On Tuesday 15th October, Bristol Radical History Group and Bristol Stop the War Coalition are jointly organising a public meeting entitled Remembering the Real WW1 at the Hydra Bookshop, 34 Old Market St, Bristol, BS2 0EZ (map). The event starts at 7.00 pm and entry is free, although there’ll probably be a whip-round for donations. More details here.

The talk is being organised in advance of next year’s centenary of the start of World War 1, for which The British government plans to spend £55 million marking the occasion (and the centenary of other stages of the war). Comments from Prime Minister David Cameron calling for a ‘truly national commemoration’ stressing our ‘national spirit’ already suggest what he has in mind. He has even compared the government’s plans with last year’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

What Cameron is forgetting is a phrase that I recall from 40 years ago this month, when I had just started doing political science as part of my Modern Languages degree, i.e. ‘war is the destruction of the fittest’. Indeed, the First World War is credited with being the first war in history where slaughter was conducted on an industrial scale due to advances in technology. In the Battle of the Somme alone (1st July-18th November 1916) claimed more 1,000,000 casualties, making it one of the bloodiest battles in the history of mankind.

German dead at Guillemont

German dead at Guillemont, September 1916. Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For the majority of people in Europe, whether or not they were directly involved, WW1 was one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters (and one whose repercussions are still being felt in international relations. Ed.). Already historians like Max Hastings have begun to argue that this was a war that had to be fought against German militarism and the costs in human life and destruction were worth paying. In contrast, radical historians have begun to uncover a multitude of both individual and mass forms of resistance to the war on all sides of the national divides. This resistance took the form of desertion, fraternisation, strikes and mutinies.

Like most families, members of my own were involved in the conflict. Ted, my paternal grandfather was involved in the Gallipoli campaign, which by itself claimed 34,072 British dead and 78,520 wounded. On my mother’s side, my grandfather Alfred was rejected for military service on medical grounds, although my Auntie Doris informed me in a letter that one of Alfred’s brothers – whose name I cannot remember – deserted in France and was never heard from again by the family.

Those British service personnel who survived the conflict were promised a ‘country fit for heroes to live in’ by ‘Welsh Wizard’ David Lloyd George‘s postwar government. They were sadly let down.