Skip to content

Dimming the Lights

In our house last night the lights were extinguished for one hour in respectful memory of the dead of the First World War.  It was a small gesture and some would say a pointless one.

“Manufactured sentimentality,” I can hear some of my friends saying, and they may be right. 

In truth, though, we ourselves had not given the matter much thought.  But as we sat, M and I, watching the various commemorations unfold on television – the BBC purveying the solemnity that it does so well – and the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge suddenly, at the appointed time, melting into the London darkness, it seemed the right thing to do – a spontaneous gesture to the millions who died in the cause of ….

Well, what exactly did they die for, the eager, innocent men and boys from London, and Leipzig, and Lyons, and Linz, and all the other cities, towns and cities of bewildered Europe and its overseas dominions?   

Britain and Germany, up to 1914, were not natural enemies.  Your average Briton would just have enthusiastically taken up arms against France, the ancient enemy, as Germany, “our cousins” to the north.  The British royal family was German by blood.  The Kaiser himself was a grandson of Queen Victoria, an anglophile to his spurred boots.   

But wait a minute!  Did we not have to go to the aid of defenceless Belgium, invaded and desecrated by brutish hordes from their warlike eastern neighbours?  And did we not have, if not a treaty then at least an ‘understanding’ with the unloved French, a promise that we would not stand idly by if they should be threatened?

Yes, we did.  But the real reason we ‘joined’ the War was far more complex.  It was, above all, to maintain the global hegemony of the Royal Navy in order to assure the survival of the British Empire, both of which were seen to be imperilled by the Naval Race instigated by the Kaiser, who plainly had grand imperial ambitions of his own.

And sooner or later, even if Britain had ‘stayed out of it’, the island fortress would have been threatened by whatever country or alliance dominated the continent of Europe.  History had demonstrated that.  Britain was in 1914, as it always had been, much too strategically important to ignore.  Not by accident had a quarter of the world fallen under the sway of an insignificant rain-swept pile off the European coast.

And so reluctantly – or with the pretence of reluctance – we first sent the regular soldiers – the ‘contemptible little army’, as the Kaiser called it – and then the conscripts, and finally those millions of volunteers whose names now oxidise on village memorials across the land.  Britain did so in the expectation that the trifling matter of putting the Germans in their place would be settled within a few months.  Only now do we know better.  

The Great War, in short, was instigated by complexities that we still do not fully comprehend; that, and the mad hubris of European leaders who were neither in control of their mental faculties or of the forces they unleashed.  Few escape blame. 

The Austro-Hungarian Emperor thought he was dealing with a little local difficulty in the Balkans.  The Russian Tsar, by all accounts a shallow little man desperate to retain his rotten autocracy by any and all means, fabricated, or went along with, a moral imperative to help Serbia.  The Kaiser felt obliged to demonstrate a similar kinship with the Austrians.  France went in desperately seeking revenge for the loss of territory and damaged pride it had suffered in the Franco-Prussian War a few decades earlier.  They were all surrounded by shadowy military advisers of ambition who bent the ears of their masters until they had their way.

And so it went, the dominoes falling one by one until the table was littered with the things.

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn …..” but only those poor saps who donned khaki or field grey thinking they were fighting for a noble cause, for king and country, for national honour, rather than in the name of a sordid conspiracy of ambitious fools.

They, if no one else, are surely worth a brief dimming of the lights a century later.

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.