World War I – separating fact from fiction

April 16, 2015

Lines of grey muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grasping fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
— Siegfried Sassoon.

Implausible as it might seem, it was the violent protest of a group of Bosnian high school students that sparked World War I.

Bosnia was annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908, and many of its younger inhabitants were resentful at being brought under the Habsburgs rather than being allowed to join their national state Serbia.

When one of these young men, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the Austrians suspected the Serbian government of being involved in the murders. They weren’t, but lack of evidence didn’t prevent Austria-Hungary from declaring war on Serbia on 28 July 1914.

Two days later, Russia began its general mobilisation to assert its self-proclaimed status as “patron and protector” of Serbia and the slav states. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia after Russia’s rejection of its ultimatum that it demobilise.

Austria-Hungary had taken a hard-line approach to Serbia only after receiving the approval of Germany, as well as its promise of support. Germany, in turn, had a ready-made plan for dealing with armed conflict in Europe that rested on the quick defeat of France before turning its attention eastward.

Two days after declaring war on Russia, Germany declared war on France, having already demanded free passage through Belgium to encircle the French armies. Germany ignored Belgium’s refusal of unimpeded passage and marched through their territory into northern France. The British government found it impossible to ignore the plight of “little Belgium” and by late August had more than 100,000 troops on French soil.

Despite coming perilously close to Paris in early September, it soon became clear that there would be no quick victory over France. The war on the Western Front, which stretched from the border of Switzerland to the North Sea, would be a long and bloody affair, fought, for the most part, across trenches.

Almost 70 years after Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had declared in the Communist Manifesto that workers of the world had no country and that the German proletariat represented the future, belligerent nationalism triumphed over international solidarity. With some notable exceptions, socialist leaders all over Europe followed the German example and sent workers to wage war on their fellow workers.

Rosa Luxemburg wasn’t one of them. For her part in organising resistance to the war she spent a total of three years and four months of it in prison.

In her magnificent work The Junius Pamphlet she counted the cost of the war: “The masses are being decimated by the world war. The flower of our mature and youthful strength, hundreds of thousands of whom were socialistically schooled in England, France, Belgium, Germany and Russia, the product of decades of educational and agitational training, and other hundreds of thousands who could be won for socialism tomorrow, fall and moulder on the miserable battlefields. The fruits of decades of sacrifice and the efforts of generations are destroyed in a few weeks … this blood-letting threatens to bleed the European workers’ movement to death.’’

On the Eastern Front, the limitations of backward, Tsarist Russia were soon evident. Two of its armies were defeated by German troops in late August, with 90,000 Russians taken prisoner. By December 1914, Grand Duke Nicholas thought it prudent to advise his allies that Russia’s inability to equip its troops meant that it was incapable of carrying out further offensive actions.

Under pressure from Turkey in the Caucasus (Turkey had entered the war on Germany’s side in October), the Grand Duke appealed to Britain for assistance and made the suggestion that they could distract Turkey with an engagement in the eastern Mediterranean. Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, and Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, approved of the idea and it was put into effect in the months that followed at Gallipoli.

In the multi-million dollar celebration of jingoism sponsored by the Australian government to celebrate the Anzac legend this is unlikely to rate much of a mention. Nor are the two referenda in 1916 and 1917 that voted No to conscription, giving the lie to the claim by then-Prime Minister Billy Hughes that 80% of Australians were in favour of the war.

The most prominent of the anti-war activists in Australia were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), more commonly known as the Wobblies, who were unremitting in their campaign against the war.

Their anti-war poster published by Tom Barker in the IWW’s paper, Direct Action, reflected the sentiments of many in Australia. It called to arms “Capitalists, Parsons, Politicians, Landlords, Newspaper Editors and other Stay-at-home Patriots”. They were needed in the trenches, and as soon as they volunteered, workers were exhorted to “follow their masters”.

At the end of the war, with the defeat and collapse of the Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires and the victory of the Bolsheviks, the map of Europe was redivided and redrawn.

The formal end of the “war to end all wars” came with the peace-settlement imposed by the victors at Versailles, which managed to sow the seeds of World War II.

Despite the warning of John Maynard Keynes in his Economic Consequences of the Peace, the punitive provisions of the Treaty of Versailles directed against Germany were central to the rise of Hitler’s fascist party that led to an even greater conflagration barely 20 years after the first finished.

Japan was an ally of the British Empire in WWI as a consequence of a 1902 treaty, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. During the course of the war, the Australian and Japanese navies cooperated in hunting German warships in Asia in 1915. It was Japanese sailors who helped to put down a mutiny among Indian troops serving in the British army in 1915 in Singapore.

At Versailles, Japan argued that racial equality should constitute one of the principles that would guide the new international body being constructed — the League of Nations. Their chief opponent was Hughes, anxious to protect “White Australia” from the “yellow hordes” of Asia. Hughes got his way.

In 1918, Japan had giant new battleships under construction that promised to make much of the British fleet obsolete. The Japanese were kept in check by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 which restricted Japan to possession of a fleet smaller than Britain and the United States.

On top of the snub over racial equality orchestrated by Hughes, this could only lead to Japanese patriots turning their thoughts to restoring the glory of the Rising Sun.

The description of the German General Ludendorff of British troops being “lions led by donkeys” could equally apply to the combatant troops of many other countries, and the “donkeys” included incompetent generals and warmongering politicians alike.

Luxemburg’s prescient analysis of the results are a salutary reminder to us all: “In this war imperialism has won … its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale towards the abyss of misery … this world war is a regression into barbarism … bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism … but we are not lost, and will be victorious if we have not unlearned how to learn.”

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.