1914: the loss of innocence

The German submarine U-9 sank three Royal Navy cruisers in half an hour in September 1914.
The German submarine U-9 sank three Royal Navy cruisers in half an hour in September 1914.

If the twentieth century ended sometime between 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, and 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, then it began in 1914, the year of the outbreak of what was to become a world-wide war.

Inevitably, determined by their standpoint and values, historians have passed different verdicts on what they now call “the short twentieth century”. Some characterise it as a century of extraordinary technological and scientific progress; some emphasise the liberation of women after millennia of repression; others note the enormous increase in world population; but most see mostly violence, massacre and war. In the sense of the last verdict, 1914 was certainly the year when warfare became for the first, though not the last, time an agency of mass murder on an industrial scale. In other words, whereas in previous wars casualties were numbered in thousands, scientific “progress” and demographic expansion combined to kill and maim millions. In the previous encounter between great European military powers, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, about 150,000 soldiers had been killed; between 1914 and 1918, in Europe alone, more than ten million perished on the 

Secondly, the Great War was uniquely a world-wide war. All Europe’s major states were involved and only minor ones, Spain, the Netherlands, the three Scandinavians and Switzerland, stayed neutral. Since Great Britain, France and Germany also had global empires in 1914, their war was also fought for colonies in Africa and the Far East and on every sea and ocean. Indeed, the first big naval battle took place, not in the North Sea as expected, but off the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic.

The involvement of the Ottoman empire, which straddled three continents, also meant that the Near or Middle East was fighting ground in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, as well as the Dardanelles and Gallipoli.

In effect, the globalisation of the war was the result of past European colonisation of the planet. So Canadians and Indians fought in France; Australians and New Zealanders “forged their national consciousness” at Gallipoli; thousands of Chinese labourers dug roads and latrines behind the British lines in Flanders; and the French army on the Western Front included many of their African colonial troops.

Of the powers outside Europe, Japan 
restricted itself to conquering German colonies in China and the USA declared itself neutral. Not even at the end of 1914 could it have been foreseen that the Americans would eventually join the Allied side in 1917 and break the military stalemate in 
doing so.

But 1914 was much more than a mere watershed: events that year caused a tectonic shift in human history. They shattered the innocence, religious faith, optimism and complacency of a whole generation. Those who survived its barbarity and slaughter would never recover what they had lost since July 1914.

Those of us of a certain age have lived a long time under the shadow of collective annihilation: we remember Hitler’s bombs and vengeance weapons; nuclear extinction during the Cold War; and the present threat of terrorism of one kind or another from the IRA to Al Qaeda. Now climate change is gradual but global and even more indiscriminate.

That awareness of increasing insecurity began for the British people at home as long ago as 1914. Only Scarborough, Whitby and the Hartlepools then felt the wrath and weight of the Kaiser’s naval guns, but they were just the shattering prologue to total war. On December 24, 1914, while Western Front German infantry decorated Christmas trees on their trench parapets, one of their biplanes dropped a bomb from the air on Dover. It was a very small bomb and harmed no one, yet it was the first air attack on British soil and British people in their homes. It was the first of many, many more to come.

Another new menace to the British island population first manifested itself in 1914. If anyone had any doubts about the potential destructive power of submarines and their explosive torpedoes they would have been enlightened by the relatives and friends of the 1,459 officers and crews of the Royal Navy cruisers Cressy, Aboukir and the Hogue, who perished in the North Sea on September 22, 1914. All three ships were sunk by the torpedoes of only one German submarine, the U-9, in a matter of half an hour. There were only 188 survivors. From then on every vessel sailing in the seas around the British Isles, merchant, fishing, ferry or even passenger liner, was vulnerable.

The U-boat had destroyed yet another comforting British assumption. Admiral Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet might be more than a match for the Kaiser’s dreadnoughts, but fear of his submarines forced the Admiralty to relocate it from Scapa Flow in Orkney to Lough Swilly in northern Ireland. A new dangerous, unpredictable element had been introduced into the equation of naval power. Surface supremacy at sea was no longer in itself sufficient: the U-boat could wage war on Britain’s seaborne trade, communications and food supply. The safety that the British people had taken for granted for centuries was jeopardised.

In the event, not a single British troopship crossing the Channel to and from France was lost during the whole war; the German gamble to wage unrestricted submarine warfare against all vessels in February 1917 failed to starve Britain into surrender and forced the USA out of neutrality; and German mines, not German torpedoes, took the heaviest toll of Allied shipping.

It was one such mine that put an end to the life of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the most famous and admired soldier in the world, when his warship, HMS Hampshire, sank off Orkney in June 1916. Such was Kitchener’s reputation and record that millions refused to believe that he had really drowned and, in his absence, many lost hope of victory.