By Michael Murphy, November 11th, Louis Loft, University of Saskatchewan
Yes, we will remember and honour them. But we will also remember why WW1 was fought and the appalling suffering and damage that it caused.
I’d like to thank the organizers of today’s event for the opportunity to talk to you, and afterwards to talk with you. I’m going to focus on that war and on its impact on Canada and on Ireland, where I grew up. I’ll wrap up in 10 minutes or so, with a few observations on war and resistance to war.
The Great War: For me the key question is why that war happened. We are usually led to believe that the war happened almost by accident, that Europe more or less drifted into war. I do not accept this. I believe that the war could have been launched just as readily before 1914, or in the decade that followed, by the hard-faced, arrogant men in London, Berlin and Paris. As an astute observer noted in 1914:
“The First World War is being waged for the division of colonies and the robbery of foreign territory; thieves have fallen out.”
And said later:
“The war of 1914-18 was imperialist on both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies, and spheres of influence of finance capital.”
In 1914 Britain was the dominant imperial power, with colonies throughout the world. In the words of a poem written to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 1887 Jubilee, and which appeared on a 1892 Canadian stamp, “We hold a vaster empire than has been.” Germany was the up and coming superpower rival to Britain, while France was also a major economic force with colonies and dependencies in Africa and Asia. The United States was the emerging power, with serious ambitions to challenge the global status quo. The USA was, however, initially content to wait in the wings and allow the European powers to exhaust themselves in warfare, and to sell to Britain and France the materials and weapons they needed for the war.
It was the era of colonies. (By the way, in preparing for this presentation I realized for the first time that I have lived almost my entire life in former British colonies – Ireland, Canada, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania). Colonies were a source of wealth to the colonizers who relentlessly exploited the colonies for their natural resources – exotic materials such as ivory, gold, diamonds and even opium, plus more mundane exports such as grain and cotton and furs. The colonies also provided vast tracts of land that came to be “owned” by the aristocracy of the colonizing country, land that could be rented back to the original owners or sold to “middle men”.
Another valuable export from the colonies was manpower. This took the form of slavery, especially in Africa, and the export of slaves to the New World, which continued well into the 19th century. It also took the form of soldiers who were recruited in the colonies both to maintain order in the colonies, and to fight elsewhere in the armies of the colonizer. India, for example, “contributed” a large number of divisions and independent brigades to the European, Mediterranean and the Middle East theatres of war in World War 1. Over one million Indian troops served overseas in WW1, of whom 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded.
Now let’s have a look at Ireland and Canada. Ireland was partially under English rule for close to a thousand years and was a fully fledged colony for close to 500 years. In 1914 the vast majority of ordinary Irish people were either rural poor, eking out a subsistence existence on a small piece of rented land, or urban poor, living in slums and if lucky enough to be working, barely getting by on miserable wages.
When war broke out, thousands of Irish men signed up, both loyalists and Irish nationalists. But most joined the forces not for any great love of England but from economic necessity. Over 200,000 Irish served in the Great War, most of them foot soldiers in the trenches. Over 61,000 Irish soldiers and sailors and a small number of Irish women – mainly nurses – died in that war. But recruitment dropped off greatly after the Irish uprising of Easter 1916 and especially after the execution of the leaders of that rebellion against British rule. In 1918 Britain attempted to impose conscription in Ireland but this was widely resisted by the Irish and had to be abandoned.
In 1914 Canada was a British dominion, so when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada was also at war with Germany. Sir Wilfred Laurier, although French-Canadian, spoke for the majority of English-Canadians when he proclaimed: “It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.”
However, participation in the war was widely resisted in Quebec, as was the Canadian Military Service Act of 1917, which imposed conscription in Quebec and English Canada.
Beginning in 1914, a Canadian Expeditionary Force was organized for the war. 620,000 people were mobilized to serve as soldiers, nurses and chaplains. At the end of the war Canada’s total casualties stood at 67,000 killed and 250,000 wounded, so over a third of those mobilized became casualties.
But to put this carnage in perspective: You are probably familiar with the overall, staggering statistics for World War 1: 8.5 million dead, 7.7 million missing– in effect 16.2 million dead – 21 million wounded. The physical damage done in Europe, especially in Belgium and France, was astounding. A recent film shown by Saskatoon Public Library, called ‘Aftermath’ showed how even today a large crew works year round in France removing the shells and debris of WW1.
Before moving on, I must of course mention one remarkable phenomenon of WW1, and that is the Christmas Truces of 1914 (there were quite a few) and of 1915, when there were fewer due to orders from upper levels of the opposing armies. While these truces are widely recorded, what is not known as extensively is that Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments. He asked “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” This attempt was officially rebuffed.
The Christmas truces were a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western front. Through the week leading up to Christmas, groups of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—crossed into “no man’s land”, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of soccer with one another.
I have with me a Christmas card produced this year by PeaceQuest, a national Canadian peace group, showing this scene of sanity and humanity. Please see me afterwards if you would like to buy a few.
Now, to wrap up: There are of course many lessons to be drawn from WW1, both from an examination of the causes of that war and from its failure to bring about a lasting peace in Europe – WW2 followed just 21 years later. Before I turn things over to you for your comments, I will suggest one lesson that is referred to by Jackson Browne in his fine song “Lives in the Balance”:
“You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you’ve seen it before
Where a government lies to a people
And a country is drifting to war”:
In Chapter 11 of his excellent book “To End All Wars”, Adam Hochschild describes how one of the first steps taken by the British government following the outbreak of WW1 was to set up a War Propaganda Bureau within the cabinet. Yes, that was the official title of this innovation. Included in that propaganda unit were experienced journalists and some of Britain’s most prominent authors – Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan – the latter became Director of Information for the Bureau. Their job, using newspapers, magazines, novels and films, was to sell the war to a public that was constantly fed mistruths about “the enemy” and was shielded from the brutal realities of a war that slaughtered so many people, most of them in the prime of life.
Today we know better than to accept without question what we are told by the media or by our governments. It is our responsibility to oppose war in any form, especially by speaking out for peace in any situation where violence is put forward as a solution. We must speak out in our families, in our churches and schools, and in our communities – in short, to anyone who will listen.