Saturday, 15 March 2014

The First World War

'However the war began - by German design, by the negligence of statesmen, by the purblindness of generals- there was nothing inevitable about its course'. So says Allan Mallinson, in 1914 - Fight the Good Fight - Britain, the Army and the Coming of the First World War.

German military ambition; unprepared and complacent politicians; inadequate, not to say incompetent generals: the tangled threefold cord that led eventually to war.

It is interesting what one can learn from books about WW1; for example, Germans were called Huns because of a speech of the Kaiser in 1900 when he boasted that China during the Boxer rebellion should be made to fear the Germans in the way Europe had once feared Attila the Hun; artesian wells are named after the region of Artois; 'tanks' are so called because when first transported during the First World War, in communications between England and France they were referred to as 'water tanks' to fool the Germans who might have intercepted any messages.

The fascinating issue however is: what caused the war? The three part BBC series '37 Days' did a good job of dramatising the historical events of the summer of 1914, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, in Sarajevo on 28th June to the declaration by England of war on Germany on 4th August.

What is amazing with the wisdom of hindsight is the feeling that war could have been avoided. Why should a spot of bother in the Balkans really lead to war between the super-powers of Europe and beyond? That seems to have been the outlook of at least the British leaders. There was complacency and naivety, a kind of living in the halcyon days of Edwardian summers, not really believing anyone could actually want war in the Europe of the early 20th century.

But they reckoned without the martial mindset of Prussian dominated Germany - the one factor that did make war inevitable. To go to war to honour a commitment to Belgium and an understanding with France was after all not dishonourable or unreasonable. It was not an unnecessary war for Britain to fight. Just a tragic one ever to have been started.

Having said that, of all wars this is the most difficult for which to pin down a merely human reason, or chain of causation. An age had to come to an end, a new one begin, and it would take two wars, not one, to exhaust the world.

The result was a change of eras. It was a war taking place during an age of transition; weapons of destruction outstripped means of defence and strategies to counter them. A war of cavalry charges and gas masks, poison gas and zeppelins, tanks, aeroplanes and footslogging.

Above all, one sees men, often good men, in political leadership at the mercy of events. One cannot study the causes of this war in particular without being aware of events being carried by their own momentum. There was a sense of inevitability even while one wonders why it could not have been avoided.

Which brings one to the idea of God. Ultimately the First World War happened because he willed it, though no evil is in him. There was a divine purpose in it all, though one does not presume to know what it was other than that in the end he will be glorified. An expression of the judgement of God, certainly, an outworking of the curse, a tragic testimony to human sinfulness. Every consideration of this and other wars should profoundly humble us.

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