Lest We Forget: Could the First World War Have Been Stopped?

Like most people of my generation, I grew up with a mystery. I felt I understood the Second World War. The attempt to dominate and destroy, to eliminate the people of other races — though raised to unprecedented levels by the Nazis — is a familiar historical theme. The need to stop Hitler was absolute, and the dreadful sacrifices of the Second World War were unavoidable.

But the First World War, which ended 90 years ago today, seemed incomprehensible. The class interests of the men sent to kill each other were the same. While Germany was clearly the aggressor, the outlook of the opposing powers — seeking to expand their colonies and to dominate European trade was not wildly different. Ugly as the German state was, no one could characterize the war at its outbreak — with Tsarist Russia on the side of the Entente Powers — as a simple struggle between democracy and dictatorship. Neither did this resemble the current war in Iraq, in which legislators send the children of another class to die. The chances of being killed were at least five times higher for men who had been students at Oxford or Cambridge in 1914 than they were for manual workers.1 The First World War was an act of social cannibalism, in which statesmen and generals on both sides murdered their own offspring. How could it have happened?

On July 1st 1999, consumed by the urge to understand the war before the century was over, I visited Thiepval on the Somme. This was the anniversary of the first great attack on the German salients, which caused devastating losses for British and Irish troops. Men carrying flutes and dressed in orange sashes — commemorating the Ulster Division — paced about. Beneath the arches of the Lutyens memorial a circle of evangelical Christians hugged and screamed and ululated, while a little boy dressed in combat gear played around their legs with a plastic machine-gun. I goggled at the names on the monument — the 73,000 commemorate only the British and South Africans who fell on the Somme and whose bodies were not recovered — but I couldn’t grasp the scale of what I saw.

Dizzied by these conflicting sights, unable to connect, I wandered behind the old German lines and into a field of sugar beet. Walking between the rows, trying to clear my head, I noticed a spherical pebble. I picked it up. It was strangely heavy. Then I looked around and saw that the field was covered with the same odd little balls. Almost every stone was in fact metal. Within a minute I picked up more grapeshot than I could hold. I found shell casings, twisted bullets, fragments of barbed wire, chips of armor plating. I stopped, overwhelmed by shock and recognition. It was a field of lead and steel; and every piece had been manufactured to kill someone.

There are plenty of words to describe the horrors of World War Two. But there were none, as far as I could discover, that captured the character of the First World War. So I constructed one from the Greek word ephebos, a young man of fighting age. Ephebicide is the wanton mass slaughter of the young by the old. But how did it happen, and why?

In his fascinating book The Last Great War, published a fortnight ago, Adrian Gregory shows that the notion that Britain was carried to war on a wave of patriotic enthusiasm is false.2 The crowds that gathered around Buckingham Palace and in Downing Street when war was declared seem to have been more curious than excited. Most people appear to have greeted the war with resignation or dismay. Nor does voluntary enlistment provide clear evidence of enthusiasm. It is true that some wanted to fight, and others saw war as a more exciting prospect that working in a dead-end office job.3 But Gregory shows that voluntarism wasn’t all that it seemed. For many men fighting was the only employment on offer. The largest numbers volunteered not at the very beginning of war, but after the disaster at Mons on August 24th, when it became clear that there was a genuine threat to national defense.4

The speed with which the war began and Britain joined made effective resistance impossible to organize. By the time the anti-war meetings had been called, it was too late. And by then there was a genuine need to stop Germany. It was as rational to seek to curtail German expansionism in August 1914 as it was in September 1939.

But the narratives, like Gregory’s, which suggest that World War One was inevitable begin late in the sequence of events.5 Another anniversary, almost forgotten in this country, falls tomorrow. On November 12th 1924, Edmund Dene Morel died. Morel had been a shipping clerk, based in Liverpool and Antwerp, who had noticed, in the late 1890s, that while ships belonging to King Leopold were returning from the Congo to Belgium full of ivory, rubber and other goods, they were departing with nothing but soldiers and ammunition. He realized that Leopold’s colony must be a slave state, and launched an astonishing and ultimately successful effort to break the king’s grip.6 For a while he became a national hero. A few years later he became a national villain.

During his Congo campaign, Morel had become extremely suspicious of the secret diplomacy pursued by the British foreign office. In 1911, he showed how a secret understanding between Britain and France over the control of Morocco, followed by a campaign in the British press based on misleading foreign office briefings, had stitched up Germany and very nearly caused a European war.7 In February 1912 he warned that “no greater disaster could befall both peoples [Britain and Germany], and all that is most worthy of preservation in modern civilization, than a war between them.”8 Convinced that Britain had struck a second secret agreement with France that would drag us into any war which involved Russia, he campaigned for such treaties to be made public; for recognition that Germany had been hoodwinked over Morocco and for the British government to seek to broker a reconciliation between France and Germany.

In response British ministers lied. The prime minister and the foreign secretary repeatedly denied that there was any secret agreement with France.9 Only on the day before war was declared did the foreign secretary admit that a treaty had been in place since 1906. It ensured that Britain would have to fight from the moment Russia mobilized. Morel continued to oppose the war and became, until his dramatic rehabilitation after 1918, one of the most reviled men in Britain.

Could the Great War have been averted if, in 1911, the British government had done as Morel suggested? No one knows, as no such attempt was made. Far from seeking to broker a European peace, Britain, pursuing its self-interested diplomatic intrigues, helped to make war more likely. Germany was the aggressor; but the image of affronted virtue cultivated by Britain was a false one. Faced, earlier in the century, with the possibilities of peace, the old men of Europe had decided that they would rather kill their children than change their policies.

  1. Adrian Gregory, 2008. The Last Great War: British society and the First World War, p.290. Cambridge University Press. []
  2. ibid, pp9-17; 24-30. []
  3. ibid, p31. []
  4. ibid, p32. []
  5. Another example is Gary Sheffield, November 2008. The Origins of World War One. BBC Online. []
  6. See Adam Hochschild, 1999. King Leopold’s Ghost. Pan Macmillan, London. []
  7. F. Seymour Cocks, 1920. E. D. Morel: the man and his work. George Allen & Unwin, London. The text of this book is available here. []
  8. ED Morel, 1912. Morocco in Diplomacy. Quoted by F. Seymour Cocks, ibid. []
  9. Asquith denied it on March 10th 1913 and March 24th 1913. Grey denied it on April 28th 1914 and June 11th 1914. []
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: the Corporate Takeover of Britain; as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper (UK). Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. armean said on November 12th, 2008 at 1:04pm #

    Thanks for the article. The irony is that most of these heads of state were actually related to each other. They were uncles and cousins. Basicly a very ugly and public family dispute.

    I don’t know much about Morel but he sounds like Ralph Nader. Except Nader hasn’t been rehabilitated and there is no real possibility of it happening, ever.

    I believe that the problem is not “those who do not know history…..”. It’s “those who do know history but they are arrogant enough to believe that they could do better this time around”.

  2. Michael Kenny said on November 12th, 2008 at 3:04pm #

    The unique talent of George Monbiot is that he can take any subject, however serious, and say something silly about it! He must surely be the last person on earth to believe that Germany was the “aggressor” in WWI or that Germany could be described as “expansionist” in that war (it had no territorial claims, unlike, for example, France, Italy or Serbia)! Most historians nowadays tend to the view that none of the participants were at fault. Also, grapeshot hasn’t been used since Napoleon’s time. The little balls that George found in the field were the contents of shrapnel shells (hence the casings) and the effect of those little balls was frightful.

    On the other hand, he has grasped that the idea of people going off to war singing happy songs was legend and that the real mood was resignation. In the nearly 100 years between Waterloo and Sarajevo, Europe had had a series of little wars and everyone kept saying that there would one day be a “great” war and it was that sense of inevitability that made the war … inevitable! Like going to the dentist, people shrugged their shoulders and just wanted to get it over with. They all thought it would be over by Christmas anyway! That’s the good news for today’s world, because nobody in Europe now thinks that war is inevitable.

    The other point is that US intervention in the war was an almighty disaster. Kerensky was persuaded to stay in the war (the one thing the people of Russia didn’t want!) until the Yanks came, thereby precipitating the communist revolution, with its murderous consequences. US intervention also changed the course of the war and what should have petered out in a draw and a negotiated peace became a virulent campaign to brand Germany as the “aggressor”, pushing the German people into the arms of Hitler, also with murderous consequences. Now there’s a subject to keep historians busy from now until 2018!

  3. Danny Ray said on November 12th, 2008 at 5:18pm #

    Mr. Kenny,

    you get a A+ for history, I was about to write the same thing. It is hard to imagin that so many horrors came from the end of that war. I do have to disagree with the author Mr. Gregory. The little people of the British Empire were always ready to join or to cheer an army marching away. Admittedly they were helped by that arch propogandist Kipling.

  4. JN said on November 12th, 2008 at 6:53pm #

    Certainly the German government & Kaiser were “agressors” but no more so than their counterparts in Britain, France, Russia & Austria/Hungary. It is the European ruling classes (monarchies, capitalists, generals, etc) as a whole that were responsible, not any one country. The war was made virtually inevitable by the alliance system, arms race & imperial competition; the assasination of Franz Ferdinand merely provided the spark.

    Could it have been prevented? Of course it could, IF the working classes had refused to provide the cannon fodder; refused to produce the weapons; refused to slaughter each other for the sake of their respective rulers & exploiters. Tragically, most of them didn’t.

    In 2008, as in 1914:
    “OUR REAL ENEMY IS AT HOME!”
    END THE WARS!
    END THE SYSTEM THAT CAUSES THEM: CAPITALISM/IMPERIALISM!
    ORGANISE! ACT!

  5. Bridget Dunne said on November 13th, 2008 at 3:03am #

    Baghdad Railway

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baghdad_Railway

  6. Brian Koontz said on November 16th, 2008 at 7:25am #

    World War I was the end of the age of romanticism and the beginning of the age of totalitarianism. So one “explanation” for it was a kind of romantic orgy – a last stand for the individual.