How many truths can one World War sustain? On the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of war, I won’t attempt to list all the many different versions of history that have already been presented this year. But it’s worth considering the agendas behind these myriad competing truths. Policy is shaped to some extent by history, and so the way we interpret our past matters enormously to our future.
Some want to see WW1 as a noble struggle
This is an understandable desire, driven in part by the sense that so much death and destruction must have served some purpose. We can’t bear to think it was all for nothing. Or perhaps we want to believe that our nation’s role in the destruction was justifiable. A lot of people were killed by our shells and bullets. It would be terrible to think we didn’t have just cause. Demonstrating the villainy of the enemy becomes important.
Truths favoured by this agenda (from a Russian, French and British point of view) include the outrageous demands placed by Austria on Serbia as the price of peace following Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination; the demonstrable belligerence of some in Prussian-led Germany; the binding treaties of mutual defence; the greater degree of democracy in France and Britain than in Germany and Austria; the German invasion of Belgium; the sinking of the Lusitania.
Some want to paint all war as evil
This ideological view is hard to argue against given the horrendous succession of wars in the 20th century. And if we are opposed to war, than it is imperative to emphasise the extreme awfulness of the “Great” war.
There are plenty of truths to choose from here: the sheer scale of the carnage; the pitiful ratio of land gained to lives lost in most offensives; the conditions in the trenches; the environmental devastation; the consequences of the peace for later German politics; the ghastly new developments in chemical warfare and aerial bombardment.
Some want to position WW1 as the inevitable product of the imperial/monarchal system
Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Germany and Ottoman Turkey all had empires of varying sizes and extents. Five of the six had monarchs. They tore each other apart and nearly destroyed Europe in the process. By contrast, democracies without empires never go to war with each other. It’s a seductive line of reasoning.
The preferred truths for this agenda are more nuanced. They relate to the trappings of empire and aristocracy, such as titled officers giving orders from comfortable chateaux, while working class boys died in the trenches (true in parts), the fuss made over a dead Archduke, or the fatal confusion caused by a muddled telephone conversation between one aristocratic diplomat and another. The sacrifices made by imperial subjects, such as ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli or Indian troops in Flanders also play to this narrative. And so does the early-20th century competition between the great powers for limited resources in far off places, as well as increased tensions at the boundaries between empires — especially in Eastern Europe.
Some want to make sure we never forget
Whether out of respect for the fallen, or out of a determination that we learn the painful lessons of our history, many are concerned that current and future generations do not lose sight of the cataclysm that engulfed Europe one hundred years ago. Truths that will lodge immovably in the memory are therefore, for this group, the most important.
Memorable truths include the large scale, the horrific, the unique, the bizarre: the numbers killed on the first day of the Somme; the exploitation of horses; the poison gas; the rotting feet; the Gatling gun; canaries; barbed wire. But they also include the symbolic. Poppies appeared once a year, in greater quantities than usual, in certain theatres of the war. It’s a truth, and a memorable one at that.
All of these truths co-existed between 1914 and 1918. They can be deployed in any formation to achieve all kinds of objectives. History is a battlefield; choose your side.