WWI memorials are the rage at the moment, the centenary of Britain joining what remains possibly the world’s most horrible conflict being today. The Prime Minister has given a speech on the matter, citing the fact that Britons a century ago went into battle because there was “an important principle at stake”, that being the Germans’ defiance of Belgian neutrality. The tone of Cameron’s speech is that WWI was important, a conflict that Britain had no choice but to enter in to. I think this need to create something good out of the war of 1914 through 1918 is odd and not particularly healthy either.
At the onset of the war, the Germans marched into Belgium as it was the easiest way they could see to defeating the French quickly. Essentially, march across Belgium, get past the inferior French resistance around the border and be in Paris by September. Job done. Problem was, Belgium was protected by a series of agreements reached between all of the major powers of Europe over the course of the 19th century that had led to the idea that Belgian neutrality was inviolable. So Germany invading Belgium was a stupid plan because it brought Britain into the war needlessly. It was a move that seems in retrospect to be emblematic of the folly of that whole summer – every side thought they could stroll easily to victory, a century of careful manoeuvring beginning with the Congress of Vienna suddenly cast off impetuously as each Empire sensed a large victory just over the horizon.
The notion that defending Belgian neutrality in 1914 was worth sacrificing almost a million young Britons, and maiming another million and a half, must strike most modern people as rather odd to say the least. Michael Gove railed a few months back about the way the “Blackadder Goes Forth” impression of WWI had been imbedded, but it is hard not to see at least large portions of that viewpoint as valid. It was a horrible, largely pointless war and we should be able, one hundred years on, to simply recognise that fact. It was a mistake of epic proportions, one whose sole value seems to me to be the demonstration that large scale, one-on-one, technologically advanced warfare between large states is a bad idea.
Perhaps I’m overstating things, but given both Gove and Cameron’s seeming need to defend the First World War, it feels like there is a Tory narrative on the war that exists. I don’t really understand it, but perhaps it’s tied into the idea of Empire that never completely recedes from the Tory consciousness? There’s something about the concept of Britain having always acted nobly in the past in there. Hell, Belgium weren’t particularly wonderful at the time, the treatment of the locals in the Congo being a prime example. It’s a way of looking at the world that runs into the present day, with Boris Johnson talking about how Putin and his deeds in the Ukraine are making everyone cling on tighter to the EU. Boris doesn’t mention, “Except Britain, of course”. Perhaps it is this need to justify the past that makes the present harder to deal with.
Cameron goes on in his memorial speech to credit the Great War with “massive improvements in our world” including, rather bizarrely, women getting the franchise, as if that would never had happened had millions of men not died in Flanders. Again the need to exonerate the war and find reasons for it to be seen as worthwhile. I don’t think Britain needs to beat itself up about WWI; but nor do we need to justify it as a great deed either. The whole thing was a colossal error for Europe and it’s all right to just admit that. Perhaps if we did, more lessons from that war would be easier to absorb.
So I would prefer to commemorate the memory of those who died in WWI with grace and appreciation for their sacrifice. Because if they died for anything, they died to make us understand that large scale nations engaging with one another on the battle field is disastrous, and even though it took a whole other world war twenty years later for the lesson to finally sink in, we did learn it eventually. So tonight, plop on “Blackadder Goes Forth” and raise a glass for the Tommies who fell. We owe them a debt of gratitude, just not the one the Prime Minister have you to believe.
Iain Sharpe says
While for all I know this is a view shared by many on the centre-left, it contains rather more mythology than anything Cameron has said.
Neither then nor now can the First World War in any meaningful way be described as a Tory war. The decision in 1914 was taken by a Liberal government and with the support not just of the Tory opposition but also of the Irish and Labour parliamentary parties, neither of which were Tory stooges. There was near universal consent for the war, more or less across the political spectrum.
Today, views on the war don’t divide neatly along left-right lines – indeed you are rather close to repeating Gove’s error on this point. Recently, the historians most vocal in arguing that British entry was an error have been on the right of the political spectrum (Niall Ferguson, John Charmley) And among those who have defended the British government’s decision are those who self-identify as being on the left (Vernon Bogdanor, Prof Gary Sheffield).
So to suggest that defending Britain’s decision in 1914 somehow denotes right-wing politics then or now is ahistorical. The British reason for going to war in 1914 (Germany’s invasion of Belgium) was actually similar to that in 1939 (Germany’s invasion of Poland) – and the Polish government at the time was not a model of bien pensant Liberalism either.
In the end there is a serious question at stake here of when it is right to fulfil treaty obligations to defend other countries and what the consequences of standing aside are. As Vernon Bogdanor has written in this month’s History Today ‘war can always be avoided if the potential victim always backs down’.
Like lots of people I thought Germany was responsible for both World Wars.
But then I came across the book, HIDDEN HISTORY: The Secret Origins of the First World War, by Gerry Docherty and Jim MacGregor.
THE SECRET ELITE:
WHO THEY WERE/ARE
Posted by Jim_and_Gerry in Secret Elite, United Kingdom
If you are sympathetic to the view that Germany was responsible for the war and that Britain and her allies fought for the noble cause of saving civilization from German tyranny, we invite you to consider the possibility that you have been misled. We too were once convinced of Germany’s guilt, but having studied the war in minute detail for many years are now firmly of the opinion, and confident we can prove to you, that it was not Germany to blame, but a secret coterie of immensely wealthy upper-class men in Britain. Men who saw the rapidly developing economic, commercial and industrial power of Germany as a threat to their secret plan to bring the entire civilised world under the control of the British Empire. From the early years of the 20th century they met regularly in their great English country houses and plush London clubs to plan in secret how to bring an end to the German threat.
In those smoke filled parlours of influence the secret cabal took the very conscious decision to meet the threat head-on through war. A war they carefully planned from 1903 onwards, deliberately started in 1914, and purposefully prolonged beyond 1915. They realised that a long war of attrition was the only means by which they could ensure Germany’s complete and utter destruction. It was not simply about victory over the German military machine. Their aim was to crush Germany as an economic and industrial rival. Having accomplished that, they went to unprecedented lengths to cover their tracks and conceal evidence of their guilt. We have uncovered a considerable amount of that evidence and will lay it before you over the coming months and years of the war’s centenary. We ask only that you examine it and let your open mindedness be the judge.
SECRET ELITE’S HIDDEN CONTTROOL & CONNECTIONS 1891-1914
The cabal in London was formally set up in 1891 and funded by the fortune accrued by Cecil Rhodes from gold and diamond mining in South Africa. It had an inner circle – “The Society of the Elect” – comprising members of Britain’s leading dynastic families, chosen members of the aristocracy, massively rich merchant bankers and powerful players in Britain’s military-industrial complex. They had common undergraduate associations, usually Oxford University, close personal relationships and their ultimate goal was to bring all habitable portions of the world under their control. Everything they touched was about control: of people and how their thoughts could be influenced, of political parties, no matter who was nominally in office. They acted in secret and, as professor Quigley revealed, were able to conceal their existence so that many of its most influential members ‘are unknown even to close students of British history.’  The outer circle – “The Association of Helpers” – was large and quite fluid with a membership comprising like-minded political associates, committed, mostly Oxford University graduates, top diplomats and civil servants and newspaper proprietors and editors. At this level of involvement, members may or may not have been aware that they were either an integral part of or inadvertently being used by a secret society. Many on the outer edges of the group, idealists and honest politicians, may never have known that the real decisions were made by a ruthless clique about whom they had no knowledge. 
Dynastic families, the Conservative Cecil’s and the Liberal Rosebery’s, had dominated British politics over the previous four centuries, and had nurtured British imperialism with a keen eye to ever increasing profit and power. The British Empire was a sacred shibboleth to be guarded, protected and continually expanded. The ruthless exploitation of foreign peoples brought vast wealth to a growing moneyed-class. Their greed was conveniently presented as an opportunity to improve the lives of the ‘uncivilised’ natives. The philosophical justification for the secret society lay in Oxford and the work of the professor of fine arts, John Ruskin who pandered to their prejudices by advocating that English ruling-class control be spread throughout the entire globe. Inside the close privacy of the great English country houses, often as guests of the world’s richest men, the Rothschilds, this secret power-base was developed though friendships and mutual interests.
We have been able to trace the actions and activities of this group from around 1891 onwards, thanks to Professor Quigley who paved the way for later researchers to determine how these powerful men worked to their own ends. Aided by his close connections to certain members of the Secret Elite, Quigley revealed their ‘triple front penetration’ of politics, education and journalism and the methods they used to promote their cause while keeping themselves from public scrutiny. They controlled key politicians, senior diplomats and civil servants, particularly in the Foreign Office, lavishing high office and rewards on them, no matter which political party they nominally served.  They controlled the Press, either through pliant journalists or by owning and controlling the newspapers directly. They dictated editorial opinion through chosen placemen and were thus able to greatly influence public opinion. They Cecil Rhodes elite directly controlled the writing of history through appointments to Professorships, establishment of new University Chairs, publishing of official documents and the concealment or destruction of evidence that could implicate them in international and domestic events.
Tentative discussions about the creation of an elite secret society had been going on through the 1880s but the earliest evidence we have of their formalising procedures dates from 1891. In February of that year, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Reginald Esher and W.T. Stead met in London to outline their ambition to subjugate the world to the primacy of the English race. Rhodes had already made his fortune in South Africa and was prepared to leave his legacy to finance the project. Stead was an immensely respected investigative journalist with an expanding readership who regarded him highly. Esher had the private ear of the monarch and as such had access to all of the important aristocratic households in the country. His royal patronage ensured that he held unelected positions in royal commissions and crucially, the covert Committee of Imperial Defence. Two further important men were quickly inducted into the cabal. Lord Nathaniel Rothschild, the international merchant banker, and Alfred Milner, at that time a relatively little known colonial administrator.
Both of these men represented different aspects of control and influence. The Rothschild dynasty epitomised ‘the money power’ to a degree with which no other could compete. They were all-powerful in British and world banking and considered themselves the equals of royalty  even to the extent of calling their London base ‘New Court’. Alfred Milner was a self-made man, a gifted academic who began his working life as an aspiring lawyer, turned to journalism and eventually emerged as an immensely powerful and successful power-broker. In time, he became the undisputed leader of the Secret Elite in London.
Together these men created a secret society with hierarchical layers of knowledge and involvement, tightly organised, small in number but abundantly influential in its collective associations. Though Masonic in its secrecy, membership was kept closely guarded and depended on friendships, birth and wealth. Quigley identified one additional feature. Members often had a very close association with Oxford University and in particular, All Souls College. At all times these elites acted in secret and even those who shared their views and who played a part in the events which unfolded may not have known about the inner circle which directed the policies they pursued.
They believed that a new world order was required which would be Anglo-Saxon in origin, and dominated by the English ruling-class values so worshipped by Ruskin and his Oxford-based followers. They held a disdain for democracy and were unaccountable to any electorate. Behind a façade of altruism, they took control in secret, put placemen in political office, controlled and manipulated the press and the writing of history, directed policy to their own advancement and profit and planned, quite specifically, to remove the threat posed by German economic expansion and industrial development.
In Hidden History we build on the evidence originally presented by Carroll Quigley to reveal in detail how the Secret Elite formed and developed in the twenty years leading up to 1914. They grew all powerful and it became abundantly clear that their leader was Alfred Milner.
 Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, pp.4-5.
 Edward Griffin, The Creature From Jekyll Island, p.272.
 Carroll Quigley, op. cit. p.197.
 Niall Ferguson, House of Rothschild, p.251.