The fight for civilisation

British volunteer recruits in Trafalgar Square
British volunteer recruits in Trafalgar Square
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by Dr Jack Binns

The British experience of and reaction to the Great War of 1914-18 were uniquely different from those of all the other many belligerent nations in the world.

First, as it had so many times before, the English Channel was still broad enough to save the kingdom from foreign invasion and civilian slaughter. The naval shelling of Scarborough, Whitby and the Hartlepools in December was a shocking and surprising event, but there were no repeats and only 124 civilians were killed. Even the Kaiser’s Zeppelins and infant air force caused fewer than a thousand casualties, whereas the Blitz of Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Vengeance weapons ended the lives of more than 61,000 between 1940 and 1944. In 1914 there was no Dunkirk: at the beginning of the war and again in 1918, the British army halted the German advance towards the Channel ports in Belgium and northern France. Throughout the Great War, the British fought only in and on foreign soil.

So whereas the Belgians, Serbs and French fought to save their homeland from invaders and the Russians, Germans and Austrians waged what they regarded as a war of self-defence against hostile neighbours, the superiority of the Royal Navy ensured Britain’s island security. Accordingly, unlike their allies and enemies, the British went to war on higher moral principles as champions of the freedom of small nations, in particular Belgium. Later, belief in the stories of Hunnish atrocities against innocent civilians, reinforced the general conviction that the main purpose of the war was to defeat barbarism in the name of civilisation. Significantly, the inscription on the victory medal given to all British service men and women in 1918 read “The Great War for Civilisation”.

Secondly, until conscription was introduced only as late as 1916, the British armed forces were recruited entirely from volunteers. After the professional army of regulars and reservists (numbering fewer than 100,000, a twentieth of France’s conscripts) was effectively wiped out in the early battles of 1914 and 1915, it was replaced by Kitchener’s New Army of volunteers. Two and a half million men and boys, 43 per cent of all who served between 1914 and 1918, chose to enlist. All the other continental armies, allied and enemy, were conscripted and even the USA imposed conscription on its young men soon after entry in 1917. Of the Dominions, only Australia resisted it and in Ireland, where 200,000 volunteered, at least half of them Catholics, compulsory service was never enforced.

That so many of these totally inexperienced, inadequately trained innocents chose to risk their lives and limbs for the liberty and well-being of strangers gave a unique poignancy to their sacrifice on the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele. The first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916, when the British attackers suffered 60,000 casualties, a third of them killed, has left an indelible mark on the national consciousness and a permanent memory of the suffering caused to them, their families and their neighbourhoods.

What made that suffering even more intense and unbearable was the concentration of deaths in the so-called “Pals” battalions. Those youthful enthusiasts who joined up together were promised that they would all serve together. Starting in Liverpool, which raised four full battalions of 4,000 volunteers, almost every large and some quite small towns raised their own infantry battalions and special units. Accrington, Barnsley, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Hull, Grimsby and Durham were just some of the many sources of mainly working-class Northern lads who volunteered together. And so they died together, first on the Somme and later elsewhere. The result was devastating. For instance, 345 Bradford boys were all killed in just one morning.

The lesson was learned this hard way: by 1918 most battalions in the line were a broader mixture of conscripts and volunteers, town and country, northerners and southerners. The same mistake was not made in 1939: conscription began even before war was declared. But the national memory of that first bloodbath on the Somme could never be washed away and after nearly a century it remains the preoccupation of poets, playwrights, novelists and military historians.

Indeed, as far as our national memory and perception are concerned, the Great War has narrowed down to little more than Western Front trenches and the poetry of such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; in summary, mud and blood. Now that the last Tommy has joined all his other comrades in arms, we are left with only their graves, the battlefield memorials and those to be found in almost every town and village in the land. For the first time in our history, all the dead of 1914-18 were buried close to where they had fallen under rows of identical gravestones. Only the remains of “the unknown warrior” were brought home to Westminster Abbey. At the Menin Gate at Ypres and on the Thiepvale Ridge on the Somme, 127,000 names of soldiers who had no known burial places are recorded. And the two-minute silence, first observed on November 11, 1920, at the Whitehall Cenotaph, though halved in time and removed to the Sunday nearest to the date of the Armistice, persists as a special ceremony for the whole nation in the annual calendar. Though there were more British than Australian soldiers at Gallipoli, only the Australians recognise April 25 as ANSAC day. Even Turks now recognise the significance of that date.

Finally, after a hundred years of investigation, re-interpretation and increasing availability of evidence, the British involvement in and conduct of the Great War remain subjects of highly controversial historical and political debate. Were British soldiers “lions” incompetently and callously led by “donkeys”? Was the loss of three quarters of a million young male lives either necessary or justifiable? Did the British Empire and its Dominions forfeit a whole generation of its brightest and best manhood? And, the most fundamental of all questions, should the British have gone to war in 1914 or stayed neutral throughout it? In 2014 there is still no consensus.