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How Successful was the First World War from a British point of view?

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Have teachers misled children using First World War poetry?

Wilfred Owen said that “the true poet must be truthful.” Yet his truth is called into question by some modern historians,  for example, Lynn McDonald and Dan Todman. They suggest that generations of young people have formed their opinions about the First World War based on selective information provided by the war poets and this information has misled and distorted their view of the war.


Really this is unfair comment. The war poets were almost all writing about their personal experiences and they were certainly not aiming to give a comprehensive historical overview of the war.  Perhaps history teaching in British schools is at fault if it has given too much status to the famous poems of the war. (In fact there were poems that expressed other views but these are rarely seen in anthologies. An exception to this is my anthology, Minds at War which presents a variety of views.)  

Historians maintain that there were positive aspects of the war which are not recognised by modern readers. Also, that the response of the war poets that are best known to us today was not typical of the feelings and experience of the majority of the British  people.


Where does the truth lie? What’s wrong with the popular view?

Did the people of 1918 view the end of the First World War as a success? What did they think, and how did they make their judgement?

As we look back at the First World War we tend to think of it as a disaster, a monstrous failure, with generals mindlessly throwing away the lives of tens of thousands of men in futile attacks which achieved nothing or less than nothing.

Siegfried Sassoon’s  poem, The General, is a succinct summary of this point of view.


Good morning, good morning! The General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of them dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged  up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.


Siegfried Sassoon

Popular conceptions

Two ideas in this poem also come through in the most studied war poems of the First World War. 

1. The incompetence of Generals.

2. The idea that most of the soldiers who fought were killed.

Not only poets promoted this point of view

David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, in his War Memoirs was scathing about the conduct of his generals and in particular  Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

Writing about the Battle of the Somme he said, “The volunteers of 1914 and 1915 …. 500,000 of these men …  were thrown away on a stubborn and unintelligent hammering away at what was then an impenetrable barrier.” The Battle of the Somme ran from 1st July till 18th November 1916.

But the British people in 1918 did not see the First World War as a disaster conducted by incompetent generals. On November 11th 1918 the principal initial reaction to victory was jubilation.

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and the man given the credit for the achievement of victory was not Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, but Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.  He was feted in the press as the conquering hero.

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Soon Haig was made an Earl, and such was the high regard of the newspapers and the mass of the public for him that Parliament voted a gift to him from the public purse of £100,000.

The Government wanted to celebrate with a victory parade
The government  mood was all for celebration. It planned a victory parade which took place on July 19th 1919 15,000 able bodied servicemen marched down Whitehall. At the new hastily constructed temporary cenotaph soldiers saluted it as a mark of respect for the dead.

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Celebrating in ignorance

Celebrating military achievement is easiest when you don't know the scale of the suffering and losses.

Today we can have a fairly accurate idea of the scale of casualties in the First World War, but the people of 1918 had no such information. Censorship and press lies combined to keep the British people in childlike ignorance of the unfolding horror.

British people were propaganda victims

How were the people of 1918 mis-informed about the First World War? They probably believed they were reading trustworthy newspapers.

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Today, a publicity leaflet for The Times claims 233 years of quality journalism. And that it is Britain's most trusted newspaper.

As an example of how the misinformation system worked let’s look at The Times’ report on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This was the worst day in British military history. 20,000 men were killed and a further 40,000 were injured.

The Times on the Battle of the Somme

The Times headline FIRST DAYS RESULTS.

The report read,

“It is now possible to get something like an accurate picture of the results of the first days fighting in the battle which is now raging here; and the essential fact that stands out is that on the main part of the offensive both we and the French won complete success.”

There's quite a bit more describing the complete success of the day.

So people back home in Britain could feel pretty pleased with the progress of the war - even on the worst day in British military history.

Popular press teamed up with politicians

So the popular press powerfully influenced, even molded, public opinion and the influence of the press came about because the owners were friends with, and worked closely with, politicians.

Press encouraged hatred

It was the popular papers that helped to stir up hatred of Germany before, during, and after the First World War when they fostered a spirit of revenge in Britain.

The poet, Siegfried Sassoon, had come across the spirit of revenge on the 6th of November 1918 when he went to see Winston Churchill in untypical mood. He wrote in his diary that day, “saw Winston Churchill for a few minutes at the ministry. Full of Victory talk . . .   one feels that England is going to increase in power enormously. They mean to skin Germany alive. ‘A peace to end peace!’ “

The very harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty which concluded the First World War were predicted by Lloyd George to cause immense anger in Germany and be the cause of another war.

No press monopoly on knowledge about the war

The press did not hold a monopoly on the sources of information. Although the people of Britain could not know the casualty statistics of the war, huge numbers knew of their personal losses and those of friends and neighbours. Their mood was not for celebrating the peace.

On the day of the victory parade no sooner had the troops passed the Cenotaph than members of the public rushed forward with flowers and  wreaths to place at the foot of the temporary memorial.

The following year, when the new Cenotaph, now constructed of Portland stone, was in place, so many people came to lay wreaths that the whole of Whitehall was blocked and remained closed to traffic for five days.

The Balance Sheet -  celebration versus distress and anger

So, in simple terms the mass of the population at the end of the First World War was celebrating victory OR wracked with grief and distress at the loss of loved ones and the crippling of others.

How should we view The Peace of 1918?

Should we celebrate our victory and the peace that was achieved?

November 1918 found Europe reeling from the greatest self-inflicted catastrophe ever experienced by mankind up to that time.

The total war dead for the  First World War is now estimated to be around 15 million people. Ten million combattants and about 5 million civilians.

UK Deaths

British losses were 740,000 men killed.

But it is not true that most British men who went to fight were killed. Whilst  some front line regiments were practically wiped out, in the British army as a whole nearly 90% of the British soldiers who fought came home alive.

“Being alive” is a relative term. Vast numbers, nearly half of British combattants (2.4 million) were seriously disabled by the war.

Trauma, grief, and the loss of “breadwinners” and the creation of hundreds of thousands of disabled dependents brought distress and poverty to hundreds of thousands of homes across the country  - distress which was to last for many years.

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Wilfred Owen's poem Mental Cases, his poem Disability and Sassoon’s poem, Does it matter?  Does it matter, losing your legs? give just a small insight into the nature of the suffering, though not the scale of it.

In Germany and Austria/Hungary the British blockade had led to immense suffering with hundreds of thousands of people dying of starvation in the last half of the war and in the following year. The British blockade of German ports, which prevented food getting into Germany, was maintained into 1919 in spite of the war having ended.

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This photograph was taken in Vienna shortly after the end of the war.


People responded in so many different ways to the war’s end and some of these were represented in poetry. My anthology, Minds at War, contains 250 poems of the war. Thirty three of these express a wide variety of responses to the end of the war.

Can any aspects of the war be counted a success?

To judge the success of a war we must know the British aims in entering this war.  What were the British government and the British people trying to achieve? What were the reasons given for war?

  1. To save Britain from a German invasion.

  2. to save poor little Belgium from the German invasion and expel the invader.

  3. To save France from German occupation and honour our agreement to support them if attacked

  4. To save Europe from German domination

  5. To prove that might is not right.

  6. To smash militarism forever   - a war to end war.

  7. To fight a war for civilised values.

  8. To set back Germany's growing strength in international trade

  9. To preserve or expand the British Empire.

  10. To secure the Suez Canal

  11. To take control of Palestine

  12. To secure the oil fields of Iraq (then known as Mesopotamia)

Not all these aims were declared at the start of the war, but very early on in the war troops were dispatched to places which were nothing to do with the defence of Belgium, France  or Britain. 1.5 million Indians fought and many of these fought to win Iraq for Britain.

Let’s examine just a few of these.

1  A land invasion by Germany  was prevented. People in Britain had truly feared a German invasion so for British people this may have been the most significant success. There was immense relief. It was something that irresistibly had to be celebrated.

But did the Germans ever plan such an invasion? Probably not.

2. From the British point of view the immediate stimulus for going to war in 1914 was Germany's  occupation of Belgium. There was huge sympathy for the plight of the Belgian people.Manyin Britain would no doubt have noted that the German army was very close to the English coast.

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Save poor little Belgium had been the cry in 1914.

Was Belgium saved?

Although German troops were expelled at the end of  the war Belgium suffered horrendously.

Within weeks of marching into this neutral country the German army carried out savage reprisals against civilians who had attempted to harass the German forces by tearing up railway lines. Scores of civilians including children, teenagers and old people had been rounded up for being in the vicinity of the sabotage and killed by firing squads. For example, on the 23rd of August 1914 in the town of Dinant  612 men, women and children were executed.

Villages, including churches, were totally destroyed.

700,000 Belgian men had been deported to Germany as slave labourers.

Famine had broken out.  The birth rate fell by 75%.

The university city of Louvain had been set on fire.

Art treasures had been looted and shipped to Germany. 

Machinery from factories was taken to Germany and what could not be moved had been destroyed. Blast furnaces had been blown up. Coal mines had been flooded.

In the Imperial War Museum today you can see a film, taken from an aircraft flying over the  villages and towns in Belgium and Northern France, showing them in ruins.

Scenes like this.

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Towns like Ypres had been blasted to rubble.

Vast areas of farmlands were ruined by trenches and shells.

The "saving Belgium" tragedy

British action did not save Belgium. British action did not establish humanitarian principles. It played a part in a prolonged catastrophic humanitarian disaster.

Saving France

Yes,  undoubtedly the French felt huge relief at the end of the war.

France was saved from conquest by Germany, and a major gain for the French was the return of their provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

But the French paid a terrible price  - worse than the suffering of Belgium, and with far greater human losses than Britain.

Unlike Britain the French also had to cope with vast areas of devastation. Through Belgium and France the 250 mile Western Front saw almost 1,700 towns and villages destroyed.

Preventing the German domination of Europe

That aim was achieved in 1919 but it was to be contested again 20 years later so it was a staving off, rather than a saving. And some would argue that Germany's dominant role in The European Union means that by peaceful means Germany has achieved what it twice failed to achieve by war.

A war for civilised values

This is an important claim because it is a claim often made in support of contemporary wars. Nowadays it is expressed as humanitarian intervention.

On the 7th of August 1914,  Herbert Asquith the Prime Minister, said in Parliament that the war was “in defence of principles, the maintenance of which is vital to the civilisation of the world.”

It was ironic that a British government that ruled a quarter of the world by force, and with a record of often using great brutality, should be preaching about moral principles on this occasion.

Britain in 1914 was only an emerging democracy. Just 8 million men had the vote and no women,  and when the war was over conscientious objectors, as a punishment, were deprived of the vote for 5 years.

We had a free press which gave freedom to rich newspaper owners to promote the arms industry, continually make the case for war and deliberately create fear and hatred of Germany.

The outrageous consequences of a war for principles

The humanitarian crisis developed in Belgium within a matter of days of the war starting,  but war was not a principled or humanitarian response.  We can easily understand the feeling "that something must be done",  but what is principled, what is humanitarian in the obscenity of a war which killed 15 million people? Nothing is less principled, nothing is less civilised than warfare.

Today we might ask what sort of British values are represented by our bombing of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

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