‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
The First World War
Introduction by Rob Fairmichael
What can you say about the First World War which has not already been said? Maybe not a lot. But it depends not just on what is or has been said but who is saying it, and how it is being used, because, like all history, the past is not just about the past but about the present. How we interpret the past affects how we relate to the present and contemporary realities. The approach of the current British government (not in this seemingly very much different from the previous British government), for example, seems to be about talking up the positivity of the British role in world history and denying the role which British imperialism had in fomenting the conflict.
But what did happen in the First World War? A generation of men slaughtered or traumatised. Another war (the Second World War) set up to happen just one short generation later. A burden of debt which had traumatic effects on many societies.
In the Irish context we have referred a number of times in these pages to the positive and negative consequences of remembering all those from the island of Ireland who fought in British forces (the negative consequences referring to how it is currently done). Everyone who has died in violent conflict, no matter how ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ their role in trying, or succeeding, to kill others, deserve to be remembered. We have to respect the fact that most of those who fought believed passionately in the cause they were fighting for (however people understood that cause while others joined up for adventure, a job or whatever). But we do not have to agree with them. And we do not have to remember their deaths in an uncritical way.
The British establishment and military try to use past and current deaths as a way to justify contemporary military policies and wars. This is exceedingly clear from not only the ‘remembrance’ period in November each year but the handling of British army deaths today, and attempts to build relations between the military and local councils etc. You don’t need to be an Irish nationalist on the island of Ireland to resist this because I would say that anyone who cares about building peace in the world should be resisting British military propaganda, or military propaganda wherever you are – and Ireland is in Britain’s cultural shadow. This propaganda may be more subtle than in the era of Lord Kitchener but it is just as virulent.
The following article by Dave Knight looks at the bare facts of the conflict, the ‘war to end wars’ which was the dead (sic) opposite. In that regard, the appearance of this article under the title ‘Readings in Nonviolence’ might seem a misnomer. And so, in a way, it is. But if we do not have the facts at our fingertips about this enormous debacle in European and world history then we are at a serious disadvantage to pro-war visionists and revisionists for whom war is really the continuation of politics by other means (Karl von Klausewitz) and who are seemingly incapable of visioning a world without war, and viable alternatives to eternal military conflict.
It should be pointed out that the US$ and UK£ figures quoted for the costs of the war are the costs then. While monetary inflation is an elastic science, depending on what you measure (retail prices being the commonest measure but only one such measure), US$1 in 1914 is equivalent to around $23 today, and UK£1 then is worth something like £97 now. So you can multiply the enormous sums quoted by around these amounts (23x for US dollar prices, 97x for the British pound, depending on how the figures were originally calculated) to get the current value in 2014. However, this is also affected by how the figures were calculated. Probably more usefully Dave Knight includes some contemporary illustrations of the purchasing power of the money which went down the war drain. What an appalling waste of human resources it was which could have been used for the betterment of humankind rather than its destruction.
The message of nonviolence is that there are alternatives. Dave Knight refers to a few of the sane voices which existed then. They exist today. But the madness of militarism marches on, sometimes rather better disguised than at the time of the First World War, but now as then not usually to the destruction of those who give the orders but of those who follow or are at the receiving end of those orders. We need to see through the rhetoric of the warmongers to the reality of war, and help others to do the same.
WWW1 in Numbers
by Dave Knight
It would be crass to not begin with headlines and examples of the horrific human suffering during and immediately after the conflict.
9.4 million military deaths (Allies 5.4 million, Central Powers 4 million), 21 million military wounded, and 6 million civilians died.
- The outbreak of Spanish influenza in 1918 and 1919 killed 100 million people.
- In 1918-19 half the new-babies born in Berlin died of malnutrition.
- The post war redrawing of borders resulted in 9 million displaced Germans.
- Pogroms, refugee crises, forced transfers of populations and genocide all occurred in the First World War. (1)
But there were other losses such as property destruction and environmental damage.
Land and property damage and destruction in France 1914-18:
The numbers which follow are also headlines and examples, but concerned with financial costs particularly relating to military spending to highlight that the enormous build-up of military infrastructure and equipment meant that the war was more likely to begin and to be catastrophic.
The Depression is attributed to the cost of fighting the First World War, estimated as $208.5 billion (Allies $147bn, Central Powers $61.5bn).
- Enough, it has been calculated, for every family in Russia, most of Europe, Canada, the USA, and Australia to have had $3,500 for a home and furniture plus five acres of land.
- In addition, enough to grant a $2 million library, a $3 million hospital and a $20 million college to every city of over 20,000.
- And the remainder would have purchased all the property in Germany and Belgium. (3)
The pre-war total military spending of the main powers (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia) shows significant increase particularly between 1900 and 1914.
Pre-war military spending of the main powers in £ millions
Percentage increase in military spending 1890-1913:
Russia 19% (4)
These increases enabled the states to expand their armies and exploit the modernisation of weaponry and equipment. For example, a naval arms race developed between Britain and Germany.
Tonnes of military shipping owned by Britain and Germany:
Britain: 1880, 650,000: 1910, 2,174,000
Germany: 1880, 88,000: 1910, 964,000
- In 1906 Britain launched the first Dreadnought, a large, fast and heavily armed battleship with 12 inch guns, setting a much higher standard for naval weaponry.
- Between 1909 and 1911 Britain built 18 Dreadnoughts while Germany completed nine. (5)
But there were those who stood against the conflict.
On 2nd August 1914, ‘the last Sunday of peace’, there was a large anti-war rally in Trafalgar Square and 100,000 attended similar rallies in other parts of the country.
In Britain more than 16,000 men registered as Conscientious Objectors after the Military Service Act became law in 1916.
But over 80 COs died as a result of their treatment while imprisoned.
1200 women from 12 countries overcame many obstacles and gathered in The Hague during the war in 1915. There they drew up 20 proposals to stop the conflict by negotiated peace and took them to world leaders, unfortunately without success. (6)
The Romans were wrong, since if you prepare for war you are more likely to get war than if you prepare for peace. A lesson we still seem not to have learnt.
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() ‘1914’, BBC History Magazine, January 2014, p. 27 and Opposing World War One: Courage and Conscience, published 2013 by Pax Christi UK and others, p. 3 & p. 9
This article by Dave Knight, of MAW, the Movement for the Abolition of War in Britain www.abolishwar.org.uk originally appeared in the newsletter of Pax Christi Britain paxchristi.org.uk ( Pax Christi Ireland is at www.paxchristi.ie). Used by kind permission of author and publishers.