House clearing recently, I found a will written by hand by my grandfather dated 28 June 1916, three days before the Battle of the Somme.
He lived through that battle but 20,000 British soldiers were killed in its first day with 40,000 wounded.
By the battle’s end that November a total of 1.2 million soldiers were dead and wounded on both sides.
Over ten million soldiers died or were wounded, and countless others lost their lives during World War One.
Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove defended Britain’s role in this slaughter, claiming it was a “just war” to combat aggression.
He attacked Germany’s “pitiless” approach to occupation, saying they were “aggressively expansionist” and scorned the international order. Britain, he said, was ‘defending the Western liberal order’ by resisting Germany.
Gove conveniently ignores Britain’s own imperial role. Britain was then still one of the three major economic powers along with the USA and Germany.
It gained that imperial position precisely by being “pitiless” and “aggressively expansionist” in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.
Britain, though, was being overtaken by others. It no longer had the economic clout it had, as the USA and Germany exploited new technology.
It could no longer “rule the waves” as Germany was fast catching up in warships. Conflict between the capitalist powers was inevitable.
Britain’s strategy was to support France and Russia against the alliance of Germany/ Austria-Hungary and (before 1914) Italy just enough, hoping they would all exhaust each other, making Britain the victor.
Only a small expeditionary army was sent to France in 1914. But British imperialism underestimated German capitalism’s power and was forced to conscript rapidly to prevent a German victory.
This is the true picture of 1914. Germany was no less “democratic” than Britain. The vote was available to more men in Germany than in Britain, and votes for women came sooner.
Germany may have invaded Belgium and started war in the West, but it was imperial interests that governed and caused the war. British imperialism wanted war.
Gove said that General Haig, British commander in chief at the Somme, was not a butcher but a patriot. Haig was in fact both and a cold-hearted, arrogant and ruthless representative of his class.
On the battle’s first day, 1 July 1916, British troops walked slowly in daylight across “no man’s land” under orders and to their death.
Haig ordered the battle to continue to November, even after it became a quagmire of mud where no gain could be had.
The battle’s futile nature was shown when only five square miles of land were gained after months of fighting.
World War One was no victory for British workers. Many working class towns were empty of men by 1918. And Britain came into debt to the USA which hastened Britain’s decline as a world power.
The centenary of WW1 will grab media time this year. I won’t wear a red poppy but I will remember my grandfather and all who fought and died on both sides.
The best honour socialists can give to the millions who died is to remember that a small voice of Marxism resisted patriotism and nationalism in 1914.
They stood for a new world where imperial conflict would end. Against all the odds they laid the basis for revolutions across Europe that toppled monarchies and brought fear of revolution to the architects of trench slaughter.
Capitalism’s murderous logic
Dave Boyes, Hampshire Socialist Party
World War One was fought between capitalist states trying to save their systems. Capitalism’s major powers aimed to solve the problem of maintaining demand at home by colonising non-capitalist areas abroad, securing markets for surplus production and seizing cheap supplies of raw materials and food.
Between 1880 and 1910 imperialist European powers occupied ten million square miles of Africa, driven by capitalism’s need for markets. The logic of capitalism demanded aggression and exploitation for its own survival.
In 1913 Rosa Luxembourg told German soldiers, the Social Democratic Party and the German people – ‘do not lift the weapons of murder against your French and foreign brothers’.
For this brave address (and her revolutionary determination) she was jailed for a year by the German authorities and later murdered! We must make sure such death and destruction never happens again by replacing capitalism with international socialism.