World War was in the Soviet Union spun as a great collective success. In the US in the 1930s the war was seen as a terrible mistake, though the memory of it was redeemed after the Second World War.

The recent spate of publications on the war all suggest how poetry has romanticised our memory of the war. David Reynolds reminds us that only a third of British troops on the Western front were infantry, that throughout offensives were ‘the exceptions rather than the rule’ and that “it was perfectly possible for an infantryman to spend two years on the Western Front without actually going over the top at all’. More wryly he notes that ‘Most Tommies were not hyper sensitively reflective about their own manhood, sexuality or even suffering’! More scathingly he criticises that ‘more words have been written about a score of war ports than about 4 million non-white troops who fought for the Allies during the Great War. And again this is a reminder of how parochial we can be, and how assumptive that the way we remember the War is similar to other countries. The War memorial at Belgrade carries the date 1912-1918. And I haven’t had time to mention anything of the considerable impact the war and the peace treaties had on China.

The war, and our memory of it, continues to effect Britain and Europe today. Margaret Thatcher was against the re-unification of Germany, holding the common fear that Germany is too strong for the balance of power but too weak to ‘exert stable continental leadership’. Doubtless the current debate on Europe is coloured by the memory of European conflict and Britain alone in her ‘finest hour’. More forcefully, it is only in the 90s that the post-1918 settlement countries of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, the former with horrific atrocities. On the other hand Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have returned to their 1920s selves, having fought off the alternating clutches of Russians and Germans. The Ukraine as a present reality is a pertinent reminder of the importance of history. A ‘Ukrainian People’s Republic’ looked for international recognition at the Paris Peace Conference but was partitioned by Poland and the Soviets in 1921. During the Second World War thousands of Ukrainian partisans fought alongside Germany against the Red Army till they were crushed in 1943. This is in no small way central to the Russian slurs of links between Ukrainian nationalism and Fascism.

According to one historian (Eric Hobsbawm), “The First World War solved nothing. Such hopes as it generated - of a peaceful and democratic world of nation-states under the League of Nations; of a return to the world economy of 1913… were disappointed. The past was beyond reach, the future postponed, the present bitter. This is in contrast to World War 2 which ‘actually produced solutions’, solutions which have to date staved off a return to general war in the past 70 years. The repercussions of those four years are still with us, though, and with recent events in Russia, and with some of the comments exchanged in China and Japan, we should be no less certain that global wars have been consigned to history.

For a country at the heart of the two wars that shaped the twentieth-century Britain has more cause to claim it can celebrate the next few years: next year’s 200th anniversary of Waterloo, 70th anniversary of D-Day, 2018’s centenary of Armistice Day. But the Duke of Wellington’s dictum bears repeating against any triumphalism: ‘a victory is the most tragic thing in the world, only excepting a defeat’. Which does not diminish the bravery, sacrifice, skill and honour of the men on the board and the stone outside. Rather it is to remember them well, and to strive for a better world.