November 9, 2018
By Charles Norman
On November 11 2018 at 11:00 am (UK time) it will be exactly 100 years ago that the “Guns of August” fell silent.
On this 100th anniversary, London Transport police have been told not to display poppies on their vehicles, Cambridge University have voted not to recognize Remembrance Day, and the sale of white poppies is expected to break all records in the UK. White poppies will also be sold in Canada this year.
The rationale for all of this is that Remembrance Day glorifies war. Nothing could be further from the truth. No rational person who has ever been directly involved in a war, or is aware of the nature of war at second hand, would ever suggest that there is anything glorious about it.
There are certainly people who think that war is glorious – they are the people that start them, not the men who have to fight them.
Remembrance Day is our way of honouring those who have risked their lives, and in too many cases have lost them, so that we may be free. They fought for their own freedom and ours too, and on November 11th every year we remember them.
Those who think we are glorifying war need a history lesson.
Cambridge University is one of the best in the world. The student body was once made up of the brightest young men and women. Not now. They are still very bright, but they are not young men and women, they are not event adults they are still children and appear likely to remain so for a long time.
The London Transport Police Chief who made the “politically correct” decision to ban poppies on their vehicles, has been responded to by police cars right across the country being smothered with poppies. The white poppy merchants are taking advantage of Remembrance Day to make a little propaganda for themselves, and make a little money in the process.
Here is the history lesson for these people.
Just about everything began to go pear-shaped when, what historian Barbara Tuchman called The Guns of August, opened fire.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books have been written on the causes of the First World War, but they were really excuses. The Assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife led to threats being bandied about, Austria threatened Serbia, Russia Threatened to come to the aid of Serbia, Germany said they would support the Austrians, France had a treaty with Russia. Russia mobilised, other nations followed suit. Germany declared war on Russia on August 2, 1914, and on France on August 3rd. The German army marched through Belgium on its way to France without bothering to declare war on Belgium. Belgium had a treaty with England. Suddenly the whole of Europe was at war.
The overall objective was for the conquest of Europe from the Ural mountains to the Atlantic, and for the imposition of German Kulture on the entire region. They believed that their culture was superior to all others and that it was only right and proper that it should prevail (Hitler did not invent the master race).
While all this was happening, diplomats were frantically trying to avert war. It seemed almost as if it happened by accident, but it did not.
Germany had been planning for war for years. By 1906 they had a completed plan, A plan that they believed would give them certain victory. It was called the Schlieffen plan, after Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, a German Field Marshall. The plan was finalized in the spring of 1914, before the assassination of the Austrian Archduke. The plan called for the defeat of France by the end of August.
Von Schlieffen’s plan called for a strong right flank attacking through Belgium. The sleeves of the right flank were to brush the English Channel. (A play on words. The German for the English Channel is Armelkanal, German for sleeve channel. On a map the English Channel does look rather like a sleeve. The French word for it is La Manche – The Sleeve.)
It is said that Von Schlieffen’s last words (He died in 1913) were “Keep the right arm strong” After penetrating Belgium and northern France then the right flank was to turn south, encircle the French army and destroy it.
The problem was that the passage through Belgium was too narrow for the massive German army. It was slowed down to twenty miles a day, and even so their horse drawn supply train could not keep up. Because it was harvest time the German army could feed itself off the land, but the sheer mass of the right flank proved unmanageable. They turned south to encircle the French too soon. Exposed their flank to a British and French counter attack, got bogged down into what very soon became trench warfare from Switzerland to the English Channel. It was to last for four years. Before it was over 22 million men women and children would be dead. Six million men died on the battlefield.
It was four years of unremitting carnage. Newly conscripted French soldiers knew what was waiting for them. On the march to the front they would Baa like sheep being led to the slaughter. After three years their morale began to break, mutinies broke out, their positions were reinforced by British troops before the enemy was aware of what was happening. Only the introduction of American troops restored morale.
On the German side morale was stronger. The communist coup in Russia in the fall of 1917, and the removal of Russia from the conflict helped overcome the news that the United Stated had joined in the war against them.
But the morale of the German army was not to last much longer. The disruption of the war and the Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports was making it increasingly difficult to adequately feed the troops. A cold and wet November with an inadequate diet together with the knowledge that they were fighting and dying for nothing, began to have its effect. By the second week in November 1918 the German army was close to collapse. They were within days of going home and leaving their weapons behind them. The November 11th Armistice saved the German army from a rout.
The first victim of war is the truth. During a war the language is weaponized. In peacetime the record is politicized. If you really want to know what war is about it helps to have an eyewitness that you can trust. In 1952 I met a veteran of that war.
I was an apprentice draftsman, during that time I spent several months in the machine shop. I was taught key-fitting by a machinist with a wooden leg. His name was Bill. He had been in the infantry in the First World war, hence the wooden leg. When fitting a key you spend most of your time watching a milling machine do its work. It’s not noisy and gives you lots of time to talk.
We talked about the war. He confirmed just about everything you have ever heard about the carnage of that war. I don’t want to repeat most of what he told me, but believe me, there was nothing glorious about it.
But two things that happened to him are important.
The first was fairly early in the war. It was night time and he was on patrol in the area between the British and German trenches. A star shell burst above them and lightened up the battlefield. Twenty yards away was a German soldier, also on patrol. Bill killed the soldier with a grenade, but not before he got off a rifle shot. The German soldier proved to be a good shot. Bill was hit through the head. He was lucky. The bullet went through one cheek and out the other. He had a nice round scar in one cheek and a ragged one on the other. He lost two teeth.
Bill had got what soldiers called a “Blighty”. Blighty was a slang word for England. “Getting a Blighty” meant you could go home. For you, the war was over.
But Bill volunteered to go back. He later lost half his right leg to a German shell.
“I’m often asked if I’m sorry I went back.” He said. “But I have no regrets”
“Why did you go back” I asked him. He gave me a puzzled look. “Freedom” he said, almost under his breath. “We were fighting for freedom.” It was a dumb question. We didn’t mention the war again.