IT was supposed to end all wars but it didn't and now, after almost a century of military involvement in conflicts at home and abroad, Britain is preparing to remember the events of 1914-18.
The UK Government has earmarked £50 million for the 2014 centenary and here in Scotland, a panel of experts – including Sunday Herald diplomatic editor Trevor Royle – will help steer the proceedings.
So how should the First World War be commemorated? Certainly, the sacrifice of nearly a million British soldiers who were killed should be recalled. Scotland lost a higher proportion of its soldiers than other parts of the UK and it is right that war memorials are to be restored. The danger is that the media will glorify war and the defeat of Germany. Attention will concentrate on those who called for war, the generals who were in command, the government leaders who claimed to be the nation's heroes.
It's important that we don't lose sight of some of the less well-known figures of 1914-18 – those who agitated for peace, who opposed unnecessary slaughter and who used dissatisfaction with war as a means of attacking Britain's class inequalities.
One of the most famous was Labour Party co-founder Keir Hardie, a Scottish miner who became an MP in 1892 and spoke out against the Boer War. In the decade prior to 1914, he argued that Britain's increasing militarism, its readiness to defend its huge empire against powers like Germany, and a growing arms industry, would lead to war. He was not taken seriously.
Once war came in 1914, he was its foremost critic. Though not a complete pacifist (he felt Britain should defend itself if invaded), he was against invasions of other countries which would escalate into world war. He argued that the reason for war given by politicians – to rescue plucky Belgium – was false and that they were looking for political advancement, economic gain and the undermining of Britain's growing industrial and imperial rival, Germany. Not least, he proclaimed that the war was against socialist and Christian principles.
By then, Britain was in the grip of war hysteria and Hardie was shouted down in the Commons. Most Labour MPs, despite their previous calls for workers to refuse to fight their German comrades, now supported war. Labour's famous leader became a hate figure in the press. Life-long Labour friends avoided him. He was taunted and pursued through the streets in his South Wales constituency, and in his home town of Cumnock his family were subjected to abuse.
Hardie was devastated by the deaths of so many young, working-class Scots in the trenches, and in his final days he was racked by emotional torment. "I understand what Christ suffered in Gethsemane as well as any man living," he wrote. His health rapidly declined and he died in 1915. No Conservative or Liberal MPs attended his funeral.
Hardie's fate was a warning to any men who would refuse to fight. Conscientious objectors would be insulted, hated, rejected. They were called Hun-lovers and traitors, and abandoned by girlfriends who did not want to be associated with cowards. Bricks were thrown through their windows and some were physically attacked. In fact, it took great bravery to keep their principles, to argue against war on humane, socialistic or religious grounds. Yet at least 16,000 did so.
Many of them ended up in prison for doing so. Emrys Hughes was a teacher in Hardie's South Wales constituency. When summoned to the army, he declined to attend, was arrested and stated his beliefs before a tribunal. His case was rejected and he was dragged to an army barracks where, after refusing to put on a uniform, he was court-martialled and sentenced to two years' hard labour in a detention camp where he was placed in solitary confinement, poorly fed and physically abused. After two years he was tried again and received another two years. Ill and losing weight, he owed much to two women. His sister, Aggie, and Hardie's daughter, Nan, lobbied for improvements and eventually he was allowed visits and books. Towards the end of the war, he was offered an early release if he would undertake medical work on behalf of the forces. Refusing to back down, he was not released until 1919.
Hughes later married Nan and they lived together in Hardie's former Cumnock home. A Labour MP for 20 years, Hughes remained a vocal opponent of war and a leading figure in CND until his death in 1969.
Opposition to the war was probably strongest in Glasgow, where support for the Independent Labour Party was high. Nonetheless, opponents were legally pursued. James Maxton, also a teacher, was taken before a tribunal, where he refused the chance of serving in the army medical service. Before a decision was made at the tribunal, he was arrested for supporting strikes at arms factories. With James MacDougall, he was tried in Edinburgh where the judge, sentencing them to a year's imprisonment, commented on "the dastardliness and cowardice of the offence".
In prison, they endured primitive sanitation, inadequate meals, and mostly solitary confinement where they sewed mail bags. MacDougall collapsed with a mental breakdown and Maxton's subsequent ill-health probably stemmed from his treatment. He survived to become a prominent and radical MP. Interestingly, his biographer, former prime minister Gordon Brown, praised his anti-war activities, although Brown was to become a supporter of the New Labour war in Iraq. Of course, the study was published in 1986, before Brown abandoned his own socialism.
Even among those who agreed to fight, there were some who recoiled from the war after traumatic experiences? on the front lines. Siegfried Sassoon was a hero who, armed with hand grenades, single-handedly captured a German trench. Later, he threw his Military Cross in to the Mersey and refused further military duties. Private soldiers would have been court-martialled and executed for such conduct but Sassoon, a well-connected officer, was declared mentally ill.
Sassoon's poems graphically portray the horrors of war, as did the work of his friend, Robert Graves. Prime Minister David Cameron has described Robert Graves's memoir, Goodbye To All That, as his favourite book. I wonder if he got past the stirring descriptions of battles to the author's disillusionment and revelations that British troops savagely murdered German prisoners of war.
The First World War contained many heroes, some of whom fought and some who refused. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a priest working in a deprived parish in Worcester where he devoted himself to the poor. When war was declared, he told male parishioners that they had a duty to fight. He enlisted as a chaplain and, on the Western Front, became known for handing out cigarettes as well as spiritual help, to the troops – a trait that earned him the nickname Woodbine Willie.
Kennedy was an outstanding chaplain at a time when many soldiers found religion irrelevant to the slaughter they saw around them. He went over the top with them, comforted the dying, dragged in the wounded and buried the dead. Although his severe asthma was exacerbated by gas, he refused the option of returning to Britain.
During one battle in 1917, Kennedy found himself trapped in a small concrete shelter along with a doctor and around 20 wounded soldiers. When the morphine ran out, the suffering was immense: one teenage lad was screaming in pain.
Kennedy volunteered to go through the bombardment to get more supplies, dodging shells and bullets by ducking into shell-holes. He would later recall that, as he sat waiting for a break in the gunfire: "I thought ... if I get through and bring the morphia back, it will be like bringing heaven to him [the young soldier]. This is the only heaven he wants just now, dead-drunk sleep. If I bring it back I will be to him a saviour from hell - Heaven is a morphia pill."
His efforts would gain him the Military Cross – along with recognition by the army authorities that this hero chaplain was just the man to raise morale. He then went from camp to camp and, with passion linked with humour, he told thousands of troops that God was on the side of Britain, that victory was assured and that they were fighting so that their children would never face another war.
Yet once the war was over, he spent the rest of his life condemning it, advocating peace and campaigning for social justice. What caused the change? First, the continual massacres. He witnessed hundreds of men mown down just to gain a few yards which might be lost the next day. The battles he had initially regarded as approved by God, he came to see as needless and evil. Second, his increasing closeness to and respect for the views of ordinary soldiers.
"The divine right of kings is an idea as foreign to the British soldiers' mind as the infallibility of the Pope," he wrote. On the point of losing his faith, he found it restored by the loyalty, self-sacrifice and fellowship of working-class troops. "I know nothing in religion of the Almighty God of power," he said. "I only see God in Christ, and these men have shown me – Him."
Woodbine Willie spoke about the other sides of war: the effects on the families left at home; the young women whose lovers never returned and who never married; the mothers whose only sons were buried they knew not where; the wives who faced poverty following the death or disablement of their wage-earning husbands. He understood that the curse of war spread beyond battlefields.
He also wrote compassionately about the extensive use of prostitution by all ranks. So many became sexually diseased, he argued, that it led to "a continual daily, weekly, drain of men from the fighting strength" and meanwhile, many French women were left without money to raise the resultant babies.
Woodbine Willie was one of the few to criticise the upper-class, senior officers with "their idiotic pomp and pageantry of militarism which provide the glamour and romance for the mean and dirty shambles that are the battlefields". On the other hand, he never ceased to praise the courage and loyalty of the troops.
HE spread his social gospel partly through poetry. Although his simple rhymes – often in working-class dialect – aren't included in the numerous war poetry anthologies, he out-sold officer poets who are now household names. He also wrote books which explained Christianity and politics in words understood by ordinary people. He made a fortune from the royalties – and gave it all away.
As a preacher, he attracted enormous crowds. In 1920, he preached about the peace settlement to a large congregation of soldiers and, as a reporter put it, "predicted that the forcing upon Germans of heavy financial elements and restrictions on their right to future re-armament would lead to further conflict". A year later, he addressed a packed Strand Theatre in London, where the crowd "sat as if hypnotised, moved often to tears, held prisoner by the eloquence of the man whose soul was on fire".
After the war, he erected a memorial outside his church on which was written: "To the memory of the men who gave their lives for us." They remembered him, and at his funeral in 1929, former soldiers lined the streets in their hundreds and threw Woodbines into his grave.
Have we forgotten the role played by Keir Hardie, Emrys Hughes, James Maxton, Woodbine Willie and the thousands of others who opposed the war? The Westminster Government's centenary plans include celebration of four main battles which contributed to the allied victory. Exhibitions will be displayed at army, navy and RAF museums. David Cameron says he wants the events "to capture our national spirit" and to be "like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations".
No doubt Prince Harry will be hailed as a modern hero with his enjoyment of killing the enemy with his long-range fire from a helicopter. Leading politicians may also see the glorification of British victories as justification for the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan and as a green light for future armed intervention in Mali and north Africa.
As someone who has studied the First World War, who endured the horrors of the Blitz in the Second World War and later did national service, I argue that a balanced celebration should prevail. In Scotland, the historian Hew Strachan has said: "If the centenary does not generate new ways of looking at the war, we shall have failed not only ourselves, but those for whose education we are responsible."
Let's hope we don't neglect to remind youngsters of the lessons to be learned from those who opposed war on moral grounds, who saw that war leads to more war, who fought bravely but came to understand the evils of war, who emerged from war determined to build a more equal society.
The centenary commemoration will be close to the referendum on Scottish independence.
Alex Salmond has indicated that an independent Scotland governed by the SNP would promote peace rather than war and that a constitution would outlaw nuclear weapons and require democratic approval for military action.
Each political party should state its attitude and policy towards the possession of nuclear weapons, trade in weapons and armed intervention in other countries.
And not only in Scotland. A century after 1914, it is time for all parties in Britain to put their peace programmes on the table.
Bob Holman’s book, Woodbine Willie: The Unsung Hero Of World War One, is published on March 23 by Lion Hudson
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