World War I, fiction and reality


This video is called Trench warfare at its worst – Battle of Somme 1916.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

Untold stories of the war

Jeremy Paxman, Michael Morpurgo, Pat Barker and other writers tell some of the surprising and heart-rending stories still emerging from the conflict

Saturday 26 July 2014

Jeremy Paxman

For much of the first world war the official Royal Navy fleet included a battleship that was quietly rusting at the bottom of the sea.

In 1914, the British navy was the greatest seagoing force in the world. HMS Audacious joined the fleet the previous year, a new, state-of-the-art battleship with 10 13½in guns, 16 smaller guns and a crew of 900.

On 27 October 1914, the Audacious emerged from the fleet’s deep-water anchorage in Lough Swilly for gunnery drills off the coast of Donegal. Just before 9am the crew heard a low thud. A sublieutenant Spragge, who was having a bath at the time, thought it was the signal to start firing. It was not: the ship had struck a mine – almost certainly laid by a German passenger liner that had just passed through the area – and the British battleship had been holed. The captain attempted to take Audacious back into Lough Swilly, hoping to beach the ship for repairs. But, with the engine room flooded, it soon became unmanoeuvrable. As the great battleship settled further and further into the water the crew began to be evacuated to other ships.

One British warship after another attempted to give the Audacious a tow. All failed. At this point the luxurious liner the Olympic (a sister ship of the Titanic) appeared on the scene, nearing the end of a crossing from New York to Britain. The liner evacuated the remainder of the crew and attached a line to the Audacious. This rope broke and it was clear that the pride of the Royal Navy would have to be abandoned. At about 9pm, survivors on the Olympic heard a tremendous explosion aboard the Audacious and she sank beneath the waves. The wealthy passengers on the Olympic gave the rescued sailors their spare clothes. They later disembarked in dancing slippers, evening waistcoats and top hats.

At the highest levels of government the decision was taken that the public were not to be told about the catastrophe. The Olympic was detained and its radio silenced. One of its richest passengers, the American steel magnate Charles Schwab, who was on his way to London to try to secure a lucrative munitions contract, was allowed off the ship, having given a strict promise of silence. British passengers disembarking later in Belfast blithely told reporters they’d had “a marvellous passage”.

To maintain the lie, the Admiralty redistributed the crew of the Audacious around other vessels in the navy, while the battleship remained on the official complement of the Royal Navy throughout the war. It was only on 14 November 1918 that the government admitted that their prize battleship had spent almost all the war on the seabed.

• Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War is published by Viking. …

Sebastian Faulks

A hundred years ago, the Great War destroyed Europe’s claim to be the most civilised continent in the world and seemed to make a mockery of terms such as “the Renaissance” and “the Enlightenment“. Three empires were lost. Our grandfathers killed 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians; they introduced the idea of genocide as a political solution – and 20th-century Europe proved eager to embrace it. It did not feel like that to the soldiers at the time. They responded in a traditional way – by forming close bonds with those next to them. It was dangerous to make a best friend because you might need a new one tomorrow. But that didn’t stop them.

Jack Dorgan, a sergeant in the 7th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers had a German shell drop in among him and his friends during the attack in St Julien on 26 April 1915. In the aftermath, he discovered bodies lying a few yards from the shell-hole. “All I could see when I got up to them was their thigh bones,” he recalls on a recording in the archive of the Imperial War Museum. “I will always remember their white thigh bones, the rest of their legs were gone.”

One of those wounded, a Private Bob Young, was conscious right to the end. Jack Dorgan lay down beside Young and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Dorgan recalled: “He said: ‘Straighten my legs, Jack’, but he had no legs. I touched the bones and that satisfied him. Then he said, ‘Get my wife’s photograph out of my breast pocket.’ I took the photograph out and put it in his hands. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t lift a hand, he couldn’t lift a finger, but somehow he held his wife’s photograph on his chest. And that’s how Bob Young died.”

There were millions of Bob Youngs. It has fallen to later generations to try to interpret the disaster that befell – then shaped – our world.

• Sebastian Faulks is the co-editor with Hope Wolf of A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War (Hutchinson). …

Richard J Evans

On 5 January 1919, almost two months after the end of the war, a curious ceremony took place in a small colonial settlement on the eastern coast of New Guinea. A column of about 20 native soldiers emerged from the jungle, headed by a German officer in the full-dress uniform of the Prussian army, and made its way over to a waiting detachment of Australian troops to surrender in what must have been the final act of the first world war.

The officer was Captain Hermann Detzner, an engineer and surveyor, and he had an extraordinary tale to tell. When the war broke out in August 1914 he had been mapping the border between the British protectorate of Papua, occupying the south-eastern quarter of the island, and the German colony of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, occupying the north-eastern quarter. The German part of the island formed part of the kaiser’s possessions in the Pacific, gained during the colonial scrambles of the late 19th century. At the beginning of the war Germany’s Pacific territories were overrun by Australian and Japanese forces – Japan was an ally of Britain during the war – and their governors and commanders surrendered virtually without a shot being fired.

Not so Detzner. Receiving an order from invading Australian forces to surrender on 11 November 1914, he decided to keep the German flag flying and marched away from the border eastwards on to the Huon peninsula. Here, according to Detzner’s memoir Four Years Among the Cannibals, published after the war, they made a German flag from dyed loincloths and marched through the jungle singing patriotic German songs such as “The Watch on the Rhine” to keep their spirits up. By this time the Australian troops on the island were under orders to shoot him on sight. His second-in-command was captured, and Detzner himself, a small, wiry man, fell ill, weighing only 40 kilos when he surrendered. Nevertheless, his memoirs became a bestseller in Germany, calling to mind the lost days of Germany’s overseas empire and its achievements, which Detzner claimed in his case included the discovery of many new species of flora and fauna previously unknown to science.

Unfortunately, however, his claims were eventually revealed to be false. According to the Australian forces on the island, he had not roamed the jungle at all: he had been staying all the time in a German Lutheran missionary compound, retreating to the hills only when they drew near. He was a civilian, not a soldier, and he undertook no military action during the entire war. His scientific claims were discredited by other German explorers, who pointed out that they were frequently plagiarised from their own work, or, where this was not the case, pure invention. In 1933 he was forced to issue a retraction and apology, and he retired into private life, dying in 1970 at the age of 88. His tale is a reminder of the fact that the Great War was fought not just in the mud of Flanders but in many locations all across the globe.

• Richard J Evans’s Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History is published by Little, Brown. …

Douglas Newton

When many people think of Britain’s decision to go to war in 1914, fatalism descends. They mutter that there was no alternative. They imagine that Britain did all it could to avert heading to conflict. It was a response to German aggression against Belgium; Britain stood up for democracy.

This tale scarcely matches the evidence. Britain’s war-makers forced the pace, “jockeyed” the Cabinet, blindsided parliament, and rushed to a premature decision – before Belgium’s invasion.

First, Britain’s decision-makers frogmarched events. They did very little to restrain Russia or France. Britain itself was provocative; on 28 July, the fleet was ordered to “War Stations”, before news of a Balkan war. The following day its “Warning Telegram” was sent across the empire, two days before the comparable German proclamation.

Second, the interventionist minority in Asquith’s Cabinet “jockeyed” the neutralist majority. The naval moves, the shunning of all negotiations on neutrality, the army mobilisation, and the calling out of the Naval Reserve, were all decisions taken by the Asquith clique – between meetings of the Cabinet.

Third, cheerleaders for war were active in London. Influential men, in government and the press, linked with the French and Russian embassies, campaigned for Britain’s instant intervention – for the sake of Russia and France, irrespective of Belgium.

Fourth, democracy was sidestepped. Parliament learned almost nothing of British policy until Monday 3 August. The leaders fostered the impression that any war for Britain would be naval only. Asquith sought to squash all parliamentary debate. On 6 August, the government gave MPs the famous “White Paper”, amending various diplomatic cables to hide Russia’s pressure for war. Effectively “bounced”, the parliament backed war.

Finally, Britain’s choice for war was made on Sunday 2 August, when Cabinet authorised Grey to pledge naval assistance to France – before the Belgian disaster. This pledge almost wrecked the Cabinet. So appalled were neutralist ministers at their own government’s haste that four resigned. Nowhere else did this happen in Europe.

The demand for neutrality was never a demand that Britain should simply walk away if Germany invaded Belgium. It was a demand for a credible active neutral diplomacy during the crisis. That might have averted war.

• Douglas Newton’s The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 is published by Verso.

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4 thoughts on “World War I, fiction and reality

  1. What a fascinating compendium of untold stories. Thank you. We need to keep re-telling and re-telling them, for those who insist on not understanding the importance of a united Europe.

  2. 100 years ago: French socialist leader Jean Jaurès assassinated in Paris
    Jean Jaures

    On July 31, 1914, the socialist leader in the French Chamber of Deputies, Jean Jaurès, was shot and killed in a Paris cafe by a 29-year-old nationalist and student of archeology. Raoul Villain, the assassin, claimed to have shot Jaurès because of the socialist leader’s opposition to compulsory military service. The murder occurred under conditions in which the major bourgeois parties were promoting a climate of feverish jingoism and militarism on the eve of the First World War.

    Fifty-five years old at the time of his death, Jaurès had been elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1885 on a Republican ticket. Of middle-class origins, and a professor of philosophy early in his career, he was among a layer of academics and professionals who turned to the French social-democratic movement in the 1890s.

    Jaurès played a prominent role in the establishment of the French Socialist Party in 1902. The party was based on a program of class collaboration, and called for alliances with “progressive” sections of the bourgeoisie. The implications of this program had been demonstrated in 1899, when Alexandre Millerand, a political collaborator of Jaurès, entered the cabinet of Waldeck-Rousseau, the first time a politician claiming to be socialist had entered into a capitalist government. While the party would unify with the socialist tendency led by the revolutionary-minded Jules Guesde in 1905, as a section of the Second International, Jaurès continued to promote a national-reformist perspective.

    Jaurès’ response to the growth of militarism and the impending world war was to call for strikes by the working class, aimed at pressuring the capitalist elites not to risk the threat of a global conflagration, while he sought to exert personal influence on bourgeois politicians. His promotion of French nationalism and reformism had not prepared the working class for the calamities that it confronted in the ensuing decades.

    Leon Trotsky, the famous Russian revolutionary paid tribute to Jaurès’ commitment to progress, and the working class, along with his oratory, and noted that his politics had reflected the contradictions of the Second International prior to the outbreak of war. In an article published in 1909, Trotsky had explained that “among his gifts Jaurès lacks one: the ability to wait…He wants immediately to switch over to the jangling coinage of practical success, to the great traditions and the great opportunities. From there he falls so often into insoluble contradictions ‘in shallows and in miseries’ of the Third Republic…”

    http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/07/28/twih-j28.html#75

  3. Pingback: Ireland, World War I, and capitalism and democracy today | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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