WWI – Part Five: The Great Slaughter begins

How do you commemorate a war that swept away four empires, killed 18 million people and left tens of millions of others with their lives shattered? A very good question, and now we have the answer. As the world marks the centenary of the Great Slaughter, our television screens are full of programmes dedicated to the systematic trivialization of that catastrophe.

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We have learned professors expressing their opinions as to whether the War was really necessary, and who was really to blame, and so on and so forth. In the end we are none the wiser, but we have hopefully spent a pleasurable hour or so in front of the television screen.

War as entertainment

In this orgy of saccharine nostalgia the old songs such as “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bad and smile, smile, smile” are repeated ad nauseam to show what a jolly affair it all was. School children have even been encouraged to build replica trenches out of papier-mâché, thankfully without the mud, blood, rats and human excrement that would have been found in the genuine article. Whatever will they think of next? Will they encourage kids to produce chlorine and mustard gas in the school laboratory?

To be absolutely fair, the occasional mention is made to the “terrible waste of war”. But such depressing digressions do not last long enough to deprive us of the immensely enjoyable spectacle provided by memories of the Great War. The other night we were treated to a programme about the Woolwich Arsenal factory where women workers, producing arms and explosives for the front, were brutally exploited, exposed to overwork, appalling conditions and poisons that ruined their health and in some cases drove them to suicide.

That was a good idea in principle, but for some reason known only to the producers, it was all seen through the eyes of a wealthy lady who, bored by her life of pampered inactivity, took herself off to the factory to see how the other side (not the Germans but the working class) lived. Indignant at the treatment of “those poor wretches”, she actually joined a trade union and was promptly sacked, whereupon she returned to her luxurious home in Mayfair (or wherever it was) where presumably she lived happily ever after. In short, what we have here is nothing more or less than War as Entertainment for the masses.

Why did they fight?

Some people have expressed wonder that so many could have been won over so quickly to the cause of war. Why did so many ordinary working class people flock to the flag? In reality, there is no great mystery about it. It was a relatively easy matter for the governments to stir up an orgy of patriotic flag waving. One sees the same thing at the start of almost every war. The vast propaganda machine swung into action. The story was different, as were the names of the enemy, but every government used identical methods to demonise the other side and whip up pro-war sentiment among the masses. The Austrian government played up the assassination in Sarajevo to intensify anti-Serb moods. The German government played on fears of an invasion by hoards of barbarous Cossacks. The British and French governments played on the theme of German atrocities in Belgium. None of them, it seems, were aggressors but all were the innocent victims of unprovoked aggression by the other side.

The press (nowadays the mass media, which are considerably more powerful than they were in 1914), the preachers in the pulpits, the politicians, schoolteachers, university lecturers and other “formative influences on public opinion”, were immediately mobilised to churn out masses of material aimed at demonizing the enemy and creating a mood of war fever. By degrees people began to see war not just as inevitable but even desirable.

In those days the Church was far more influential in people’s lives than today. In every one of the belligerent nations the priests and pastors lined up to bless the War. Catholics and Protestants, Orthodox and Lutherans, all assured the faithful that God was on their side, although how one and the same God could be on the side of so many antagonistic states it is difficult to explain. The clouds of incense helped to dull the senses of the hundreds of thousands of men marching to their doom to the sound of trumpets and drums. And since God was on their side, who could argue with that?

The leaders of all the political partied naturally fell over themselves in their efforts to wave the flag and shout patriotic slogans louder than the others. Their patriotic speeches were reproduced in the pages of the newspapers the very next day. But the most advanced workers did not necessarily believe what they read in the papers, which they knew were owned and controlled by their enemies, the bankers and capitalists. If the trade union and Labour leaders had opposed the War, if there had been just one dissenting voice, that could have made a difference. But the Labour leaders were more anxious to prove their devotion to the ruling class of “their” nation and hastened to enter governments of wartime coalition with the bourgeoisie.

But there was another reason why so many went voluntarily to war. For many workers joining the army was seen as an adventure, a means of escaping from a hard, dreary and monotonous existence. The people of Britain in particular had forgotten what war was like. The wars of Napoleon were a distant memory. The recent Boer War in South Africa was little more than a skirmish from the British point of view (though not from the point of view of the Afrikaner farmers and their families), and anyway ended in victory. Nobody could imagine the horrors that were being prepared when 20th century science and technology would be combined with the cannibalism that humankind has inherited from the Palaeolithic

In my house there is a big old bible complete with coloured pictures of men with flowing robes and long beards, its huge pages closed with metal clasps. This was the family bible, which contains the details of the births and deaths of family members, starting with my grandparents.

There is also a whole page entitled Roll of Honour, being a record of the members of this family who served in the Great War. It is resplendent in colour bordered with the draped flags and banners of our allies: France, Belgium, Italy, the USA and, ironically, the twin headed eagle of tsarist Russia. It shows that George Woods, just 18 years of age, volunteered for the army on the first of September 1914 – which was just about as soon as he could – and he served in the artillery in France throughout the war, being finally demobilized on 21 January1919.

In 1914 my grandfather was a young worker in a tinplate factory in Swansea, South Wales. His was a life of hard and relentless graft and just enough wages to survive on. On his arm there was a tattoo of red and blue of a lady with a helmet on her head carrying a large shield. I was fascinated by this tattoo, which I later learned was a picture of Britannia, the ultimate symbol of the greatness of imperial Britain. I guess he must have had it done shortly after joining the army, possibly in France. When I was a child I would ask him about the War, hoping to hear stirring stories about battles and glory. But to my great disappointment he would never talk to me about it, except to say: “It was just workers fighting each other for the cause of the rich people.”

That tattoo tells me that in 1914, like many other young men who went to fight in France, he had been a convinced patriot, and that big old bible tells me that he had also once been a religious man. But the War changed all that. My grandfather was one of the lucky ones. He was gassed, which affected his lungs but, unlike many of his comrades, he survived. The experience of the War and the bitter class struggles that followed it changed him forever. He became an active trade unionist and an ardent supporter of the Russian Revolution, joined the Communist Party. He kept his fervent socialist beliefs till the end of his life.

Fear of revolution

The betrayal of the leaders of the Second International in voting for the war credits provided an immense service to the ruling classes on both sides. It demoralised and disoriented the workers and delivered them bound and foot to the imperialists. “Our leaders are supporting the government, so the war must be a just one,” they would conclude. This was a not an unimportant factor that would explain why millions of workers on both sides eagerly joined the army in the early stages of the War. Everywhere the left wing and the internationalists found themselves isolated and helpless in the face of the unstoppable wave of patriotism.

For some governments fear of revolution was precisely what inclined them to go to war. That was certainly the case of Russia. In the months leading up to the war, Russia was on the eve of a new Revolution. The numbers of Russian strikes and demonstrations sharply increased. St Petersburg was occupied by police and troops who clashed with the workers. In July 1914, when the French President Poincaré was in Petersburg to discuss the international situation with the tsar, he was shocked to see barricades in the streets and red flags everywhere.

Fear of Revolution was an important factor that decided the Tsar and his clique to go to war. Mobilization did succeed in cutting across the revolutionary movement. The young workers who made up the backbone of that movement were recruited into the army where they found themselves submerged in a vast sea of backward, illiterate peasants. The Bolshevik Party was smashed, its leaders arrested. Lenin and Trotsky were forced to go once more into exile.

Yet the war itself posed dangers that the most far-sighted representatives of the ruling class understood only too well. Sir Edward Grey’s words about the lights going out all over Europe are well known. But not so well known are other words that express very clearly the fears of a section of the ruling class of the ultimate consequences of a world war. In his autobiographical work he quotes his warning: “It is the greatest step towards Socialism that could possibly have been made. We shall have Labour governments in every country after this.” (E. Grey, Twenty-five Years, vol.2, p. 234)

Sir Edward’s prediction was shown to be correct. The War, despite all its horrors, eventually turned into a vast school for revolution, sweeping aside kings and empires and raising the working class to the level where power was within its grasp in one country after another.

Battle of the Marne

In the beginning everybody was convinced that the war would be a short one. All the belligerent powers based their plans on this supposition. The British did not even believe that there would be any need to put soldiers on the ground; Britain’s contribution, they thought, would be confined to the navy. In reality, the mighty British navy played a relatively minor role. The immense cost of battleships meant that they were too precious to risk in conflict on the high seas, so for most of the time they remained safely anchored in their home ports. The War in Europe, as in the past, would be fought by the “poor bloody infantry”.

The battle of the MarneThe battle of the MarneBut in the beginning this was not understood. “We will be home by Christmas”, that was the common delusion of the soldiers of all the armies. And it goes without saying that they would all return victorious. They were to experience a terrible lesson in the trenches and killing fields of the Marne and the Somme, in Tannenberg and Gallipoli. But that was still in the future.

The first battles of the War were unlike the later bloody battles of attrition fought out in the trenches. On the contrary, the start of the War was an extremely mobile affair in which for the last time (at least on the western front) cavalry played a prominent role. The First Battle of the Marne took place just 30 miles northeast of Paris in the Marne River Valley of France from September 6-12, 1914. Following the Schlieffen Plan worked out before the War, the Germans were hoping to win a quick victory in the West before the Russians could attack from the East.

So confident were the men in Berlin of success that they believed that the French would be knocked out of the war within three weeks. This was wildly optimistic, but at first they seemed poised to do just that. The Germans advanced rapidly towards Paris, while the French army crumbled before the violence of the onslaught. By the first week of September the French government had fled from Paris. The German First and Second Armies (led by Generals Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bülow respectively) were following parallel paths southward, with the First Army a little to the west and the Second Army slightly to the east.

Kluck and Bülow had been ordered to approach Paris as a unit, supporting one another. But instead of heading directly to Paris, Kluck decided to pursue the exhausted, retreating French Fifth Army. Intoxicated by his early successes, Kluck pressed onwards. His telegrams to Berlin were triumphant and over-confident, as if it were all just a pleasant stroll in the countryside. But in opening up a gap between the German First and Second Armies, he exposed the First Army’s right flank to a French counterattack.

On September 3, Kluck’s First Army crossed the Marne River and entered the Marne River Valley. In 1914 the French army was heavily outnumbered. But they were fighting with their backs to Paris and when they staged a surprise attack in the First Battle of the Marne the position was dramatically reversed. Troops on both sides were exhausted from the long and fast march south, but the French, closer to Paris, had the advantage of shorter supply lines, while those of the advancing Germans were stretched to breaking point.

The Battle of the Marne was the first of a series of bloody slaughters. It seemed impossible that a broken and demoralized army could turn and fight, but that was what happened. The French fought with desperate bravery. It was during this battle that Foch is said to have sent the celebrated telegram to Joffre: “Mon centre céde, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j'attaque.” [My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.]

The German advance was brought to a shuddering halt but at a terrible cost in lives. Casualties for the French forces (killed and wounded) were roughly estimated at 250,000 men; German casualties were about the same. The far smaller British force lost 12,733.

The Germans fell back to the Aisne valley, where they prepared to stand and fight. In the Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to break through the German line, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a stalemate, with neither side willing to give ground. Bleeding profusely from the wounds inflicted by the Battle of the Marne, the German army was forced to abandon its idea of a quick victory and dig trenches for defensive purposes.

With the repulse of the German army at the Marne, the nature of the War underwent a profound transformation. At first the digging of trenches was only meant to be a temporary measure, but it marked a fundamental change in the military tactics. The days of open warfare were over. Both sides were now stuck in the mud and blood of the trenches. Men remained trapped in these underground lairs until the end of the war. And the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas was to last for four long years.

Alexander von Kluck ca. 1914Alexander von Kluck ca. 1914But the revolutionary change in tactics did not immediately lead to a corresponding change in the mentality of the generals. The French Commander-in-Chief Joffre, even in comparison with the many brutal and incompetent generals of the First World War, stands out as a brilliant example of lack of military talent and humanity in equal measure. Behind his large beneficent face with its permanent expression of absolute imperturbability there lay a mind so rigid that it might have belonged to a mummified Pharaoh. Here mule-like obstinacy and imbecile inflexibility acted as substitutes for that genuine tenacity and audacity that are the necessary qualities of a great commander.

Firmly convinced of his absolute superiority to the human race and his fellow officers in particular, Joffre saw himself as the God-given Saviour of France. Foch said of him that despite his lack of originality, he never hesitated to make a decision and “he did not know what France would do without him.” Needless to say, Le Pere Joffre, as he was known, never changed his mind once it was made up, or allowed anything to interfere with his sleep.

Displaying the most complete indifference to the loss of life among his own troops, Joffre was constantly putting pressure on them to go onto the offensive. The French army was ordered into a series of senseless piecemeal attacks the only result of which was heavy casualties. The attacking units were mown down by merciless rifle and machine gun fire long before they even reached the enemy trenches. Many casualties were left to die agonising deaths lying in no man's land or dangling like scarecrows on the enemy barbed wire. But Commander-in-Chief Joffre slept soundly.

Christmas in the trenches, 1914

The German defeat at the Marne put an end to Berlin’s dreams of a quick victory. It also put an end to Moltke’s military career. He was summarily dismissed. But if anything, the disappointment on the side of the Allies was still greater. The Germans, despite their defeat, were left in control of around one tenth of the territory of France. Moreover, the occupied territory included some of her richest agricultural lands, 80 percent of her coal, almost the whole of her iron resources and much of her industries. The Allies had won a battle but not the War, which had now ended in deadlock.

The first trenches were merely improvised affairs, often just shell-holes in which terrified soldiers would take refuge from the devastating hail of machine gun bullets. But soon they acquired a more stable and complex character, especially on the German side, where the soldiers enjoyed far better conditions than their French and British counterparts. Their trenches were deeper, better protected and provided with kitchens and other amenities.

All wars consist of short bursts of violent activity separated by long periods of boredom. The static nature of trench warfare and its sheer tedium led to a growing curiosity about what was happening on the other side. The close proximity of the enemy meant that they could be heard although rarely seen. The smells from their breakfast cooking reached the men on the other side, who were facing the same conditions of wet and cold as they. There were occasional shouted conversations between trenches, and in some cases, an exchange of goods. In this way a mutual respect began to develop that prepared the way for fraternisation.

In the early months of immobile trench warfare, there was a kind of mood of "live and let live", whereby soldiers in close proximity to each other would cease fighting and engage in small-scale fraternisation. In some sectors, there would be unofficial truces to allow soldiers to leave the trenches and recover wounded or dead comrades. Sometimes they would arrive at a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy.

On 1 January 1915 the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette published the following letter that provides an eye-witness account of this:

“Amusing trench incident. ‘Tommy’ and ‘Fritz’ exchange presents. One of the oddities of the war in the Western battlefields at all events (says the Daily Chronicle) is the close proximity of the opposing forces in the trenches, thus giving opportunities for conversation. But the record must surely be made by an incident described in a letter from Private H Scrutton, Essex Regiment, to relatives at Wood Green, Norwich. He writes:

“‘As I told you before, our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them. We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:- From out trenches: ‘Good morning Fritz.’ (No answer). ‘Good morning Fritz.’ (Still no answer). ‘GOOD MORNING FRITZ.’ From German trenches: ‘Good morning.’ From our trench: ‘How are you?’ ‘All right.’ ‘Come over here, Fritz. ‘No. If I come I get shot.’ ‘No you won't. Come on.’ ‘No fear.’ ‘Come and get some fags, Fritz.’ ‘No. You come half way and I meet you.’ ‘All right.’ One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange. It was good to see the Germans standing on top of their trenches and the English also, with caps waving in the air, all cheering. About 18 of our men went half way and met about the same number of Germans. This lasted about half an hour when each side returned to their trenches to shoot at each other again. What I have written is the truth but don't think we got chums as two of our fellows were killed the same night, and I don't know how many of them.”

The dangers inherent in this were not lost on the generals. They were particularly concerned about the approach of the Christmas season. On 5 December 1914, II Corps HQ [General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien] issued an instruction to commanders of all Divisions:

“It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a ‘live and let live’ theory of life... officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises... the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy... such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks... the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit... friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

But such prohibitions were powerless to stop the tendency to fraternisation. The snatches of carol singing that drifted over the trenches in the week leading up to Christmas encouraged German and British soldiers to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches. Finally they began to venture out of the relative safety of their dugouts and establish direct contact with the other side exchanging gifts and souvenirs.

German and British soldiers fraternizing, Christmas 1914German and British soldiers fraternizing, Christmas 1914Instinctively, the workers in uniform realised that the men in the other trenches were workers like themselves, engaged in a senseless slaughter to protect the interests of kings, lords and capitalists. Many soldiers from both sides spontaneously walked into no man's land (the area between the German and British) trenches, where they exchanged food and cigarettes and even held joint burial ceremonies, sometimes meetings ending in carol-singing.

The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing carols, to which the British replied with their own songs. On Christmas Eve, 1914, both sides declared an unofficial truce and a football match was played in no-man’s land. In some places the truce lasted a week. It is calculated that as many as 100,000 men took part.

A most touching story, and it happens to be true. But it is not one with a happy ending. The officer caste on both sides was enraged by this spontaneous move to fraternise with “the enemy”. The following Christmas, sentries on both sides had orders to shoot any soldier who tried to spread the Christmas message of “peace on earth and good will to all men.” Any soldier who put his head above the parapet would receive a small Christmas present in the shape of a bullet in the brain.

The aim of the ruling class is always to divide the working class along national, racial, linguistic and other lines. This is even more necessary in war than in peacetime. The generals were horrified by the instinctive fraternisation of the workers in uniform. The posting of snipers along the front line was designed precisely to prevent any further fraternisation and to foment hatred against “the enemy” at all times. This barbarity was finally ended by the Russian Revolution, which immediately broke down the iron barriers that divided soldier from soldier, man from man, brother from brother and sister from sister, establishing the basis for the unity of the international proletariat that is the prior condition for the emancipation of the working class and of all humanity.

London, 26 September, 2014