Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Lessons in Empire

England and the First World War

By Jon Basil Utley | February 17, 2012

The killing power of modern weaponry just wasn’t understood when Europeans first turned such firepower and technology upon themselves. Before then they thought that colonial victories were just because of the superiority of white races and European civilization. There were warnings such as the battle of Omdurman (1898) when England’s new “Maxim” machine guns, firing 500 rounds per minute, killed or wounded 26,000 Sudanese with the loss of only 48 Brits. Still, European generals blithely sent millions of their soldiers to certain death without comprehending consequences of new technology. To End All Wars is a book about the lessons from imagined “easy wars.” The author quotes army officers about the “ecstasy of battle” and the “rapture giving delight” experienced by the British soldiers winning easy battles against Asians and Africans. One is reminded how today most Americans thought of starting wars in the Middle East as a “cakewalk.” The attack on Iraq with “shock and awe” had hardly any American casualties. War is understood as exciting entertainment on television, experienced while comfortably ensconced in safe, warm homes. Witness today the assumption of an easy and cheap attack upon Iran with no thought for unforeseen consequences.

The commanding British General Sir John French’s first battle order was for his infantry to clear a path through the German barbed wire and machine guns so that he could order a horse cavalry charge.  Cavalry generals were the elites of the British Army just like former fighter pilots are the majority of highest ranks in the American Air Force and Navy. The Europeans ordered their soldiers to attack just the way it had been done nearly 75 years before In the American civil war. I thought of this last year when visiting the site of the Crimean War, Sevastopol. A great museum there shows the British cavalry in the famous Charge of the Light Brigade wearing bright red coats just like 75 years before in the American Revolutionary war.

It wasn’t only the British. Austrian officers in bright blue uniforms were easily targeted by enemy snipers. The Germans had the best army, but even they started the war with horse cavalry waiting in the rear. It’s not just that generals always start using the same tactics as their nations’ last wars, rather they use the tactics of nearly a century before. Today we see the American military still focusing training upon aircraft carriers, fighter planes and tank warfare like were used nearly 75 years earlier in World War II. In Iraq the generals fancied they could repeat World War II tactics with massive bombing and maneuver and then get tidy surrender documents. Instead they created a failed state and less security for America.

Most of us think we already know about the First World War, the senseless slaughter of the young men of Europe, the incompetent generals, the ruin of Western civilization’s self-confidence for a generation, bringing about the aftermath of communism and Nazism. To End All Wars well explains the psychology of Europe’s self destruction, the war mania, the unbelievable misery. It details how four great empires were destroyed. Their leaders also imagined it would be over in a few months, just like the think tank warriors of Washington fancied about Iraq and Afghanistan. Parents rallied to their sons and now daughters going off to glorious war; they also imagined that war would be “cheap.”  World War I showed how great nations could be trapped and even ruined by the actions of tiny allies, Serbia then, Israel or Taiwan for us today, plunging the world into war.

More Lessons

The book brings home more valid lessons:

•  When nations have not had war for a while its mystique and excitement become more and more appealing. Citizens warm to its siren call of conquest and “glory.” Leaders find it easy to lie and excite their peoples into wanting, what is always presupposed, an easy and quick war.  If one adds to this the power and profits of the American military-industrial-congress complex one finds overwhelming support for more wars. Equally we see younger Chinese officers chafing at American arrogance and threats. Recently England’s and France’s leaders were hot to have an easy war of their own, one against Libya. Kings always loved war and wars were a major reason European immigrants fled to America in past centuries. I often recall how my friend, Richard Viguerie, once told me that French immigrants first came to America primarily to save their sons from being drafted and killed by the French kings in perpetual wars.

•  Europe’s leaders feared the growing socialism and its virulent sister, communism.  War was fostered by many of Europe’s ruling classes as a way to rouse nationalism and weaken leftists’ appeal, to take their citizen’s minds off growing international worker solidarity.  English leaders argued that war would “rejuvenate the national spirit and the bonds of empire.”  Ironically, instead the war accelerated the leftist agendas. Indeed, it directly brought about the monsters of communism and Nazism.  I’m often reminded of the great Israeli general Yitzak Rabin, later murdered by Zionist fanatics, warning America against starting the First Iraq war in 1991.  He warned, as have many through history, that those who start wars never know the final unintended consequences.

•  Censorship is necessary for nations at war. Remember always, the first casualty of war is the truth. We see equally today how Washington is gradually increasing its powers to censor objections, e.g. its assault on the 4th Amendment and its growing monitoring of private communications.  Most Americans are either very supportive or don’t care. This assault comes from the Right more than the Left. Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich former press secretary and subsequently long time editorial page editor at The Washington Times, wrote in his book about the necessity for censoring antiwar media. During the first years of the Iraq war he never allowed anti-war opinions on his editorial page.

•  The war’s casualties and deaths are still astounding to recount. Nearly ten million soldiers were killed.  21 million were wounded. Of every 20 English males between the ages of 18 and 32 when the war started, 3 were dead and 6 were wounded by its end. France had double the casualties of England and Germany had three times as many. 12 to 13 million civilians died.

The war was astonishingly lethal for the ruling classes. Whereas 12 percent of all British soldiers in the war were killed, 19 percent of officers died. Of Oxford’s graduating class of 1913, 31 percent were killed.  Wounded were at least an equal number. My own uncle, Basil Temple Utley, was a British officer with the Connaught Rangers. He was gassed and died some years after the war’s end, weakened by having only one functioning lung.

Author Adam Hochschild vividly describes Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 to celebrate the glory of the British Empire. Within 20 years the nation was on the rocks and war had sown the seeds which would dissolve its empire. One thinks today of America’s self glorification and pride upon the defeat of communism and now our growing bankruptcy just 20 years later.

To End All Wars is a fascinating read, with much about the effects of war on the home front and descriptions of the war’s dissenters and resisters.  Those who fear for America’s arrogance and incredibly wasteful, self-destructive war policies will find many parallels with England’s self destruction and loss of its primacy in the world.

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative.




The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here