Today is Saturday, the 27th of November, 1915. Well, really it is Friday in another century; but I have been living in the past. Since the Great War began threatening last year, I have been trying to keep up with events, day by day a century ago. I try not to look ahead, to get the flavor of old breaking news. I read old British newspapers.
My attention is thus fixed, in horror, on two Eastern fronts. At Gallipoli, severe rains have turned to blizzards, and we have lost another few hundred men to the Infidel Turk. Ten thousands are suffering from exposure and frostbite. It is becoming apparent, even to the Anzacs forward on the ground, that the British government is now set on their complete withdrawal; but doesn’t know how to do it.
“Winston” (Churchill, the Liberal minister whose bright idea for quick victory it was) quit the cabinet of “Squiffy” a few weeks ago (H.H. Asquith, thus nick-named for his affinity to alcohol and gentle female company). He has returned to the British Army for the endless bloody stalemate in France. From what I can see, he is in total disgrace.
Too, our (British and Empire) guys are in retreat back to Kut-al-Amara, after a ghastly bloodletting at Ctesiphon. Our 6th (Poona) Division is getting mauled by the Ottomans in Mesopotamia, under ruthlessly intelligent German officers; these fine, lean, and loyal Indian troops being recklessly sacrificed by our own dunderhead political appointees.
Perhaps gentle reader detects my annoyance.
Our Serb allies are crushed by the Austrians and Germans; the Bulgars struck opportunistically in their rear, and they are squeezed off into the mountains of Albania. But far worse has happened across Poland and Lithuania, where the Germans discovered the rot in the Czar’s forces, and the Kaiser’s are now deep into Russia.
U-boats wander the Mediterranean, sinking our vessels like tin ducks.
As for the Americans, where are they? Comfortable in their homes an ocean away, and getting rich on the munitions trade. Selling us kit we may never be able to pay for, but which we need too desperately to refuse. Years pass, as our debt to them soars. Thank God for the Canadians and Australians, who from the start were all-in. For we are beginning to see how thinly the British economy is stretched.
One must follow it, day by day, to enjoy the full effect of looking into a chasm.
Unfortunately I knew too much, before I started, and as Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything except temptation.” Why, just last week I caught myself reviewing the British general election of 1918, called the moment after the Armistice; and some months ago I succumbed to the temptation of reading a book on the Paris peace conference thereafter. This leaves one pathetically overinformed.
Why am I doing this? It is not from any pleasure in playing toy soldiers, although I do like to ask myself what I’d have done, given only information available at the time. I’m sure I would have made as big a hash, given the opportunity.
Rather I am trying by such indirect means to understand our current situation. For in my settled view, as that of many others, the Great War was a disaster on an almost cosmic scale. It ranks with the Reformation, and the Thirty Years’ War, and the French Revolution, in the history of the collapse of “Western Civ.”
Even while outwardly ruling the world, through the centuries of imperialism, Europe was inwardly digesting itself, by spiritual self-immolation. I date this last century of “post-modernism” from the Guns of August – the new spirit of mass man and democracy, that went into and came out of that first, worldwide war.
It began long before, when we decided that our kingdom was of this world.
A pet hate is the once lionized David Lloyd George – whom along with Woodrow Wilson and Georges Clemenceau, I count as “the Three Stooges of the Apocalypse.”
The “Welsh wizard” won that quick post-war election (the first in which women voted, and the franchise was also broadly extended through the property-less and working classes) by a landslide – except in Ireland, where the Sinn Féin swept almost every Catholic riding. He did so with an hysterical campaign, which claimed he won the war, and promised the Germans would be made to pay for it. Those Germans who had finally been narrowly defeated, and were now in worse shape even than the British.
He uttered more jingo every passing day. The same jingo that had tipped Britain and the whole Continent into war in the first place, after huge nationalist demonstrations in every European capital.
Rather than reconciliation, and reconstruction, he was still settling scores; and engaging in the new nanny statecraft – a “total peace” in succession to “total war.” We still live in that world, “made safe for democracy,” and for a citizenry made ever more juvenile, by absorption into this new “total state,” in which they vote but have ever-diminishing power over their own lives.
We defeated the Prussians, at the cost of becoming Prussians ourselves.
And yet, in retrospect, it all seems inevitable. The gentlemen who had once ruled the Victorian minimal state, had proved themselves effete. They were now held in contempt because. . .they hadn’t won the war. They had, to my mind, proved “too decent.”
Within months of that victory, with the soldiers coming home, a different view of the conflict began spreading among the public. It was that of a Pyrrhic victory. It was the herald of a new cynicism that would contribute its own to the spirit of self-destruction.
Rather what I learn is that I would have been as lost within events, then, as I am today; and howling as much at the moon, then, as now I howl, about human malice and stupidity.
The moral? Trust not in men, for only Christ can save us.