Category Archives: World War I

Obama Whitewashes World War One

Matthew Rothschild writes for The Progressive:

President Obama just went to Flanders Field in Belgium to pay homage to those who lost their lives in World War I. But rather than use the occasion to point out the idiotic hideousness of that war, he whitewashed it, praising “the profound sacrifice they made so that we might stand here today.”

He saluted their “willingness to fight, and die, for the freedom that we enjoy as their heirs.” But this was not a war for freedom. It was a triumph of nationalism, pitting one nation’s vanity against another. It was a war between empires for the spoils.

Historian Allen Ruff, who is studying the causes and effects of World War I, was not impressed with Obama’s speech. “With Both NATO and the European Union headquartered in Brussels,” Ruff says, “it would have been a true homage to the dead buried in Belgium a hundred years ago if Obama spoke out against all major power imperial ambition, the true cause of so much slaughter then and since, rather than mouthing some trite euphemisms about the honor of dying for ‘freedom.’ ”

But Obama insisted on repeating the very propaganda that fed that war. Without irony, he quoted the poem from John McRae that was used to encourage soldiers to sign up and civilians to pay for war bonds.


John Glaser: The Myths Behind the Allied Bombing Campaigns of WWII

John Glaser writes for Antiwar:

Lancaster_I_NG128_Dropping_Blockbuster_-_Duisburg_-_Oct_14,_1944In the New York Times, Ben Macintyre reviews the new book by Richard Overy The Bombers and the Bombed. Macintyre gives a summary of Overy’s myth-busting about the Allied bombing of Germany. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians, instead of sticking to military targets, is usually defended as (1) a response to similarly indiscriminate bombing campaigns by the Germans, like in the Blitz, and (2) the only way to completely bring down the Nazi regime.

“Overy demonstrates, however, that the tactic of bombing urban areas had been put into action by the British before the Blitz,” Macintyre reports. And as for the second justification…


As others mark World War One centenary, Germans prefer to forget

Erik Kirschbaum writes for Reuters:

Stone crosses and gravestones are silhouetted against the sky at Invaliden cemetery in Berlin March 17, 2014. REUTERS-Tobias SchwarzThe centenary of the outbreak of World War One has caught Germany off guard, while Britain, France, the United States and others mark it with battlefield tours, television programs, exhibitions and plans for ceremonies on the day, in August. Germans aren’t sure how, or even if, they should commemorate a war that cost them 13 percent of their territory, all their colonies, huge reparations and 2.5 million lives. The government is under fire for its inactivity.

…The reasons for German apathy run deeper than the obvious fact that they lost the war. Modern Germany has no appetite for war and shudders at the memories of Imperial Germany, with its spiked “Pickelhaube” helmets and exuberant militarism. “Germans today are probably the least belligerent and most pacifist-oriented people anywhere in Europe,” said Herfried Muenkler, a Humboldt University historian whose new book “Der Grosse Krieg” is making waves for challenging long-held notions that Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany was to blame for starting it.


An assassin divides his native Bosnia 100 years on

Matt Robinson and Daria Sito-Sucic write for Reuters:

…Gavrilo Princip stared down from the outer wall of a museum at the riverside spot in Sarajevo where on a summer’s morning in 1914 he opened fire on the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, lit the fuse for World War One, turning out the lights on an age of European peace and progress. Empires crumbled and more than 10 million soldiers died. The world order was rewritten. Yet 100 years on, in Princip’s native Bosnia, time, in many ways, has stood still.

A hero to some, a harbinger of destruction to others, the assassin is being fought over anew as Sarajevo prepares to mark the June 28 centenary of his act. Two rival sets of events are being planned, and accusations of ‘revisionism’ are flying at a time of renewed Cold War-style tensions between East and West. The row goes to the heart of Bosnia today, a country still affected by big-power divisions and still arguing about the past, divided by the present and uncertain about the future.


Melting Glaciers Revealing Frozen Corpses of World War I Soldiers

From The Telegraph:

Pic: Museo della Grande Guerra, Peio (C)The bodies, when they came, were often mummified. The two soldiers interred last September were blond, blue-eyed Austrians aged 17 and 18 years old, who died on the Presena glacier and were buried by their comrades, top-to-toe, in a crevasse. Both had bulletholes in their skulls. One still had a spoon tucked into his puttees — common practice among soldiers who travelled from trench to trench and ate out of communal pots. When Franco Nicolis of the Archaeological Heritage Office in the provincial capital, Trento, saw them, he says, his first thought was for their mothers. ‘They feel contemporary. They come out of the ice just as they went in,’ he says. In all likelihood the soldiers’ mothers never discovered their sons’ fate. One of the oddities of the White War was that both the Alpini and the Kaiserschützen recruited local men who knew the mountains, which meant that they often knew each other too. Sometimes family loyalties were split. ‘There are many stories of people hearing the voice of a brother or a cousin in the thick of battle,’ Nicolis says.


Don’t Break up Syria: WW1-Style Imperial Divide & Rule is a Failure

Christopher Dekki writes for Informed Comment:

Since the beginning of this terrible conflict in Syria, I have been closely listening to people’s reactions to the violence and devastation occurring there. What is astonishing is how quickly Syria transformed from a place of relative obscurity to a topic of constant discussion among so many. Even more astonishing, the solutions often offered to stem the violence prove that westerners have simply learned nothing from the lessons of history. These “solutions” tend to follow the same, tired formulae of a colonial mindset that helped put the Levant in this mess in the first place.

Some of the most passionate calls for “humanitarian” intervention and instant, western-led regime change have come from people who, ironically, are still disillusioned by the disastrous Bush Administration lies that led the United States into the heinous Iraq invasion of 2003. Nevertheless, of all the “solutions” that I hear bandied about by those who truly believe they are in the know concerning these grave geopolitical issues, the most idiotic and truly outdated is balkanization, or as I like to call it in the context of Syria, Sykes-Picot II.


First world war: an imperial bloodbath that’s a warning, not a noble cause

And in case there were any doubt that all the main combatants were in the land-grabbing expansion game, Britain and France then divvied up the defeated empires.' Illustration: Matt KenyonSeumas Milne writes for The Guardian:

They were never going to be able to contain themselves. For all the promises of a dignified commemoration, the Tory right’s standard bearers held back for less than 48 hours into the new year before launching a full-throated defence of the “war to end all wars”. The killing fields of Gallipoli and the Somme had been drenched in blood for a “noble cause”, declared Michael Gove. The slaughter unleashed in 1914 had been a “just war” for freedom.

Hostility to the war, the education secretary complained, had been fostered by leftwingers and comedians who denigrated patriotism and painted the conflict as a “misbegotten shambles”. Gove was backed by the prime minister, as talk of international reconciliation was left to junior ministerial ranks.

Boris Johnson went further. The war was the fault of German expansionism and aggression, London’s mayor pronounced, and called for Labour’s shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt to be sacked forthwith if he doubted it. The Conservative grandees were backed up by a retinue of more-or-less loyal historians. Max Hastings reckoned it had been fought in defence of “international law” and small nations, while Antony Beevor took aim at “anti-militarists”.

This is all preposterous nonsense. Unlike the second world war, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war. It was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.


Michael Gove blasts Blackadder for spreading ‘left wing myths’ on war

Blackadder Goes Forth spread an irresponsible left-wing agenda, claims Gove From

The education secretary Michael Gove today made an extraordinary attack on the classic comedy series Blackadder for peddling left-wing “myths” about the First World War “designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.”

Gove said the popular series had sought to denigrate British patriotism and had been used by “left wing academics” to portray the British war effort as a “shambles” led by an out-of-touch elite.

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage,” he writes in the Daily Mail.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.

“Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”


Uncomfortable parallels with 1914: The Economist calls for ‘a more active American foreign policy’ to make the world safer

From The Economist:

AS NEW YEAR approached a century ago, most people in the West looked forward to 1914 with optimism. The hundred years since the Battle of Waterloo had not been entirely free of disaster—there had been a horrific civil war in America, some regional scraps in Asia, the Franco-Prussian war and the occasional colonial calamity. But continental peace had prevailed. Globalisation and new technology—the telephone, the steamship, the train—had knitted the world together. John Maynard Keynes has a wonderful image of a Londoner of the time, “sipping his morning tea in bed” and ordering “the various products of the whole earth” to his door, much as he might today from Amazon—and regarding this state of affairs as “normal, certain and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement”. The Londoner might well have had by his bedside table a copy of Norman Angell’s “The Great Illusion”, which laid out the argument that Europe’s economies were so integrated that war was futile.

Yet within a year, the world was embroiled in a most horrific war. It cost 9m lives—and many times that number if you take in the various geopolitical tragedies it left in its wake, from the creation of Soviet Russia to the too-casual redrawing of Middle Eastern borders and the rise of Hitler. From being a friend of freedom, technology became an agent of brutality, slaughtering and enslaving people on a terrifying scale. Barriers shot up around the world, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The globalisation that Keynes’s Londoner enjoyed only really began again in 1945—or, some would argue, in the 1990s, when eastern Europe was set free and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began bearing fruit in China.

The driving force behind the catastrophe that befell the world a century ago was Germany, which was looking for an excuse for a war that would allow it to dominate Europe. Yet complacency was also to blame. Too many people, in London, Paris and elsewhere, believed that because Britain and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners after America and there was therefore no economic logic behind the conflict, war would not happen. As Keynes put it, “The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of [the Londoner’s]…daily newspaper.”


Premier League to donate new football pitch at Ypres to commemorate ‘Christmas Truce’ match during First World War

From The Independent:

The Premier League is to donate a floodlit football pitch to mark the centenary of the Christmas Truce match which saw British and German troops play each other during the First World War.

English football’s top flight announced that it will build a state-of-the-art third- generation artificial pitch in the Belgian city of Ypres by November next year as part of the centenary commemorations of the Great War.

In one of the conflict’s most famous episodes, troops fighting on the Western front halted hostilities to play a game in no-man’s land and later posed for pictures and exchanged gifts on Christmas Day 1914.

A Christmas Truce tournament organised by the Premier League and bringing Under-12 teams from England, Belgium, France and Germany together in Ypres has already been in place since 2011 to remember the spontaneous outbreak of goodwill.


ITV news presenter hits back after abuse for not wearing poppy

PoppiesFrom The Guardian:

An ITV news presenter who has been subject to racist and sexist abuse for her decision not to wear a Remembrance Day poppy said she made her decision in order to be “neutral and impartial on-screen”.

Charlene White, a presenter on ITV News London, received insults on social media after she appeared on screen without the poppy, with many of the jibes focusing on her race.

In a statement on the ITV website, the journalist said she had made the decision not to wear a poppy a number of years ago but the backlash this year had been the worst so far.



How politicians use the poppy appeal to make today’s wars more popular

From Stop the War Coalition:

[...] The mixture of imperial aggression, hubris and wilful ignorance of the consequences that marked the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq meant that both wars ended in failure for the Western powers. Wars were not meant to be unpopular, according to the politicians, but opinion polls showed that they were bitterly contested and as they developed only became more so.

As this has manifestly become the case, so there has been more emphasis on supporting the troops, as opposed to supporting wars. The boosting of the poppy appeal is part of that process. In that sense it appeals to most people’s decent sentiments, regardless of their politics. They do not want to see people dying in wars and they want to pay respects to the dead of previous wars.

That is all fair enough, but when the poppy is used to bolster the status quo and justify wars, then that is a different matter. The sufferings of those who died and were injured in previous wars should not be used to try to make present wars more popular.

This is particularly important because next year marks the 100th anniversary of beginning of the First World War, and there are already many signs that government and media plans under way will use the anniversary to recast that war as one for democracy, not as the senseless slaughter of young men fighting for different empires which it actually was.

That really would be a travesty of the truth. Maybe that’s why in recent days the Stop the War office has been inundated with requests for white poppies, commemorating peace. Many who ask for them say that they do not want remembrance to be confused with support for war. That really would be a disservice to those who have died.


Harry Patch: War is organised murder, and nothing else

Guardian Obituary: Harry Patch

Major General Smedley Butler: War Is A Racket

War Is A Racket speech delivered by Major General Smedley Butler in 1933:

“WAR is a racket. It always has been

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”


Parliamentary poppy wars showing dangerous signs of escalation

Poppy escalation showing dangerous signs

From News Thump:

The first shots of this year’s ‘poppy wars’ were fired this week as MPs battled it out between them over who supports the troops the most.

The dangerous levels of escalation were on show at Prime Ministers Questions where all MPs could be seen wearing a red poppy to show their support, while some wore two in the event of an attack on two fronts from both The Daily Mail and The Daily Express.


Major General Smedley Butler: War is a racket…

Refusing to go to war is finally being recognised as a brave act ~ Independent

indby Holly Williams
The Independent

‘The conscientious objector is a popular trope in any drama touching on the First World War: Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs and more recently The Village have been awash with young men persecuted for their moral stance, the white feathers they were shamed with fluttering about TV screens as if war was a pillow fight.

As we approach the centenary of the First World War next year, we’ll no doubt hear a lot more about those that fought – and those that felt an equally powerful compulsion not to. But conscientious objection did not begin and end there: conflicts since, including the Second World War and the Vietnam war, have involved conscription, while countries as diverse as Finland, Israel, South Korea, Greece, Columbia and Turkey still require their young people to perform military service.

Getting an exemption on conscientious grounds is, even today, often an arduous process, potentially prompting the century-old accusations of cowardice. COs may face jail sentences or fines, despite a 2012 UN document stating that “conscientious objection … is based on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

International Conscientious Objection Day took place this week, on 15 May, and in the UK, a ceremony was held at the CO Commemorative Stone in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury. Tomorrow, a small event will be held in the Peace Garden in Birmingham. The UK has also recently seen the opening of a new memorial to COs, at The National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. Last month, the Quakers erected a new circular limestone structure there to commemorate, specifically, the Friends Ambulance Unit – a Quaker-run body open to all COs – and the Friends Relief Service, which aims to relieve civilian distress in Britain.’


Burning Poppy Photo: Man Questioned By Police ~ Sky News

Burning Poppy Photo: Man Questioned By PoliceA man has been questioned by police after an image of a burning poppy was posted on Facebook on Remembrance Sunday.

Kent Police said the 19-year-old, from Canterbury, was detained on Sunday night on suspicion of making malicious telecommunications.

The force said in a statement: “A man (was) interviewed by police this morning following reports that a picture of a burning poppy had been posted on a social media website.

“Officers were contacted at around 4pm yesterday and alerted to the picture, which was reportedly accompanied by an offensive comment.”

The man was later released pending further inquiries.

His detention was met with disbelief on Twitter, where people mounted a fierce discussion over civil liberties.

Tom Williams, tweeting as @tomwilliamsisme, wrote: “The scary thing is, the man wasn’t arrested for burning a poppy – that’s not illegal. He was arrested for putting it online.”

Jamie’s Pants, under @thisisrjg, tweeted: “We do not have a right to not be offended. We certainly don’t have a right to lock up someone for offending some people”,

And Thom Lumley, tweeting as @Hotstepperrr, wrote: “Dear idiots at Kent Police, burning a poppy may be obnoxious, but it is not a criminal offence.”

David Allen Green, a journalist and lawyer for the New Statesman, tweeting as Jack of Kent, wrote: “What was the point of winning either World War if, in 2012, someone can be casually arrested by Kent Police for burning a poppy?”

Australian musician and comedian Tim Minchin also expressed his incredulity, tweeting: “You’ve a right to burn a (fake!) poppy. Whether I agree with the action is utterly irrelevant. Kent Police are out of line.”

Meanwhile, a man who skateboarded alongside a Remembrance Sunday parade wearing a pink outfit and horned mask has been charged under the Public Order Act.

Jose Paulo Da Silveria, 38, is alleged to have skateboarded beside marching troops as they made their way past the cenotaph towards College Green in Bristol city centre.


Different Continent, Same Jingoism: Thoughts on Veterans Day By John Cory

Veterans Day — A national Hallmark Card for war inked with survivor’s guilt.
 We have numbered wars like SuperBowls (WWI and WWII), marked them by time (the Hundred Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War), masked them with a gentle oxymoron (the Civil War) and fogged their battles in terms of weather (Rolling Thunder and Desert Storm).
War is a lesson in geography like the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War and the Vietnam War or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War. Modern war is waged on an “ism” like Communism or Terrorism.
We never run out of names, terms or reasons for war. And there is always an anniversary for war or a battle or its start, a day of  red poppies and marketing to ensure romantic remembrance of death and destruction.
That is war after all – a marriage of violence and glory “until death do us part.”
War is a true never-ending story. And when the shooting stops, we file the body parts and memory fragments on a bookshelf for later reference when we write about war, searching for Kevlar words to protect the troops as we recon the thesaurus of emotions and memories for the building blocks that frame a new rationalization for more war.
And everyone wants a good war story to lead the six o’clock news or top the bestseller charts. It has to be heroic and noble, a tale of sacrifice for the greater good or better yet, a battle of reluctance turned into righteous annihilation of the enemy. It has to be a story about us versus the faceless and godless enemy that leads to triumph and victory, albeit a world-weary victory, thrust upon us. We didn’t want to destroy the village but we had to destroy the village in order to save the village. Like that ominous voice of movie previews, we utter the words: In a world of kill or be killed, there can be no doubt.
Of course we don’t tell real war stories. We write recruiting posters. We have perfected the perverted normalcy of war and made it a family affair
In the recent election cycle only 3 percent of voters listed war as a topic of concern when voting for a candidate.
The thing they never tell you, the lie of all lies, is that you can go to war and then come home.

Photograph links Germans to 1915 Armenia genocide ~ Robert Fisk

by Robert Fisk

The photograph – never published before – was apparently taken in the summer of 1915. Human skulls are scattered over the earth. They are all that remain of a handful of Armenians slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. Behind the skulls, posing for the camera, are three Turkish officers in tall, soft hats and a man, on the far right, who is dressed in Kurdish clothes. But the two other men are Germans, both dressed in the military flat caps, belts and tunics of the Kaiserreichsheer, the Imperial German Army. It is an atrocity snapshot – just like those pictures the Nazis took of their soldiers posing before Jewish Holocaust victims a quarter of a century later.

Did the Germans participate in the mass killing of Christian Armenians in 1915? This is not the first photograph of its kind; yet hitherto the Germans have been largely absolved of crimes against humanity during the first holocaust of the 20th century. German diplomats in Turkish provinces during the First World War recorded the forced deportations and mass killing of a million and a half Armenian civilians with both horror and denunciation of the Ottoman Turks, calling the Turkish militia-killers “scum”. German parliamentarians condemned the slaughter in the Reichstag.

Indeed, a German army medical officer, Armin Wegner, risked his life to take harrowing photographs of dying and dead Armenians during the genocide. In 1933, Wegner pleaded with Hitler on behalf of German Jews, asking what would become of Germany if he continued his persecution. He was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo and is today recognised at the Yad Vashem Jewish Holocaust memorial in Israel; some of his ashes are buried at the Armenian Genocide Museum in the capital, Yerevan.

It is this same Armenian institution and its energetic director, Hayk Demoyan, which discovered this latest photograph. It was found with other pictures of Turks standing beside skulls, the photographs attached to a long-lost survivor’s testimony. All appear to have been taken at a location identified as “Yerznka” – the town of Erzinjan, many of whose inhabitants were murdered on the road to Erzerum. Erzinjan was briefly captured by Russian General Nikolai Yudenich from the Turkish 3rd Army in June of 1916, and Armenians fighting on the Russian side were able to gather much photographic and documentary evidence of the genocide against their people the previous year. Russian newspapers – also archived at the Yerevan museum – printed graphic photographs of the killing fields. Then the Russians were forced to withdraw.

Wegner took many photographs at the end of the deportation trail in what is now northern Syria, where tens of thousands of Armenians died of cholera and dysentery in primitive concentration camps. However, the museum in Yerevan has recently uncovered more photos taken in Rakka and Ras al-Ayn, apparently in secret by Armenian survivors. One picture – captioned in Armenian, “A caravan of Armenian refugees at Ras al-Ayn” – shows tents and refugees. The photograph seems to have been shot from a balcony overlooking the camp.

Another, captioned in German “Armenian camp in Rakka”, may have been taken by one of Wegner’s military colleagues, showing a number of men and women among drab-looking tents. Alas, almost all those Armenians who survived the 1915 death marches to Ras al-Ayn and Rakka were executed the following year when the Turkish-Ottoman genocide caught up with them.

Some German consuls spoke out against Turkey. The Armenian-American historian Peter Balakian has described how a German Protestant petition to Berlin protested that “since the end of May, the deportation of the entire Armenian population from all the Anatolian Vilayets [governorates] and Cilicia in the Arabian steppes south of the Baghdad-Berlin railway had been ordered”. As the Deutsche Bank was funding the railway, its officials were appalled to see its rolling stock packed with Armenian male deportees and transported to places of execution. Furthermore, Professor Balakian and other historians have traced how some of the German witnesses to the Armenian holocaust played a role in the Nazi regime.

Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, for example, was attached to the Turkish 4th Army in 1915 with instructions to monitor “operations” against the Armenians; he later became Hitler’s foreign minister and “Protector of Bohemia and Moravia” during Reinhard Heydrich’s terror in Czechoslovakia. Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg was consul at Erzerum from 1915-16 and later Hitler’s ambassador to Moscow.

Rudolf Hoess was a German army captain in Turkey in 1916; from 1940-43, he was commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp and then deputy inspector of concentration camps at SS headquarters. He was convicted and hanged by the Poles at Auschwitz in 1947.

We may never know, however, the identity of the two officers standing so nonchalantly beside the skulls of Erzinjan.


The first world war: the real lessons of this savage imperial bloodbath ~ Seumas Milne

In the midst of deepening austerity, David Cameron is desperate to play the national card. Any one will do. He’s worked the Queen’s jubilee and the Olympics for all they’re worth. Now the prime minister wants a “truly national commemoration” of the first world war in the runup to 2014 that will “capture our national spirit … like the diamond jubilee”.

So £50m has been found to fund a four-year programme of events, visits to the trenches from every school and an ambitious redevelopment of the Imperial War Museum. Ministers have promised there will be no “jingoism”, but Cameron says he wants to remember those who “gave their lives for our freedom” and ensure that “the lessons learned live with us for ever”.

In case there were any doubt about what those lessons might be, the Times has declared that despite the war’s unhappy reputation, Britain’s cause was “essentially just”, a necessary response to aggression by a “xenophobic and anti-democratic” expansionist power (Germany) and that those who fought and died did so to uphold the “principle of the defence of small nations”.

It surely must be right to commemorate what was by any reckoning a human catastrophe: 16 million died, including almost a million Britons. It touched every family in the country (and many other countries besides), my own included. Both my grandmothers lost brothers in the four-year bloodletting: one in Passchendaele, the other in Gaza.

Seventy years after the event, one of them would still cry at the memory of the postman bringing the death notice in a brown War Office envelope to her home in Edinburgh. My grandfather was a field surgeon on the western front, who would break down as he showed us pictures he had taken of lost friends amid the devastation of Ypres and Loos, and remembered covering up for soldiers who had shot themselves in the legs, to save them from the firing squad.

But it does no service to the memory of the victims to prettify the horrific reality. The war was a vast depraved undertaking of unprecedented savagery, in which the ruling classes of Europe dispatched their people to a senseless slaughter in the struggle for imperial supremacy. As Lenin summed it up to the Romanian poet Valeriu Marcu in early 1917: “One slaveowner, Germany, is fighting another slaveowner, England, for a fairer distribution of the slaves”.

This wasn’t a war of self-defence, let alone liberation from tyranny. As the late Eric Hobsbawm sets out in his Age of Empire, it was the cataclysmic product of an escalating struggle for colonial possessions, markets, resources and industrial power between the dominant European empires, Britain and France, and the rising imperial power of Germany seeking its “place in the sun”. In that clash of empires, Europe devoured its children – and many of its captive peoples with them.

Set against that all-destroying machine of 20th century industrial warfare, the preposterous pretext of the rights of small nations and the violated neutrality of “plucky little Belgium” cannot seriously be regarded as the real driver of the war (as it was not by British and other politicians of the time).

All the main warring states were responsible for the brutal suppression of nations, large and small, throughout the racist despotisms that were their colonial empires. In the years leading up to the first world war an estimated 10 million Congolese died as a result of forced labour and mass murder under plucky Belgian rule; German colonialists carried out systematic genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples in today’s Namibia; and tens of millions died in enforced or avoidable famines in British-ruled India, while Britain’s colonial forces ran concentration camps in South Africa and meted out continual violent repression across the empire.

The idea that the war was some kind of crusade for democracy when most of Britain’s population – including many men – were still denied the vote, and democracy and dissent were savagely crushed among most of those Britain ruled, is laughable. And when the US president, Woodrow Wilson, championed the right to self-determination to win the peace, that would of course apply only to Europeans – not the colonial peoples their governments lorded it over.

As the bloodbath exhausted itself, it unleashed mutinies, workers’ revolts and revolutions, and the breakup of defeated empires, giving a powerful impetus to anti-colonial movements in the process. But the outcome also laid the ground for the rise of nazism and the even bloodier second world war, and led to a new imperial carve-up of the Middle East, whose consequences we are still living with today, including the Palestinian tragedy.

Unlike in 1940, Britain wasn’t threatened with invasion or occupation in 1914, and Europe’s people were menaced by the machinations of their masters, rather than an atavistic tyranny. Those who died didn’t give their lives “for freedom”; they were the victims of an empire that was a stain on humanity, the cynicism of politicians and the despicable folly of the generals. As Harry Patch, last British survivor of the trenches who died three years ago, put it, the first world war was “nothing better than legalised mass murder”.

Since the 1990s, direct conflict between great powers that reached its cataclysmic nadir in the world wars has been replaced by a modern version of the colonial wars that preceded and punctuated them: in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Unable to win public support for such campaigns, the government has tried to appropriate the sympathy for the troops who fight them as a substitute: demanding, for example, that poppies be worn as a “display of national pride” (or as Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, the now ex-British Legion president, described Remembrance Day, a “tremendous networking opportunity” for arms dealers).

If Cameron and his ministers try the same trick with the commemoration of the 1914-18 carnage, it will be a repulsive travesty. Among the war’s real lessons are that empire, in all its forms, always leads to bloodshed; that state violence is by far its most destructive form; that corporate carve-ups fuel conflict; and that militarism and national chauvinism are the road to perdition. Celebrate instead the internationalists, socialists and poets who called it right, and remember the suffering of the soldiers – rather than the cowards who sent them to die. Attempts to hijack the commemorations must be contested every step of the way.

Seumas Milne’s book, The Revenge of History: The Battle for the 21st Century, was published last week


Pyramid Of WWI German Helmets At Grand Central In 1918 ~ Gothamist


New York Central Railroad (via Smithsonian)

This remarkable photo, taken in 1918, shows employees of the New York Central Railroad at a celebration in Victory Way, showing off a pyramid of recovered German helmets in front of Grand Central Terminal. There are two cannons in the shot, one on either side; and there is a statue—possibly of Greek goddess of victory, Nike—on top of the pile. But seriously: that is a pretty crazy amount of helmets.

“Victory Way” was set up after World War I ended—captured German war equipment was displayed on Park Avenue just near Grand Central to help raise money for the 5th War Loan. Each end of Victory Way had a pyramid made up of 12,000 German helmets. The helmets were supposedly going to be given away to large contributors to the 5th War Loan. One can only imagine the reaction if such a display of war souvenirs was put up today.


Owner of Lusitania insists it was carrying explosives when it sank ~ Irish Independent

THE owner of the wreck of the Lusitania has rejected the findings of a €1.5m documentary into what caused the liner to sink so fast.

Greg Bemis told the Irish Independent he was now looking for permission from the Government to organise a second dive to the wreck — some 16km off the Old Head of Kinsale.

Mr Bemis was speaking in Cork, where he attended a special event to mark the worldwide launch of the National Geographic documentary ‘Dark Secrets of the Lusitania’ — the most ambitious underwater film project ever attempted here.

“I believe the truth is vital, we need to pursue the truth in all major historical events,” Mr Bemis said.

The Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo from the German submarine U-20 on May 7, 1915 off the Cork coast.

However, a second explosion was reported just minutes later, and the ship sank in less than 18 minutes.

A total of 1,198 people died. There were just 761 survivors.

The British and American authorities wrongly accused the U-boat of having fired a second torpedo at the stricken ship.

The second explosion was then blamed on coal dust in a bunker igniting, and the new TV documentary speculates that a boiler blew up when cold sea water rushed into the hull following the torpedo strike.

But Mr Bemis said he remained convinced that Allied munitions being carried by the liner was the real cause.

“They (National Geographic) used insufficient data when they made their decision,” he said.

“In fact, they did not have all the information they should have had — they used a computer analysis to get their theory and a computer is only as good as the garbage you put in. You put garbage in, you get garbage out,” he said.

Mr Bemis said a second dive with full access to the hull was now required before the Lusitania centenary.

“You have to understand there were two different types of munitions being carried — there were three million rounds of .303 (rifle) ammunition on the ship.

“But they would not have caused the second explosion. That was caused, in my opinion, by explosives stored in a magazine at the base of the ship. This was in the bow in a converted coal bunker.”