Archive for category First World War
(or why Jeremy Paxman has got it wrong).
In yet another attempt to flog himself as a self-proclaimed expert on the First World War, Jeremy Paxman has been lamenting the apparent way in which the history of this conflict has entered public consciousness. Speaking at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai last week Paxman argued that war poetry, such as that by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, serves to confirm peoples’ ‘prejudices…to see the whole thing as a terrible pointless sacrifice’. Paxman believes that:
‘the events [of the First World War] now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged. So what I wanted to do was re-engage with the events themselves. How did they seem to people at the time?…Forget the poems’
Unfortunately it seems that Paxman has become confused with how history is studied (not surprising given that, despite his wish to be an authority on the First World War, he does not hold even an undergraduate degree in history). You can study events in history, and you can study the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and opinions of those who took part in these events. Sometimes you can study both together. But the two do not necessarily equate. In fact, rarely are they the same thing. No two people ever view the same series of events in the same way – which is what makes history so damn interesting in the first place. So if Paxman wants to study events that’s one thing. If he wants to understand how such events seemed ‘to people at the time’ he has to realise that Sassoon and Owen were people of the time. They were not propagandists – they wrote about what they felt and heard and saw, and the fact that they put these thoughts into the form of poetry does not make them any less valid as primary sources. To ‘forget them’ is to refuse to engage with an important historical source simply because you don’t like what they say.
What Paxman also fails to acknowledge is that Sassoon and Owen were not alone. Although Paxman and Michael Gove might not like it, there was a real sense of horror in Britain at the time of the First World War over the sheer scale and brutality of the conflict. The war touched the lives of ordinary people in a way that no previous conflict ever had. It’s easy to forget in today’s day and age where we are constantly exposed to images of soldiers in Afghanistan and bombs exploding in Gaza that for the average person in 1914 – 1918 the death and destruction of the war was a shock. People who had no previous experience of the military were pulled in to fight and nurse and grieve in a way that had profound consequences for the future of British society.
Mutiny and Revolution
One such consequence was the severance of traditional feelings regarding authority. The hurt and anger which the public felt at the destruction they saw came to focus on those who they believed were to blame for taking Britain to war in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, many British people did blame the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence for the First World War. It was believed that the secret machinations of elitist Foreign Office officials had led Britain into an unnecessary conflict that had caused the death of thousands of working class men. After 1918 there were veracious calls for reform of the Foreign Office recruitment process, for example, to counter the dominance of the aristocracy in the making of future foreign policy. It was also argued that all future foreign agreements and treaties should receive parliamentary approval – a suggestion made as a result of the belief that Britain had been pulled into the war in the first place because the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, had taken it upon himself to make various promises to the French and Russians. The economic crisis that followed the war only exacerbated these bitter feelings as unemployment spread and labour unrest rocketed. In January 1919 police and workers clashed violently in Glasgow to the point where tanks and machine guns were called in to occupy the city. Initial plans to release men from the military in phases so as to allow better re-integration into civilian work had to be cancelled when troops stationed in Folkestone and Dover mutinied. In 1918 and 1919 the police themselves went on strike. By 1920 there was a likelihood that should a general strike occur (as was being threatened for that Autumn) the authorities might find the police and ex-soldiers joining the workers. As a report of the Home Office put it, ‘in the event of rioting, for the first time in history the rioters will be better trained than the troops’. So serious was the situation that in January 1920 the Chief of the Imperial General Staff set his men to prepare plans for ‘mutiny and revolution’ in Britain.
This unrest was not confined to Britain either. Throughout the world people were starting to question the status quo. The First World War had seen the destruction of many of the great empires of the day and brought forth Communist revolution in at least one country. Everywhere the old ruling elite appeared to be collapsing and boundaries and borders shifting. America, with its proclamations of self-determination for all nations, was now front and centre of the international stage. The concept of ‘authority’ was evolving. When Gandhi, a small Indian man in a loin cloth, appeared able to challenge the might of the British Empire, then all ideas of authority, tradition and status quo were up for questioning. The First World War broke common faith in authority. People felt betrayed by the very people who professed to be their betters. While it would still take decades for British society to make real headway in eradicating notions of privilege, class and elitism, it was arguably in 1918 that such profound change began.
Call of Duty
Paxman’s other argument centres on the idea that should such a conflict break out today Britain’s youth would not be rushing to sign up to fight as they did in 1914.
‘We live in such a relativistic society now, and materialistic, self-obsessed and hedonistic; it’s hard to imagine circumstances under which people would say that ‘it is worth it, I’m willing to risk my life and well-being for this’…What would [the younger] generation fight for? The right to use your iPhone? What are the great noble causes?’
In his typical fashion of trying to argue a point that is based merely on opinion and conjecture, Paxman resorts to the cliché of ‘young people today’. Expanding further, Paxman argues that one of the reasons the younger generation would not sign up to fight ‘is probably that ideas of duty, clearly strongly felt by many people, have diminished as the international significance of the country has diminished’. The problem here is that Paxman equates a lack of sense of duty with a lack of social conscience; that because young people today may not feel a sense of responsibility to Queen and country that they are therefore inherently selfish and superficial. This is a very poor argument indeed. I believe that young people today are still capable of incredible acts of generosity, bravery and self-sacrifice, if they believe in the cause. Perhaps they will not blithely sign-up to kill others simply because their elders say so; perhaps they would not believe it would be over by Christmas; perhaps they have seen too many photos and videos to be ignorant of the grim reality of warfare. That does not mean they do not believe or care about important issues. Thousands of men and women still enlist in the British armed services every year even though they face the real possibility of actually being shot at (unlike Paxman’s generation). And in 1939 when world war broke out once again, thousands of men and women still rushed to pledge their help. The reason? Part of it may have been about duty – but a large part would also have been because they believed that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped and that they needed to defend their homeland from foreign aggression. Their trust in authority may have been broken, but their understanding of right and wrong was not.
In 1918, Britain was the world’s greatest Muslim power. Its victory in the First World War meant that there were few parts of Asia and the Middle East which did not come under British imperial influence in some shape or form, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Transjordan, Palestine and, of course India. Even nominally independent Persia and Afghanistan were heavily dependent on British patronage. Yet, despite emerging from a conflict which saw the collapse of all the other major empires of the day, the post-war period was a difficult time for Britain, and the future of its empire was less than assured. For, together with (some would say because of) the devastation it wrought on humanity, the First World War served to accelerate the growth of three of the most significant ideologies of the 20th century – Communism, nationalism and pan-Islamism. Despite what some contemporaries in Whitehall might have believed, it was not Communism but in fact the latter two ideologies (particularly in combination) that were to prove the greatest threat to the British Empire in the years immediately after 1918.
Prior to the war
Muslim discontent had been simmering beneath the surface long before the outbreak of the First World War. Since the late nineteenth century, more and more Muslims had come to the realisation that the expansion of European influence in Asia and the Middle East was increasingly subjecting them to Christian rule. Past glories of Islamic power had slowly been replaced with Western hegemony. Instead of the Moghul Emperors, British sovereigns now ruled over India (including modern day Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Burma) while Russian Tsars had absorbed much of Central Asia into their empire. Even those Muslim countries which were retained their own rulers were still weakened by foreign interference: Afghanistan’s foreign relations were controlled by the viceroy in India, Persia had been divided between Britain and Russia and everybody seemed to be sniffing around ‘the sickman of Europe’, the Ottoman Empire. By the start of the twentieth century then, Muslims across the region were feeling decidedly encircled. Fear for the future of Islamic identity resulted in the founding in 1906 of the Muslim League, its aim being to stimulate political awareness among the Muslims of India. Meanwhile, the pre-war period also witnessed the rise of pan-Islamism – the idea that Muslims throughout the world should be unified under one Islamic state with the Caliph as its head. Since the 16th century it just so happened that the Caliph was also the Ottoman Sultan – a fact that would become particularly relevant when the Ottomans decided to enter the First World War on the side of Germany.
During the war
Nevertheless, despite these early pan-Islamic tendencies, Anglo-Muslim relations were relatively stable. Indian Muslims remained loyal to the British crown, and the political reforms sought by the Muslim League had were consistent with the maintenance of British control. Haunted by the spectre of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, successive viceroys were also careful not to alienate their Muslim citizens too much. With the outbreak of war, the League even professed its support for Britain. One million Indians (Muslim, Hindu and Sikh alike) fought during the First World War and even when the Sultan pronounced a jihad against the Allies, Indian Muslim loyalty held. Britain supported the Arab revolt and the government in India even managed to keep Persia and Afghanistan neutral, despite German and Turkish pressure to join the conflict on their side. The Afghan emir, Habibullah, lamented in 1916 that he was ‘between the devil and the deep sea, with a friend on the one hand and a brother in faith, weak and in need of help, on the other hand, asking me for help against the first friend’. In fact, it would appear that it was his support of Britain that came to cause Habibullah’s later assassination and the succession of his anti-British son to the Afghan throne.
The real trouble began after the conclusion of the First World War. With the defeat of the Central Powers began the Allied debate on what to do with the Ottoman Empire. That this last bastion of Islamic power had lost the war was bad enough for Muslims to stomach but in 1919 it appeared that the Allies (and Britain in particular) were planning to dismember the Sultan’s territories, thereby weakening the power of the Caliph. According to those who accepted the authority of the Sultan/Caliph (and not all Muslims did), the temporal and spiritual power of the Caliph could not be separated. The Caliph needed to retain control of certain territories – including the holy places of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem – in order to be able to act as protector of the Muslim world. A Caliphate movement soon formed in India (with supporters in England) demanding for Turkey the ‘restoration of status quo ante bellum’. A deputation even travelled to Britain to put forward their defence of the Caliph, only to find themselves rebuffed by the prime minister, David Lloyd George, who, together with the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, believed the Caliphate movement to be a lot of hot air.
What those in London failed to realise, however, was that the plight of the Caliph proved the perfect focal point for all Muslim discontent across Asia in the post-war period. This was about much more than the future of Turkey – to Muslims in India, this was about their future, and their relationship with their imperial rulers. For, compounding this idea of being encircled, was the feeling of failure Indian Muslims had hitherto experience in trying to gain greater political say over their lives. A great part of why the Muslim League had supported the empire’s effort in war was the idea that in showing their loyalty thus, Britain would grant political concessions in return. Unfortunately, the enactment of the suppressive Rowlatt Bill in 1919 quickly put paid to this optimism. Muslims who had once shown complete loyalty to the Raj were now angry: ‘They had joined the Christian powers to fight against Muslims and had not received any reward…neither any degree of self-government for India nor any particular advancement in the status of the Muslim community.’ Matters were made worse for Britain when Gandhi lent his support to the Caliphate movement, thereby effecting a collaboration between Muslims and Hindus and a united front against the imperial rulers. Meanwhile, in Egypt violent anti-colonial riots were breaking out and in 1920 Mesopotamia would follow suit.
Indeed, the Caliphate movement epitomised the way in which pan-Islamism blended with rising nationalist feeling in the aftermath of the First World War. The Russian Revolution had been an inspiration to much of the Asian world, with Bolshevik anti-imperial declarations and promises of religious freedom striking a chord. In Persia, for example, Britain would face harsh public opposition to its attempts at imposing an intrusive agreement on the government in Tehran. In Afghanistan the accession of emir Amanullah signalled a great change in Anglo-Afghan relations. To celebrate his new position of power, Amanullah decided in 1919 to invade India and begin the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Enthusiasm for the conflict soon faded with the start of an RAF bombing campaign; however, during the subsequent peace negotiations the emir managed to win back the right for Afghanistan to conduct their own foreign relations. For die-hard imperialists back in London, such as Curzon, this was a real blow to the empire’s prestige; for the viceroy and his men, relinquishing this control over Kabul was an inevitable consequence of the changed state of international relations after the First World War. No longer would popular feeling among Asians allow for such blatant subjugation of their independence.
In August 1920 when the Treaty of Sèvres was signed by Turkey, the Afghan emir decided to take the opportunity to cause even further trouble for the British government in India. The terms of the agreement were harsh in Muslim eyes, removing parts of Turkey to place under Greek control. Amanullah capitalised on this, announcing that all of those who wished to perform Hijrat (religious migration) would be welcome in Afghanistan. With this encouragement, some 20,000–30,000 Muslims left India and travelled to Afghanistan as a protest against the treatment of Turkey by the Allies. This huge exodus of people caused anxiety for the viceroy and his men – although in the end, the Muhajirun (those performing Hijrat) were soon flocking back to India after receiving a less than warm welcome from the Afghan government who had quickly become overwhelmed with the number of Indians seeking refuge. The whole affair was a blow to the prestige of the Caliphate movement hierarchy (who had organised the Hijrat) and to Amanullah’s pan-Islamic credentials.
In the end, the Caliphate movement was curtailed in a way few Indians expected – when in 1924 the new Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliph themselves. In fact, initially Muslim Indians refused to believe the news, although ultimately they had no choice but to come to terms with it. This was not before the issue had created widespread unrest in India and caused the downfall of the secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu (who was forced to resign after publishing a telegram from the viceroy who pleaded with London not to impose harsh terms on Turkey for fear of what it would do to Muslim agitation in India). The cooperation of Hindus and Muslims in India, which had always been something of a marriage of convenience was also on the wane by the mid 1920s. Six years or so after the conclusion of the First World War, Britain could start to breathe a little easier as across Asia things appeared to settle down somewhat. Nonetheless, the conflict had ushered in an era of greater politicisation among the region’s population which could not be put back in the box once released. The Caliphate issue had been a convenient focal point for Muslim unrest – its removal did not mean an end to the growing feelings of alienation that prevailed among Britain’s imperial subjects. By 1947 the force of Muslim demand would result, not only in the independence of India but the creation of Pakistan.