Alex Massie: War that changed a nation

The cemeteries of France and Flanders are a permanent reminder of the many thousands who gave their lives. Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The cemeteries of France and Flanders are a permanent reminder of the many thousands who gave their lives. Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Commemorating the centenery of the start of the First World War will honour those who gave their lives and remind us how that conflict saw our society altered for ever, writes Alex Massie

On 14 December, 1918, as Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig prepared to return from France for the first time since the First World War’s long-awaited conclusion the previous month, the Spectator noted in its editorial: “A most unfortunate impression has been made upon the majority of the nation by the very scant praise which the government have given to Sir Douglas Haig.” The magazine comforted itself with the thought that: “If the British public do not already appreciate the truth about Sir Douglas Haig, they will learn to do so when more of the history of the war is written.”

As we approach the centenary of the war’s beginning, the Spectator’s hope is at best perhaps only half-realised. Haig remains a figure of controversy. To many, perhaps especially those least-versed in military history, he is still the Butcher of the Somme. The chief Donkey commanding an army of poor, slaughtered Lions. Insanity, the old saw says, is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. And how, all these years later, can anyone recall the slaughter of the trenches and not conclude that the story of the First World War is a story of a world gone mad?

As Trevor Royle observed in his history of Scotland and the First World War: “Thousands of Scottish people were prepared to voice their support for war and found themselves taking part in demonstrations of national pride and patriotism which often bordered on hysteria.” Knowing, as we do, the carnage that would follow, the widespread and genuine patriotic fervour with which the war was greeted now seems an obscenity. But it did not seem so at the time. Duty, King and country called and thousands answered the summons of their own free will.

The clichés of the Great War have their place but, like all such simplifications, cannot tell the entire story. The protagonists did not always see themselves as victims. An estimated 70,000 of Haig’s Scottish troops saluted their former commander as he lay in state at St Giles’s Cathedral in 1928 – to them, he was the general who had led the British Army to some of its greatest ever victories.

Haig’s record and reputation is but a small part of a story in which one world perished and another began. Just as no history of the Second World War is possible without contemplating the Great War, so no social or political history of 20th century Britain is feasible without measuring the impact of the First World War. Commemorating that is less a matter of “celebrating” the horrors of war than simply accepting that the war left almost no aspect of British politics or society unchanged. Many an auld sang ended and the new tunes that replaced the pre-war melodies were very different. The 1920s were years of radicalism and emigration as Scotland struggled to reconcile itself with the legacy of war; years of decline too.

As Professor Hew Strachan, a member of the panel advising the Scottish Government on how the First World War may best be commemorated, put it earlier this year: “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.”

Some education is required. A recent poll conducted by the think-tank British Future discovered that one in five Britons are unaware Germany was the country’s principal enemy in 1914. Nearly one in three said they could not confidently say in which year the war ended. Fewer than half could say that the spark which set the world ablaze was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

Never before and never since had so many Scots marched to the sound of the guns. This alone should be enough to persuade critics that these centenaries demand remembrance. Some 5,000 memorials, from the great cities to the most sparsely populated rural parish, commemorate Scotland’s commitment to the Great War – a commitment measured by nearly 150,000 Scottish deaths.

At Loos, Scottish troops constituted half the British infantry force sent into action. At the Somme, still the lodestone for Britain’s First World War memories, three entirely Scottish divisions took part and, at one time or another, no fewer than 51 Scottish battalions saw action. At Arras in 1917, 44 Scottish battalions took part in the offensive. John Buchan, notes the Tory-Nationalist historian Michael Fry in his new history of Scotland in the century before the Great War, estimated the Scottish presence at Arras “to have been seven times greater than the entire army Bruce had led at Bannockburn in 1314”.

No other allied country suffered, proportionally, greater losses on the Western Front. Not because Scottish troops were callously thrown into the meat-grinder because Scottish losses were more “acceptable” than English losses, but because, rightly or not, Scottish regiments, like their Australian counterparts, were often considered the best troops available. They were victims of their own prowess. Another of the war’s many black ironies.

Perhaps the greatest of these was the manner in which the apparent futility of the struggle demanded that it be continued. Failing to press on, yard by muddy yard, would affirm the futility of the slaughter. Only victory could bestow some meaning on the sacrifice; the horrific cost of previous casualties could only be redeemed by yet more casualties in the pursuit of final victory.

Tragedy, in the Artistotelian sense of provoking feelings of pity and terror, has never been so complete.

“The peace,” Michael Fry argues, also “turned out tragic and wasteful”. Survivors “came back to a homeland bled of its Victorian vigour… The war altogether cast a long shadow over Scotland’s development and changed the way Scots saw themselves. The grand old Victorian ideals had dissolved. Scotland has never again found better ideals, though the time for that may be coming.”

Remembering that – remembering how, in the words of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the “last of the Old Scots folk” perished in the fields of France and Flanders – is one element of next year’s commemorations. A people ignorant of its past is a populace ill-placed to forge the future.

The challenge for museums, historians and the media is to move beyond the familiar tropes of mud and blood and contextualise how the war leached into almost every aspect of life. The last Tommy, Harry Patch, died in 2009 but the legacy and consequences of the First World War – from the constitution to the way in which we think of Britain – still endure.

Inevitably, such recollections cannot be entirely divorced from contemporary political concerns. The idea, however, that remembering the Great War is a “British nationalist” propaganda exercise – a notion cherished by the wilder kind of Scottish nationalist – is far-fetched. It will, moreover, be “commemorated” not “celebrated” and most people, whatever their own political preferences, will consider this seemly.

The names chiselled on those 5,000 memorials still have the power to haunt our imagination. They ask a simple question: what might have been? These men gave what Abraham Lincoln – though referring to a different battle – once called “the last full measure of devotion”.

We can never forget what they did. Nor can we avoid examining the country they left behind and the country so many of them never returned to see. If next year’s commemorations help explain that, they will prove as worthwhile as they are necessary.