British soldiers carry mistletoe on their rifles in December 1914
British soldiers carry mistletoe on their rifles in December 1914 © Mary Evans/Shonagh Rae

We will be home by Christmas, the men had said, as they marched off to war in the summer of 1914. But, in that cold and rainy December 99 years ago, the massive armies on the western front were settling into what they thought were temporary quarters in their trenches and dugouts. The great battles of the opening stages had ended in a draw and from the North Sea to the Swiss border a jagged line had emerged. Those first months of the war had consumed lives on a scale few had imagined possible.

Europe’s very strengths, its orderly societies, its huge industrial and financial resources, its marvellous technological and scientific advances, had all come together to enable it to destroy itself. Its nations could now fight wars on a massive industrial scale, putting millions of men into the fields and marshalling the productive capacities of the home front to keep them there indefinitely. Europeans, decision makers and publics alike, were slowly coming to the realisation that this war was unlike anything they had known or expected.

Rupert Brooke, writing in autumn 1914, had spoken for many in his generation when he greeted the outbreak of hostilities as a rebirth for Europe.

Honour has come back, as a king,
to earth,
And paid his subjects with a
royal wage;
(from “III: The Dead”)

But the war was not glorious or noble. There were few dashing manoeuvres, successful cavalry charges or short decisive battles. Rather, it was a war of attrition where men were killed from a distance by an enemy they rarely saw. It inflicted great damage on European civilisation and, among much else, hastened its division into ethnic states.

In those first months, though, both sides still clung to conventions, some dating from the Middle Ages, that combat remained chivalrous and that enemies could respect each other. Pope Benedict XV had asked early that first December “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang”. While the leaders on both sides rejected a Christmas truce, when the day came soldiers took matters into their own hands. On December 25, along the western front, the guns fell silent and men emerged, cautiously at first, from their trenches to meet in no-man’s-land. Some sang Christmas carols, others played football. “It was absolutely astounding,” wrote a British captain, “and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

It was a small reminder of a common humanity. We remember it now, though, as something more: a moment when ordinary soldiers reacted against their leaders and the monstrous folly of the first world war. If you ask most people today what they know of the war, they will talk of the horrors of the trenches, the senseless waste of lives, and the meaninglessness of a war that apparently settled nothing. For the British, commemoration of the events of the war has narrowed increasingly to the first day of the battle of the Somme; for the Australians it is Gallipoli; and for the Canadians, Vimy Ridge.

Yet there is much more to the picture than that. As four years of commemorations approach – from books to television dramas – we should take the opportunity to understand such a crucial event in modern history in all its complexities and nuances. As David Reynolds says in his important new book The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, it should be a subject not just for remembrance but for understanding.

We should be aware that views of the war have changed dramatically over time and that those who experienced it directly often saw it in ways that we would find astounding. Memories and remembrances are more plastic than we like to think, changing over time and under the influence of current preoccupations. Two years after the armistice, the Unknown Soldier was brought from France to be buried in Westminster Abbey. In Whitehall, the cortège paused and the King unveiled Lutyens’ Cenotaph. On its sides it bears the inscription “The Glorious Dead”. Throughout the 1920s, the British mourned their lost ones as heroes who had fought in a good cause, not as helpless cannon fodder.

It was only at the end of the decade that doubts crept in; the war had left a troubled world and the 1930s brought the threat of another great conflict. Increasingly, the Great War, as it was known, came to be seen as something that should never have happened and, still worse, that had settled nothing and destroyed much. Revisionist views of the war meshed with growing concerns in the democracies that another war was on its way. In 1934-35, nearly half the adult population of Britain voted for the peace ballot to show their support for the League of Nations and disarmament. Much of the great anti-war literature, including Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Wilfred Owen’s poems and the play Journey’s End, came out around this time. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was published to huge acclaim in 1929. Yet far more novels and memoirs at the time were either ambivalent about the rightness or otherwise of the war or, indeed, saw it as something that had had to be fought. And not everyone who had been in the war wanted to forget it. Millions joined veterans’ associations, in part to recapture the camaraderie they had once felt.

British and German soldiers together in no-man’s-land on Christmas day, 1914
British and German soldiers together in no-man’s-land on Christmas day, 1914 © Mary Evans

The view that the Great War was an unmitigated catastrophe in a sea of mud is the one that has prevailed, however. That was reinforced by the second world war and its aftermath. The conviction in the west that the 1939-45 war was a good, morally unambiguous one (which conveniently overlooks the fact that the democracies were allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union) cast the much less clear-cut earlier war even further into the darkness. In the 1960s, as Britain was struggling with its diminished role in the world, the second world war stood out the more brightly as a time of national greatness. In the United States, where the recent war had been taken as confirmation of American fitness to lead the world, the first world war was increasingly seen through the prism of Vietnam, as an inconclusive, probably unwinnable struggle, which destroyed the societies taking part. Just as Europe had after the first world war, the US also produced great anti-war novels, memoirs and films out of the experience of Vietnam.

Again, though, we need to remember that such views were by no means universal. Many of those who had fought in the first world war looked back on it in later years with mixed feelings, even nostalgia. In 1963, a friend went to see the pacifist musical Oh, What a Lovely War! and a busload of veterans arrived. Oblivious to the irony intended, they sang along happily and jammed the bar at the interval to reminisce.

At that time the generation who fought in the war were disappearing and they have now all gone. It might have been expected that commemorations, too, would dwindle. In Australia at the end of the 1970s, a mere 2,000 people turned up for the dawn service on Anzac day at the war memorial in Canberra. The left, in particular, criticised Anzac day, which commemorates the landing at Gallipoli, as glorifying the war and the empire and, at best, as an excuse to get drunk. By the 1980s, there was talk in Britain of dropping Remembrance day church services and ending ceremonies on November 11.

In the past decades, however, we have seen an extraordinary revival of these commemorations – at least in certain countries. The Russians have always focused more on the great patriotic war of 1941-1945. For them, too, the first world war is much more difficult to commemorate. Is it about Russian defeat, the triumph of communism, a civil war or a mixture of all three? The Germans would mostly prefer to forget about the two world wars and not remind themselves and the world that there was once a different sort of Germany in Europe. So far, German plans for the coming anniversaries are deliberately low-key.

In northern Europe and the wider English-speaking world public interest appears to be growing; perhaps, sadly, because there are new dead from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paradoxically, though, most interest in 1914-18 remains narrowly focused, mainly on the western front or Gallipoli. Although the first world war was a global one, there is little attention paid to the eastern front or fighting in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Even in the case of the western front, it tends to be the static battles of attrition – the Somme, of course, and Verdun that catch the public imagination – rather than the opening and ending stages when there was more movement. The war, although we sometimes appear to forget it, did end with an Allied victory.

Year by year the pressure to wear red poppies increases and the ceremonies draw larger crowds. So many Australians and New Zealanders want to go to Gallipoli to mark the centenary that there has to be a lottery – the beaches there can only hold some 10,000.

I was in Ypres on November 11 this year and my hosts told me the ceremonies at the Menin Gate had changed significantly over the years, with ever more dignitaries and visitors. And, in a reflection of Belgium’s present day politics, the national government is almost entirely absent in what has become an increasingly Flemish event.

It might be inevitable that commemorations of the past get caught up in present-day politics. The federal government in Canada has made great play with the battle of Vimy, where Canadians captured a key ridge, as part of its attempt to show that the nation was made on the battlefield. In 2017, the centenary of the battle and the 150th anniversary of confederation are apparently going to be tied up into one big patriotic package.

One cannot help but wonder what the British schoolchildren who came forward with wreaths at the Menin Gate last month made of the day. Do they know about more than a small part of the western front? Do they understand anything of why the war occurred and what it meant for European society? The education secretary Michael Gove has talked of how British children must learn about the sacrifices made – but I hope they will learn more than that.

Now is surely the right time to challenge the accepted views. The wartime generals were not all cowards and incompetents as Alan Clark argued in his infamous The Donkeys (1961). A new generation of British historians, among others, has done much to explode such lazy generalisation and show that commanders developed both strategies and tactics that, in the end, worked. And was the war just a dreadful mistake or was it about something? At the time people on all sides thought they had a just cause. It is condescending and wrong to think they were hoodwinked. British soldiers felt they were fighting for their country and its values; French, German or Russian soldiers felt much the same.

Nevertheless, surely we now have the opportunity to move beyond national histories and commemorations of the war. Can we not treat it also as a transnational event that affected the world and not just Europe? The societies involved all suffered but it is possible to make comparisons across national borders in areas such as changes in the position of women.

There are some welcome signs that a new international approach to the war is developing. Britain and Germany, for example, are planning a football match at Mons to re-enact the first Christmas truce. And the Museum of the Great War at Péronne, near Verdun, commemorates the battle of the Somme from British, French and German viewpoints, avoids national histories and uses all three languages in its displays.

I once saw an overgrown graveyard in the southwest corner of France where the graves of British soldiers who died in Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon were barely visible. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has tended the graves of the war dead from the British empire impeccably for almost a century. Can it go on doing so for another 100 years, even indefinitely? Perhaps the first world war cemeteries where the soldiers still remain separated into friend and foe will gradually crumble away and become part of the land. We should never lose sight, though, of the need to educate successive generations about the many facets and complex meanings of the war.


Margaret MacMillan is warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of ‘The War That Ended Peace’ (Profile). She will speak at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on March 23,

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