What Did They Die For?

The British (and Commonwealth) World War I dead whom we shall be remembering next Sunday – the centenary of the Armistice – fought and died for a number of reasons. Some of course had no choice in the matter, after conscription was introduced in 1916. For the volunteers however, and for the conscripts once the War had got going, a common motive, maybe the major one, was simple solidarity with their mates in the trenches. A second was to test their masculinity, or experience the excitement – as it was presented to them – of a proper shooting war. Some fought to protect ‘hearth and home’ – wives, girl-friends, sisters and children – from what were presented by the propagandists as unspeakable atrocities, if the Hun were not stopped. Beyond this, and at a broader level, they fought for their country  – Britain, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland or Australia, depending on which nation they felt most identity with. Some fought for the peace that was bound to follow ‘the war to end all wars’. They usually didn’t fight for their commanders, or politicians, or allies in the field. Indeed, they had more respect for their enemy than for any of them. (See my piece on Gallipoli in the LRB: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n10/bernard-porter/who-was-the-enemy.) ‘Patriotism’ was a superficial and fragile thing, which for ordinary soldiers generally crumbled under fire.

Still less was there any imperial patriotism at work here. I once undertook a study of the inscriptions on First World War memorials, in connexion with my book The Absent-Minded Imperialists, in order to see how often the ‘Empire’ is mentioned on them. I was genuinely surprised to find how absent the Empire is. ‘For King and Country’ appears quite often; but I could find only one single example of ‘For King and Empire’ – on a stone cross somewhere in Wales. That’s one out of a possible several thousand. (Every village has its WW1 memorial; most cities have several.) The famous Whitehall Cenotaph simply says ‘To The Glorious Dead’. Why ‘glorious’? It doesn’t say.

It may be different with Commonwealth war memorials, in Australia, for example, or those great war cemeteries in France and Belgium, or even India. I haven’t done the research on those; but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. Colonials after all felt far more imperial identity and pride than did most stay-at-home Britons (I think I’ve shown that in my book). What the latter fought and died for was their own folks. By rights, their inscriptions should read: ‘For Their Mates’. Which, to my mind, indicates a far better cause to sacrifice one’s life for, than a country or a King.

But that of course is not what their officers and politicians ever want us to think.

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2 Responses to What Did They Die For?

  1. “Beyond this, and at a broader level, they fought for their country – Britain, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland or Australia, depending on which nation they felt most identity with…… Colonials after all felt far more imperial identity and pride than did most stay-at-home Britons (I think I’ve shown that in my book).”
    I think there is an inconsistency between these two sentences. You are right that, as far as Australians were concerned, most soldiers seemed to be fighting for the British Empire, not the newly-created nation-state. After war was declared, Manning Clark reports that Rule Britannia and God Save the King were the anthems of choice, demonstrating the colonials’ “imperial identity and pride”. Australians, apart from those of Irish ancestry, regarded themselves as tied to the Motherland, and the sense of nationhood was very weak. Australian troops were under the control of the General Staff in London, and British generals called the shots for the most part on the battlefield.
    The Australian attachment to the Empire was not entirely irrational: Britain’s protection was felt to be vital while the continent was sparsely populated and militarily vulnerable. By the end of the Second World War, there was a changing of horses: the mightier US empire emerged as the new underwriter of Australia’s security, and thereafter Australian forces have fought at the behest of the White House.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phil says:

    “The glorious dead’ is Homer, apparently.

    Liked by 1 person

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