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The Militant Mystery of World War I

Boys like me like to blow up things.   I was trained to place Composition B plastic explosive in bridge struts and watch them  explode sky high in the Texas sun.  It’s fun.   Blam!  That’s why there is no such thing as an “antiwar” movie if it shows us cannons shooting and guns blasting.  ANY violence is a recruiting poster for the beast inside us.

We’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the coming months that “celebrate” the 100th anniversary of the August 19l4 opening barrage of World War One.

Already there’s a flood of books, articles and TV specials focused on muddy trenches, corpses hanging on barbed wire, German Maschinengewehr spitting at a firing rate of up to 400 7.92mm rounds per minute at French, British, Canadian, Italian, Australian, colonial (Senegalese and Vietnamese) soldiers dying in insane assaults designed by generals most of whom slept soundly in their beds during battle.

While strolling or marching down London’s Whitehall I always had this terrible temptation to take some of that Composition B and place a sticky bomb under the arrogant horseback statue of Butcher Haig, the Great War commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France whose class-based stupidity was responsible for the two million casualties under his command 19l5-18.  This isn’t simpleminded officer-prejudice since so many junior officers were slaughtered in abbatoirs like Haig’s Somme and Ypres.

I emigrated to England in time to talk to still-living Great War survivors.  Hitchhiking one day this older gentleman picked me up in his three wheeler  just outside Eastwood, Notts, birthplace of D.H. Lawrence.  He chatted about his 45th Foot-Sherwood Foresters regiment in 1916.  “Oh aye, hardly anyone from my lot got back.  I was gassed.  The mustard.  After, went back down to (coal) pit.  Imagine, with my lungs.  You know, they killed us all, even ones like me made it out felt dead.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.  My wife knew.  Daft kid I was.  For a long time, I couldn’t stop shitting myself like I did before a Heinie attack.  Not a bit ashamed to say it.  It’s what I remember most.  The bloody embarrassment.”

Triggered by a young Serbian’s assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Ferdinant and his wife at Sarajevo, it began as a minor family quarrel among cousins: King George V, his lookalike Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas 2d, all from Queen Victoria’s brood.

There was nothing at stake in this war except prestige and more African colonies.

Nobody wanted it except the decision makers and their generals and admirals.  But oh boy did they love the prospect.  As British admiral Jackie Fischer wrote of the atmosphere in his navy, “We prepared for war…talked war, thought war, and hoped for war.”

The French and German brass and their poodle politicians couldn’t wait for a short sharp war – like 19th century wars – that would result in quick medals for the boys and a glory parade – not to speak of  profits to the “merchants of death”, the munitions makers like Krupp , Vickers Armstrong, Winchester, Browning and  Remington, Westinghouse and DuPont.   The generals had not reckoned on advances in weaponry like the tank, mustard gas, barbed wire and aeroplane.

Before shooting began there were energetic antiwar movements in France and especially Germany.   Marxists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists were influential all over Europe, causing strikes and talking class struggle.  The socialist Second International was a sort of think tank for antiwar resistance.  Meetings were held, resolutions passed, members swore to heaven they would never raise a hand or bayonet against their fellow working classes of another country.

In July 1914 the Social Democrats, Germany’s strongest party polling the most votes, called for militant street demonstrations against impending war.  A few days later it voted “war credits” to the Kaiser opening the way for 37 million people to be killed in four years of slugmatch trench warfare…and creating chaos exploitable for a future Hitler and Stalin.  (Lenin thought the coming war a fine idea because, as he correctly predicted, it would cause revolution in Russia.)

General Haig was the military moron who caused the needless deaths of his men by frontal assault in the face of withering machinegun fire.   But who today remembers the names of the German  and French socialists who were pacifists on Sunday and warmongers Monday and as responsible for the catastrophe as any blundering  field marshal?

A wave of militarism engineered and propagandized from the chancelleries swept Europe.  It took extraordinary guts to stand out against the patriotic orgasm.  Civilians who had no grudge against their fellows across the border suddenly jumped to join the colors and murder their brother workers.  The “war against war”, except for a few lonely souls like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – both assassinated for their protest – was forgotten in a popular blood lust of we-versus-them.  British women formed a White Feather League to shame men into fighting (“British Women Say – GO!”), and many once-radical Pankhurst suffragettes bought into the war in exchange for the promise of getting the vote.

Lessons for today?  I just hope that the Democratic presidential front runner, the war hawk Hillary Clinton, who wanted to intervene in Syria and advocated U.S. bombing of Libya and was terribly keen on Afghanistan, has read her Barbara Tuchman and better yet a good biography of Rosa Luxemburg.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives

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Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

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