The First World War: Truth and Lies

Harry Patch was there. Gove and Johnson wern't
Harry Patch was there. Gove and Johnson weren’t

2014 was barely a few weeks old before various right wing politicians and historians began making clear their views on how the First World War should be remembered. Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Max Hastings have all argued (in the Daily Mail naturally) that Germany caused the war, that Britain went to war because of German  violation of Belgian neutrality and that it was a just war fought for democracy and the rights of small nations writes Geoff Ryan. David Cameron is reported to be in general agreement with these arguments. This is hardly surprising since the Tories (and Labour and Lib Dem politicians, along with right-wing historians) all want to pretend that capitalism is always peaceful, kind and gentle and primarily concerned with bringing the greatest possible benefits to all humanity. They refuse to acknowledge the truth: capitalism is a brutal, barbaric system which tramples on workers and all the oppressed in order to secure the greatest possible profit for the capitalist class. At times, such as 1914, it can only do this by war.

Gallant Little Belgium

According to the right wing apologists Britain went to war in 1914 because of an 1839 Treaty in which Britain guaranteed to uphold Belgian neutrality and oppose violation of its sovereignty. Now Lenin certainly believed that Belgian neutrality had been violated by German troops – in exactly the same way that ‘belligerent states have done always and everywhere, trampling upon all treaties and obligations if necessary’. Past British governments had never had problems about violating the sovereignty of other states- indeed British capitalism had become dominant throughout the world precisely by breaking treaties, invading supposedly sovereign states and by subjugating peoples throughout the globe to the needs of capital. For example, at the end of the 19th century British capitalists and government officials had colluded in waging totally unjustified war against the Boer republics in Southern Africa in order to secure British capitalism’s hold on the South African goal fields.

It may surprise some Marxists that Lenin goes on to argue that if all states interested in maintaining international treaties were to declare war on Germany, demanding the liberation of Belgium,  then the sympathies of socialists would be with the enemies of Germany. However, Lenin argues,  the aims of the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) had nothing to do with defending Belgian neutrality but with grabbing colonies from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey while hanging on to the colonies they already dominated.[1] In other words, while claiming to defend the sovereignty of Belgium, Britain, France and Russia were preparing to crush the sovereignty of millions of people throughout the globe.

And it is clear that the British government did not consider defence of Belgian neutrality as its prime consideration for going to war. On 30 July 1914 Liberal Prime Minister Asquith informed King George V that any decision about British military intervention over Belgian sovereignty would be a matter of policy rather than a legal obligation. On 2 August a member of the Cabinet argued that ‘we cannot be more Belgian than the Belgians’. On the same day the Tories argued that ‘any hesitation in now supporting France and Russia [i.e. not Belgium – GR] will be fatal to the honour and future security of the United Kingdom’.[2] Very little here of any principled, moral defence of the rights of Belgium: nor for that matter any defence of the sovereignty of Luxemburg which was also overrun by German troops. Defence of ‘gallant little Luxemburg’ does not appear to have figured on anyone’s list of ‘justifications’ for waging war.

While Belgium had the right to resist German occupation we should not give in to myths of ‘gallant little Belgium’. Belgium had probably the most barbaric record of any European state (and it had plenty of competition from Britain and France when it comes to barbarism) in its colonial policy in the Congo – whether as the personal fiefdom of King Leopold or from 1908 when the Congo was taken over by the Belgian state. The Black population was frequently worked to death in rubber plantations; those who refused to work had one of their hands cut off and were shot. European governments and capitalists were fully aware of the brutalities of Belgian rule in the Congo but did nothing to condemn or stop it – for them rubber was more valuable than African lives. One of the few voices raised in opposition to Belgian rule was that of Roger Casement, British consul in the Congo: Casement was executed in 1916 by the British for importing arms to Ireland to aid Irish liberation from British colonial rule.[3]

Self Determination

Whatever the public excuses self-determination of nations did not figure at all among the reasons the Triple Entente went to war. Britain and France were the two biggest colonial powers, subjecting some 450 million people to their oppressive colonial rule, compared to the 12.3 million under the also oppressive German colonial domination. France had invaded Morocco, nearly provoking war with Germany, only 2 years before war finally broke out. Italy, which joined the Triple Entente in 1915, had seized Libya in 1911-12 from Turkey. Russia was not known for nothing as ‘the prison house of nations’ – every nationality under Tsarist rule was brutally oppressed.

It is true that ‘small nations’ were also oppressed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though on nothing like the scale of Tsarist Russia. What allowed Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Italians and others to experience some self-determination after the war was not the victory of the Entente but the overthrow of Tsarism by the Bolshevik revolution. A victory of the Entente with Tsarism still intact would have meant the oppressed peoples of the Habsburg Empire were handed over to a much more brutal oppressor. As it was Croats and Slovenes in the Istrian peninsular were subject to renewed national oppression at the hands of the Italian state, to which they were handed over from Austria-Hungary at the end of the war. The oppression increased under Mussolini’s fascist regime but did not begin with it.

The crushing of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916 and the execution of its leaders is clear proof that the war had nothing to do with self-determination for small nations. Indeed, one year before the world war began British officers in Ireland had threatened to resign their commissions en masse if Ireland was granted Home Rule. This mutiny, against an elected government, was enthusiastically supported by the Tory Party.

British hostility to the rights of the people of Ireland to self-determination was continued after the first world war by refusal to accept the results of the 1919 elections, which gave Sinn Fein a clear majority (as well as electing the first ever female MP/TD – Constance Markiewicz of Sinn Fein). This was followed up by war, an imposed British partition of Ireland and finally by civil war, with the British clearly supporting the pro-partition forces. The legacy of British imperialism’s partition of Ireland, against the wishes of the majority of the Irish people, remains today.

Nor was Ireland the only area in which the rights of ‘small nations’ were trodden on by British and French imperialism.  The clearest example of how neither of these two ‘democracies’ had any intention of defending the right to self-determination is the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916. This secret agreement was made between Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France and also involved representatives of the Tsarist regime.

Its main provisions were as follows: (1) Russia should acquire the Armenian provinces of Erzurum, Trebizond (Trabzon), Van, and Bitlis, with some Kurdish territory to the southeast; (2) France should acquire Lebanon and the Syrian littoral, Adana, Cilicia, and the hinterland adjacent to Russia’s share, that hinterland including Aintab, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbak?r, and Mosul; (3) Great Britain should acquire southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad, and also the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and ?Akko (Acre); (4) between the French and the British acquisitions there should be a confederation of Arab states or a single independent Arab state, divided into French and British spheres of influence; (5) Alexandretta (Iskenderun) should be a free port; and (6) Palestine, because of the holy places, should be under an international regime.

However, the British government was also promising an independent state to the Arabs of the Hejaz (part of modern day Saudi Arabia) if they came into the war on the side of the Entente against Ottoman Turkey while, at the same time, promising a ‘Jewish homeland’ in the Balfour declaration. The Arabs kept their side of the bargain, Britain and France did not. After the war the Ottoman Arab lands were carved up between Britain and France, with Britain getting Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan and France grabbing Syria and Lebanon.  The Arabs only found out about the Sykes-Picot carve-up because the Bolsheviks published the secret treaty after the October revolution. The Arabs of Palestine found themselves subject to ever greater Zionist colonisation. The legacy of Sykes-Picot and the Balfour declaration remains today. The hostility of governments and secret services to the Snowden revelations and their publication by several newspapers shows that secrecy is still the norm in many areas of government.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George (former anti-imperialist at the time of the Boer War and by now one of the biggest warmongers) was not even satisfied with Sykes-Picot. In 1919 he organised the invasion of Turkey by Greek forces, while British and French troops occupied Istanbul. Istanbul had originally been promised to Russia – with a view to recreating it as Constantinople, a predominantly Christian city. The Greek invasion proved a disaster, Greeks whose families had lived in Turkey for generations were forced to leave and the legacy of this piece of imperialist stupidity lasts until today.[4]


If the British and French governments were fighting for democracy then why were they allied to Tsarist Russia – certainly the most brutal, autocratic state in Europe, if not the whole world. The alliance with Russia is clear proof the war had nothing to do with democracy. In any case in 1914 only one of the belligerent states (New Zealand, as part of the British Empire) had any claim to be a democracy as it was the only state in which over half the population (i.e. women) had a parliamentary vote. [5] Right up to the eve of the world war the British government, enthusiastically supported by the Tories, was jailing, forcibly feeding and suppressing women campaigning for the right to vote. It only conceded the right to vote to some women after buying off the leaders of the Women’s Political and Social Union in return for their support for the war.

How could Britain fight for democracy in 1914 when it was itself not a democracy – some 40% of adult males were not enfranchised, primarily the poor and younger working class. Women did not gain an equal franchise with men until 1928. Any state which denies women the right to vote is not a democracy.  And ‘one person one vote’ only became a reality in Britain in 1950 when second (or sometimes third) votes for university graduates and staff were abolished.  In the United Kingdom this basic democratic principle was only finally established in the 1970s following the campaign of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the abolition of Stormont.

Women in France had to wait until 1945 for the vote.

Lions led by Donkeys

Gove, Johnson and Hastings all seem particularly upset about the portrayal of the incompetence of the military General Staff in Blackadder, Oh What a Lovely War etc. However, they are TV, film and theatre shows not historical documentaries. Some of their portrayal of incompetence or callousness is no doubt exaggerated for comic effect. No-one is suggesting that all British army officers were incompetent, public school twits. Nor do we deny the bravery of ordinary soldiers on all sides, killed in their tens of thousands as a result of being lied to by politicians on all sides. However, it is simply untrue to claim that the army top brass had to deal with completely new conditions. For example:

On 29th April British troops pounded the enemy trenches for over 8 hours. When they finally stormed the enemy position they were met with a hail of gunfire, as a result of which 27 soldiers were killed outright, 9 died shortly after from their injuries and a further 70 were injured, mostly severely. This did not take place on the Somme or at Ypres but in 1864 at Gate pa, Tauranga, New Zealand.[6] Now the military disaster at Gate pa was not the first, nor the last, time British troops were routed by Maori forces. However we have to remember that the Maori only had old fashioned muskets, not machine guns. If it is possible to inflict such heavy losses from fortified trenches with such primitive weapons did it not occur to the Top Brass that modern weapons would inflict even greater carnage?

Perhaps they thought the lessons of the New Zealand wars were too far back in history to be worth thinking about. There was, in that case,  a more recent example of the devastation that could be inflicted from well protected trenches – the Boer war. At Magersfontein, Colenso and other places British troops suffered defeats at the hands of a guerrilla army of farmers for whom the spade was their secret weapon. The Boers had more advanced weapons than the Maori though still nothing like the machinery of death available to both sides 15 years later. Their ability to inflict significant losses on the British forces demonstrated the effectiveness of trench warfare. Conversely the failure of British artillery, in both New Zealand and South Africa, to have much impact on trenches demonstrates that the heavy barrages launched at the beginning of the battle of the Somme would have virtually no effect on the ability of German soldiers to slaughter anyone compelled to walk towards them en masse.[7]

Are we seriously expected to believe that at Sandhurst there was no attempt to draw lessons of the New Zealand and South African wars? Or, for that matter, from the mass slaughter of the American Civil war and its truly horrendous casualty rate resulting from the use of the Gatling gun, a precursor of the more modern machine gun available in 1914.  Failure to draw lessons would be extremely culpable, failure to understand them even more so – not least since a number of the senior military personnel during the First World War (e.g. Sir John French, Ian Hamilton, and Lord Kitchener) had all experienced how successful the Boers had been at trench warfare.

Capitalism caused the war

The views of Gove, Hastings and Johnson are almost exactly the same as those espoused by the British press in 1914, though the rhetoric has been toned down. So far, at least, the Tories haven’t denounced the Kaiser as a ‘lunatic’, ‘barbarian’, ‘madman’, ‘monster’, ‘modern judas’ and ‘criminal monarch’ – all of these terms used in a single report in, where else, the Daily Mail on 22 September 1914.[8]

For Gove et al it is clear that the war was all the fault of German militarism: the First World War started because Germany invaded Belgium.  German did, indeed, invade Belgium (and, for that matter, Luxemburg) though German troops did not commit anything approaching the level of atrocities that British politicians and newspapers accused them of.[9] This was undoubtedly an act of aggression – though no different to acts of aggression that Britain, France and Russia had engaged in on many occasions. Belgians had the right to resist – just like the Irish, the Boers, the Maori, Indians, Black Africans, Native Americans, Moroccans etc. had the right to resist British and French colonial rule. But Gove, Hastings and Johnson have yet to denounce the barbarities of British and French imperialism.

However it is simply not very useful to determine the origins of wars in who fired the first shot. Wars have complex causes which usually develop over fairly long periods of time. This is particularly true for the war that broke out in August 1914. The major events prior to the outbreak of war are relatively well known: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg Empire in Sarajevo by Serb nationalists and the threats against Serbia made by Austria-Hungary against Serbia.[10] Russia responded to this threat by mobilising its army and encouraging France to do the same. The German military responded likewise.

But the assassination in Sarajevo was simply the trigger for events that had been developing over many years. At the heart of the conflict was the imbalance between Germany’s economic strength and its colonial weakness. German industry developed into the most powerful in Europe after the globe had already been carved up between the two major imperial powers, Britain and France. This led to economic, political and military rivalry with these already established global powers. Britain, in particular, was not prepared to give up its dominant world role: it was willing to give Germany some of the Belgian Congo or the Portuguese colonies in Africa but not concede any of its own colonies. Britain insisted on maintaining a navy at least as strong as the next two most powerful navies combined.[11] France risked war with Germany by seizing Morocco in 1912.

The only way that Germany could gain an empire that reflected the relative strength of German capitalism was at the expense of British and French imperialism. The needs of British and French capitalism demanded their governments retained control of their colonial possessions. If German capitalism was to gain its ‘place in the sun’ then this could only be achieved by force.

Capitalism can only survive by expanding and by competition. In 1914 capitalism had conquered the globe but, at the same time, existed within the framework of the nation state. Any struggle for redistribution of wealth between capitalists therefore was likely to become a conflict between states. This was particularly the case when some of the former major powers in Europe, especially the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, were falling apart.

Social Democracy and its Responsibility for the Slaughter[12]

Although socialists have always maintained, and continue to maintain, that war is inherent to the capitalist system this does not mean that war was inevitable in 1914. War was only possible because the main Social Democratic parties, in particular the German SPD, betrayed their own principles and voted for war credits.

Only 2 years before the outbreak of the First World War the International Socialist Congress of the Second International, meeting in Basle, declared: ‘Let the governments remember that, with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves’.[13]

Even as late as 15-16 July 1914 Jean Jaures, leader of the French Socialist Party, was calling for a general strike in France in the event of war. Jaures was murdered on 31 July and the notion of a general strike to prevent war was rapidly abandoned.

Jaures probably expected support from the leadership of the biggest Social Democrat party in Europe, the German SPD. The SPD was able to win about one third of the (all male) votes for the Reichstag and had an extremely powerful party apparatus, widely read newspapers and huge influence in the trade unions. This apparatus made the SPD a powerful force in German politics but it also meant that sections of the leadership felt compelled to do anything possible to protect this apparatus. They were not prepared to risk the military seizing their assets and making the party once again illegal, as it had been for twelve years under Bismarck.

The SPD leaders were able to justify their capitulation in ‘Marxist’ terms, quoting Marx and his hostility to Tsarism, amongst talk of ‘defending the fatherland’, while ensuring their funds were transferred to safety in Switzerland. The SPD were seen throughout the international workers’ movement as the defenders of Marxist orthodoxy so it is not surprising that virtually every other Social Democratic party followed suit, all claiming to be ‘defending the fatherland’ against aggression.

However, there were some honourable exceptions: in Russia the Bolsheviks refused to support the war in the Duma and five of their six deputies were exiled; the majority of the Italian Socialist Party also refused to support the war, even after Italy joined the Entente; in Germany Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg organised opposition to the war and the Social Democratic deputies in Serbia, who possibly had most justification for supporting war, all voted against war credits in their Parliament. In every country small groups did uphold the cause of proletarian internationalism against the betrayals of the Social Democratic leaders.

The war revealed the bankruptcy of Social Democracy, a bankruptcy that has grown deeper and deeper every day since. Lenin, who had initially refused to believe stories of the capitulation of the German SPD, understood that the Second International was dead and that the working class needed to  create a new International.

Above all Lenin and the Bolsheviks remained true to a major policy of socialism: the main enemy is at home. Tsarism was the enemy, not Germany, not even German militarism. This is a lesson we need to remember and apply in Britain: our main enemy is British imperialism and will be until we are finally able to overthrow it.


[1] Lenin, VI; Socialism and War; pp 15-16; Moscow; 1977.

[2] Joll, James; The Origins of The First World War; 2nd edition; London; 1994; p27.

[3] See Pakenham, Thomas; The Scramble for Africa; Chs. 32 & 37; London; 1993.

[4] Ahmad, Feroz: The Making of Modern Turkey; pp 47-51; London; 1996.

[5] Though women were not allowed to stand for election until 1919, which reduces its democratic credentials somewhat.

[6] Maxwell, Peter; Frontier: The Battle for the North Island of New Zealand 1860-1872;pp 92-95; Auckland; 2000. A pa was a fortified Maori camp with trenches and surrounded by a palisade.

[7] Pakenham, Thomas; The Boer War; pp. 115-145; London; 1993

[8] Knightley, Philip: The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker; p.66 London; 1982.

[9] Knightley, P; op cit; ch. 4.

[10] The threats and demands on Serbia were condemned at the time as excessive by the Entente governments. They were, however, much milder than the terms imposed on Serbia by NATO governments at the end of the wars in Bosnia and Kosova in the 1990s.

[11] Erskine Childers, another Irish Republican later executed by the British, wrote a novel The Riddle of the Sands which was a best seller in Britain. The novel reveals secret German plans for building warships. In fact, despite all the hysteria about the need for strong navies there was only one major naval battle in the whole of the war, at Jutland. The German fleet retired to harbour after the battle and remained there for the duration.

[12] Up until the first world war the term Social Democracy referred to the followers of Karl Marx – i.e. revolutionary socialists

[13] Joll, James: op cit; p207.

  1. I want to post the commentary below, written by Dave Bailey in about 1979, from his document on revolution in Western Europe. It adds some detail concerning the internal class struggle in various involved powers, giving a picture concerning some of the immediate causes of WW1, to add to Dave’s excellent account of the historic causes:

    “The Great Powers had not joined the battle during the Balkan wars of 1911-13, despite having vital interests in that area. They did so following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb. This struck contemporaries as curious. However, the Austro-Hungarian empire was composed of numerous oppressed nationalities and the rise of independent Serbia inspired them. The assassination produced an acute fear of revolution in Vienna. A war to crush Serbia might avert it. Meanwhile, by a curious coincidence, the revolution broke out in Italy. On 7th June, a socialist demonstration in Ancona was fired upon. This was the signal for an insurrection throughout northern Italy. Local leaders established a proletarian dictatorship. It was known as Red Week. It took ten thousand troops to reduce Ancona alone. This event frightened Italy’s rulers into neutrality, thereby freeing Austria – at the critical moment – from attack on its southern front. Simultaneously, a new 1905 was beginning in Russia. Street fighting broke out in July in Petrograd (Trotsky: Lessons of October p10-11). The Russian autocracy decided that by going to war “in defence of Serbia”, they might avert it (AJP Taylor: The Struggle for Mastery in Europe” p xiii). This in turn pleased the German government. By convincing German labour that they were fighting to defend freedom against the Czarist autocracy, the bete noir of European socialism, they found the perfect formula for starting a war without provoking the German social democracy to revolution. England also had her reasons for going to war in 1914. The strike movement of 1910-13 was the worst ever seen in Britain. Troops and workers had fought in Liverpool and elsewhere. The suffragettes were a considerable threat to political order. Above all, Ireland was on the brink of civil war. In July 1914, the Irish Volunteers took their first consignment of weapons and all attempts at conciliating Carson had broken down. War unblocked the impasse. When war was declared, the workers flocked to join Kitchener’s army, the suffragettes split and half the Irish republicans volunteered for Flanders. In 1914 all the Great Powers sought to export the danger of revolution to their neighbour. It returned to plague them in 1917….”

    • This is a very useful addition to my article, though it does not include all the potentially revolutionary struggles taking place in the years before the first world war: e.g. the French rail workers strike in 1910, which was broken by conscripting the workers into the army; developments in Turkey and several other countries. It has been argued that the first world war did not so much bring about the collapse of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires but delayed their overthrow. I think this is largely correct though much of the Social Democratic leaderships would, no doubt, have tried to derail any revolutionary struggle that broke out. It is also worth noting that in Britain some of the most left-wing activists such as Victor Grayson alongside the supposedly Marxist Hyndman, became the most enthusiastic supporters of the war.

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