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Michael Fry: Was Scotland one of WWI’s winners?

Field Marshal Douglas Haig visiting the troops during World War I. Picture: Getty

Field Marshal Douglas Haig visiting the troops during World War I. Picture: Getty

  • by MICHAEL FRY
 

AS the UK commemorates the Great War, Michael Fry asks whether it should be remembered as a catalyst for awakening Scotland’s nationalist ambitions

It was supposed to have been a last, long, hot summer before the deluge of rain and blood on the Western Front. The surviving generation recalled, or thought they recalled, that the sun had shone for endless hours on Scotland’s fields and hills, even penetrating the grimy ­closes of the tenements, as the people worked and played, laughed and loved, in peace and security before their world was shattered by an armed conflict of unbelievable horror.

Actually the last summer was not at all like that. In Scotland, as usual, it got pretty soggy. A big regatta on the Firth of Clyde was almost abandoned because of “fluky weather”. During the annual stay at Holyrood by King George V and Queen Mary, rain ruined most of their open-air engagements. Things brightened up afterwards, but the hopes of the holiday season for Scotland came to an end with the outbreak of war on 4 August, 1914.

On that day, King George simply proclaimed the whole British Empire to be at war with Germany. Neither the parliament at Westminster nor any of the colonial legislatures even got asked if they agreed. Such declarations were part of the royal prerogative, which the king exercised on the advice of his prime minister alone. The man writing his script was Herbert Asquith, MP for East Fife, an English carpetbagger in Scotland but married into one of the nation’s richest and most powerful families, the ­Tennants of the Glen.

In any case, Scotland, along with most other belligerents, went happily to war. Tumultuous crowds turned out in the streets to march and cheer, sure their side would win because God was on it. Even in Britain, where history would prove them right, they could not guess how the cost of victory would be so high as to herald the end of the country’s status as a great power and to usher in a slow decline that has not really finished even yet.

That was all that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our victorious soldiers in the coming battles would finally achieve. Given the scale of the sacrifice made by the generation of 1914, it is only right we should try this year to convey some sense of it all to a modern generation now growing up amid so many synthetic and manipulated emotions – to them, sacrifice is likely to mean little more than postponing consumption from one year to the next. In that sense, 1914 is already quite a remote era, one in which it becomes steadily harder to disentangle myth and reality. Between now and August the peddling of myths (historic, athletic, political) could become frantic.

Asquith’s eventual successor, David Cameron, has already said that the centenary of the First World War will be a good time for everybody in Britain to reflect on what has held us together for the past 100 years. The tally is beyond doubt impressive: pulling through the slump of the 1930s, standing alone against Nazi Germany in the 1940s, building the welfare state in the 1950s. After that some ambiguity set in: loss of the Empire in the 1960s, economic chickens coming home to roost in the 1970s. Even then the UK showed itself capable of renewal.

Still, just as some obvious things did hold together right through those 100 years, so a few less obvious things were falling apart, even early on. The UK that went into the war in 1914 was already entering a process of partition as it came out of the war in 1918. The Easter Rising had meanwhile taken place in Dublin, and as a delayed result 26 counties of Ireland were to find a bloody and tortuous way to independence. In the end, the victorious UK lost a greater percentage of its territory than the defeated German Reich: 23 per cent of it went into the Irish Free State, about double the extent lost by Germany in the Peace of Versailles with the annexation by 
its triumphant neighbours of West Prussia, Alsace-Lorraine and other bits and pieces.

Yet it was not as if the Irish, even the Catholic Irish, had in 1914 been wholly deaf to calls for British unity. Though never conscripted, plenty of Paddies joined up anyway. You can see the banners of their regiments hanging to this day in the Anglican cathedral of St Patrick in Dublin. In the 21st century the Irish Republic is mature and confident enough in its own nationhood to acknowledge the undeniably British strands in its history – hence the warm welcome for the Queen’s royal visit in 2011, itself the centenary of the last royal visit to Ireland by her grandfather, George V.

Further out in the Empire, Australia was another supremely loyal British realm in 1914 (and, unlike Ireland, remained so in 1939). The First World War made a big difference here too. Apart from capturing a few Pacific islands owned by the Germans, there was no contribution the Australians could make on their own side of the globe. But the king had declared war on their behalf as well and they willingly joined in, above all at Gallipoli.

There the Australians’ own brave but ultimately pointless sacrifices became one of the defining episodes in the development of their nationhood. They met a test of their character, of their comradeship and endurance, a test brought on by British bungling, and they passed the test. Down under, the whole business is still a matter for sorrowful reflection rather than for banging the drum, and perhaps this should teach a lesson to the mother country.

It was not only Irish and Australian experience that began in the war to diverge from a British and imperial norm: Scottish experience did so too. Of course, the Scottish reaction was much weaker than the Irish reaction and needed to wait far longer before it produced any results in the real world. The two nations’ experience of the UK in the preceding Victorian era had, after all, been so different. Whereas in Ireland it was an era of misery, in Scotland it was an era of excellence in everything from macadamised roads to Maxwell’s equations. And there seemed to be no end to it. More ships had been launched on the River Clyde in 1913 than ever before. Till the war, there seemed little reason why Scotland’s basking in the imperial high noon should not continue.

Scotland lay far from the theatres of conflict and the sole attacks of note on its territory came in attempts by German submarines to penetrate the naval base of Scapa Flow on Orkney. Otherwise only the uniforms on the streets and the published lists of casualties brought the war home. Still, those lists mounted alarmingly: 148,000 Scots eventually appeared on them, out of the 900,000 deaths suffered by the UK. These absolute totals fell short of the two million Germans who were killed, or the 1.8 million Russians or the 1.4 million Frenchmen. But Scotland was a small country, and in fact its rate of casualties exceeded that in any other Allied nation. It was proportionally more even than the losses of Serbia and Turkey, countries that had been conquered and overrun.

One big reason lay in the mind of the British commander-in-chief, General Douglas Haig, a son of Edinburgh who beyond all measure admired his own Scots soldiers and believed that, with their bravado and tenacity, they could win the war for him. This was why, in his relentless attempts to break through on the Western Front, he so often sent the Scots over the top first. Not that they feared to go: they believed they could win the war too. Unlike in future wars their officers, often the brightest and the best, led them from the front. In high patriotic spirit, with no disaffection from the British state, Scotland fought a tragic and wasteful war to the end.

The peace also turned out tragic and wasteful, if in a different way. After 1918 there followed a recurrent slump of such catastrophic proportions that perhaps it never truly lifted till the last quarter of the 20th century. Survivors of the war came back to a homeland that had in its turn been bled, bled of its Victorian vigour. Industry withered and famous companies vanished into takeover or liquidation. Proud entrepreneurs and craftsmen either took their talents and skills to more prosperous parts of the world or swelled the shuffling, hopeless ranks of the jobless. As the whole west of Scotland, in particular, was devastated, the national population fell for the first time since records began. The combined efforts of capital and labour, supported by government, seemed vain.

One thing it all produced was the first stirring of nationalism, literary to begin with, in the works of Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon (this had been the Irish pattern too). It started to turn political with the foundation of the SNP in 1926. But it was to have little at­traction to Scots voters for another half-century.

Instead, for the first time since the Union, the nation shrank inwards rather than looked outwards. It did not want to beat the world any more, asking only for subsidies from London. The war altogether cast a long shadow over Scotland’s development, and changed the way the Scots saw themselves. The psychological scars are still there in the continuing aversion to economic change and preference for public policies which will only perpetuate the problems rather than solve them.

Some of the changes inflicted on Scotland by the First World War were sudden and dramatic, some of them gradual and insidious. But from the 21st century it would be possible to argue that their combined effect has been to loosen the bonds of the Union with England and, for better or worse, to give Scotland back a history of its own.

Over time that history, it seems clear, has become more different – not yet 
in social and economic matters, where these two main partners in the Union have continued to grow together, 
but certainly in cultural and today ­political matters, where they have grown apart if not slightly hostile to each 
other. The problem is to turn the inwardness of this psychology once again outwards.

At the least the two national histories are now different enough, clearly, to have recreated Scottish nationalism – and nationalism is all over the world often a desire to give expression to a different history. The events of this summer may show that the UK, or at least England, still thinks it won the First World War. But deep down Scotland may be uneasily aware how, in important senses, it lost.

 

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