Today in History

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.

trenches-provided-no-protection-against-the-deployment-of-chemical-weapons-here-a-canadian-soldier-poses-with-his-horse-while-wearing-a-gas-mask-at-the-canadian-army-veterinary-corps-headquarters

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.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Everyone wanted war in 1914

    1. Ever since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Austria and Germany had been determined to prevent Russian expansion in the Balkans.

    2. Austria knew that, if she allowed herself to be humiliated by Serbia, she could not keep control of her minorities.

    3. Germany saw war with Russia as inevitable and wanted it before Russia completed her rail network and gained the ability to mobilise her vast reserves quickly.

    4. With her prestige already damaged by her defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia knew if she allowed her ally, Serbia, to be humiliated, she could well face revolt in her Western provinces, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, from which she drew the bulk of her tax revenue.

    5. With her stagnant birth-rate and Germany’s growing one, France knew she could not wait another generation, if she were ever to recover the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and avenge the defeat of 1870.

    6. Italy wanted to incorporate Austria’s Italian provinces (Italia Irredenta).

    7. Tirpitz’s naval expansion and the consequent arms race with Germany was ruinously expensive for Britain and, ultimately, unsustainable.

    • Francis Miller

      Aquinas said every cause has its corresponding effect and all human choices reveal the good they desire. WWI saw new levels of slaughter, suffering which has echoed through history only to outdone by the next WW that topped its carnage and suffering. Root Cause Analysis as practiced in industry requires you to get the effect right. What specifically happened. Then your research, questioning and analysis can give you contributing causes, broader implications and the root cause. The root cause is that without which that specific effect or failure could occur. I think the specific effect was the early version of ‘Post-Modernism’. All the other causes can be found to justify war but the rejection of the virtue of hope seems to have led to the abyss of WWI.

    • JimmyD

      I don’t doubt any of that, except I would add Prussia wanted war more than anyone. Check out Chesterton’s “The Appetite of Tyranny”, in which he compares Prussia to a man who sets fire to a dilapidated house. The fire-escape may be broken, the floor may be cracked, but it is nevertheless the Prussian who set fire to the house. I believe, without evidence for I am no scholar, that the post-war reparations were a well-intentioned attempt to cage the roaring lion, and the attempt failed. Some wise men then must have known Germany would rise again, and sought to prevent that rise (or spiritual fall) via reparations.
      I think the destruction would never have been so total if not for Prussia. They were the only barbaric combatant. They craved destruction, as the proud man craves worship, and for the same reason. When I heard how they pillaged Belgium, and how Austria sought a separate peace but the Kaiser threatened to invade Austria, I realized how flimsy the modern portrayal is – that portrayal of the war as economic competition between settled states and a newly nascent Germany.

  • givelifeachance2

    The only consolation is that great works also rose out of that war, Tolkien and Eliot in particular. Fare forward.

    • David Warren

      Er, Tolkien & Eliot were created by God, not by the First World War.

      • givelifeachance2

        God writes straight with crooked despots.

  • Manfred

    When we think of the World Wars as Divine punishments, they become easier to understand. Britain lost alomost a million men in the First War, and that is not counting the wounded. The British government had to order 32,000 glass eyes for its wounded veterans. Some vetefans of all armies were so disfigured, they were required to wear facial coverings when they were in public.
    It will be interesting to see what our penalty will be for the abortions of 60 million innocent human beings and the sales of their parts. The institutionalization of sodomy by the civil government and the Church will cause punishments that the British could not even comprehend in 1915.
    For a comparison of the sentimental change between 1898 and 1915, Goole up “The Soldiers of the Queen” march and play it with lyrics.

  • Manfred

    correction: The best way to access the March for its full audio and visual presentation is via you tube.

  • CS

    I have to say:Brilliant. Well done and Thank you.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    J R R Tolkien born in South Africa probably of Boer ethnicity was an officer in the British Army in France during WW I. His masterpiece the Lord of the Rings is often misunderstood and the films are not worth seeing. He began writing the trilogy 1937 completed it around 1949. 1937 saw Hitler at the peak of his domestic power as absolute Fuhrer and his growing international dread. Churchill among the few saw the immense evil in the man and the Satanic evil of Nazism and its real threat to Western Civilization and to Britain. Tolkien saw that too. Sauron the amorphous evil spirit in the Rings has affinity to Adolf and his evil designs of conquest and enslavement. Mordor resembles Nazi Germany. This evil threatened Britain throughout the war and reached its highest threat during the Battle of Britain. Tolkien’s son I believe Michael was an RAF fighter pilot. All was largely saved by the ordinary pipe smoking hobbits living in the Shire. The closeness of events and the similarities found in the trilogy seem clear although Tolkien stated upon inquiry that the Trilogy was not written for that purpose. The moral theme of the work is that man does not possess the native capacity to wield absolute power as was found in the possession of the Ring. Tolkien’s moral heroes Gandalf, Strider, Galadriel are all tempted by its possession but refuse knowing that this kind of power ultimately corrupts.

    • Vince Whirlwind

      Is Tom Bombadil God?

      He tosses The Ring around flippantly, aware, yet unaffected by Its’ power. After 40 years, I am still bewildered by who or what Tom Bambadil represents.

      In our current times, we could use a Tom Bombadil, to sing us a pleasant song, to give us that dream of the amazing sunset, to flippantly disregard The Ring.

      “By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear us!

      “Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!”

  • augury

    Noteworthy that Roger Cohen has an eerily similar piece in today’s New York Times –“World War III.” The lesson Cohen teases from the The Great War is the inherent injustice and unsustainability of Empire, where Mr. Warren seems instead to see a divinely created inexplicability. The Book of Daniel buttresses the Cohen version, I would say. Worldly empires have feet of clay. They don’t last. We’re naive if we think we’re different.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    Having just finished Brig.Gen. S.L.A. Marshall’s classic, “World War I” for about the 5th time, I agree with you about the similarities. The present times are very similar to the days preceding, the days of and the days immediately following WWI all put together. But, unlike you, I do not find all of the “leaders” of that time too “effete.” Some, such as Wilhelm of Germany and Nicholas of Russia, were simply foolish autocrats who did not have, to put it bluntly, very much intelligence of any type. And, the obtuseness of Germany, whose leaders could not imagine England and France going to war over merely a “piece of paper”…which Germany had also signed and pledged to honor, but, then violated with full intention of malice. Wilson’s “pie-in-the-sky” 14 Points…written before he ever set foot in France. Wilson, who refused to visit the battlefields and horribly ravaged areas of France because he did not want his idealism shaken (he actually said that when urged by Clemenceau to visit the sites of the actual battles and the sites of former towns and villages). One could go on and on about the foolishness of the leaders of that time. And, the foolishness that was continued in Europe until Sept. 1939 and in America until Dec. 1941. And, to see it all happening again…well, as Santayana said, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” And,those who do not know or recognize God, or even admit He exists, are doomed to have little true future regardless of how well they know history.

  • Bro_Ed

    This is one of your better pieces. Congratulations.

    I recently read two disparate quotations that made me wonder about where we are headed. One was from Pope Francis. He said: “We are already fighting World War III, piecemeal.” The second was from a high ranking U.S. military authority who said: “1% of America has gone to war. The other 99% has gone to the mall.”

    I think a big part of the problem is that we have no skin in the game. I haven’t had to make any sacrifices. Have you? There is no draft, shortages, rationing, air raid wardens, patriotic rallies – nothing. We have a Congress that makes Harry Truman’s “do nothing” Congress look like over- achievers. We have abuse, corruption, and arrogance in our Church. The business world no longer runs just on profit, it has expanded into Greed. Our schools “teach to the test” and shepherd kids through to a quick graduation when they may not even be able to read and write let alone make a living. Oh yes, and little kids in athletic programs “earn” trophies just for showing up.

    I agree that “only Christ can save us” but I think the Lord still helps those who help themselves. Maybe if we start doing little things, right things, within ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, maybe it will spread. The reform has to start at the grass roots level and work its way up to the top. Too much incompetence and self interest at the top today to notice very much.

    • Dave Fladlien

      “I haven’t had to make any sacrifices. Have you?” Yes, I — and my business associates — have, or at least have suffered from the current situation. The turmoil in Europe is cutting heavily into the short-term prospects for our start-up, and it may be worse in the long-term. I grant that our suffering is minor compared to those who were killed or maimed or lost all their possessions, but our problems aren’t at all trivial, either. And I don’t think we are alone; I think a whole lot of Americans are hurting.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Well in the words of the Beatles’ song Give Peace a Chance which is what a just settlement would at least have provided. And it was also thinking along implacable judgmental lines including Chesterton whom I much admire that Germany was punished and Poland was given the Polish Corridor after Prussia/Germany had occupied it for close to 200 years. The population was about 50/50 Polish German. It was precisely the completely unjust settlement that allowed Hitler to succeed. I would be less prejudiced in calling them Huns also. There were many good Christians including Catholics like Von Stauffenberg and Cardinal Augustus Von Galen who were not pleased with the settlement but who strongly opposed Hitler.

  • Francis Miller

    I suppose you are right. I used a perfectly good term in engineering analysis ( I r one) and applied to this. Thus making it literally jargon.
    I was struck by the historical reasoning for lack of options in the Middle East. It seemed that free choice does not enter in.



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