First World War

For God and the Empire

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The OBE was invented as a way of tying ordinary people to a system in deep crisis, writes John Newsinger, while the man who came up with the idea was part of a cover up into the sexual abuse of children.

The Order of the British Empire (OBE) was created on 4 June 1917. Its motto was “For God and the Empire”. The year of its foundation was not coincidental — it was very much a royal response to the pressures of total war, industrial unrest and revolution.

King George V was very worried that the monarchy was under threat — something dramatic had to be done to attach “ordinary” people to a system that was founded on privilege.

From the darkness on all sides

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War trauma has been suffered by soldiers for centuries, but it took on a whole new scale during the industrialised slaughter of the First World War. Roddy Slorach exposes the callous treatment of sufferers at the hands of their "superiors".

The Great War represented industrial warfare on a previously unimaginable scale. When the fighting finally ended, 20 million soldiers and civilians were dead. More than half of the 3 million British troops who fought were deafened, blinded, lost limbs or were badly disfigured. It was “shell shock”, however, affecting much smaller numbers of troops, which became the signature injury of the war. How did this vague and inaccurate term for war trauma come to achieve such iconic status?

Suffragette who opposed World War One

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Pankhurst under arrest

When the First World War broke out leaders of the suffragette movement, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, supported the slaughter. But as Laura Miles and Sheila Hemingway show, Sylvia Pankhurst not only opposed the war but supported strikes and became a revolutionary socialist.

The experience of the wave of workers’ militancy before the First World War (known as the Great Unrest) and then the war itself transformed women’s rights campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst from radical suffragette to revolutionary socialist. It was a journey that would transform her politics, and relationships with her mother and sisters.

Why does Capitalism lead to war?

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Death from the sky

The century since the slaughter in the First World War has been littered with endless more bloody wars. Sally Campbell argues the drive to war is not accidental but inherent in the logic of capitalism.

In the 20 years running up to the First World War there were approximately 100 binding agreements between the Great Powers promising peaceful coexistence. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague was set up in 1899 “with the object of seeking the most objective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace, and above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments”. This was at the behest of the peace-loving Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (nickname: Bloody Nicholas).

Revolutionary defeatism

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As the First World War broke out Lenin called for socialists to oppose their own governments. How his analysis of the war and his defeat slogan were eventually proved to be correct.

In August 1914 Lenin argued that the First World War was an inter-imperialist conflict and the key task for Russian socialists was to continue the struggle against the Tsar — who in his view was “one hundred times” worse than Germany’s Kaiser.

Lenin’s proposition was that, “From the viewpoint of the working class and all the Russian people the ‘lesser evil’ would be the defeat of the Tsarist monarchy and its army.”

Revolution in the trenches

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All along the frontlines ordinary soldiers agreed unofficial truces known as 'live and let live'.

The chances of a soldier being killed in “the war to end wars” were very high, ranging from one in three for Serbians and one in four among Scottish, Turkish and Rumanian soldiers. Bulgarians suffered one in five fatalities, the French one in six and it was about the same among the Germans. The lowest loss rate was among the Americans, one in 40. In all 10 million men died, 15 million were injured and 9 million became prisoners of war. Most men of suitable age had no choice whether to take the risks of war or not.

4 August: The great betrayal

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The decision by mass socialist parties in the Second International to support the war cast a long shadow over the continent.

The enormous coverage given to the centenary of the First World War does occasionally recognise the tragedy of the conflict and the horrendous loss of life it engendered. Recent imperialist wars have been so disastrous that treating the First World War with unashamed jingoism would not be convincing.

WW1: A just war or imperial conflict?

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We are told that the Great War was fought to stop German aggression. But the bloody conflict pitted imperial states against each other in a war for colonies.

Surely we have nothing to complain of in this war. We shall get Mesopotamia, Palestine, the German colonies in South Africa and the islands in the Pacific, including one containing mineral
deposits of great value… I am told that Mesopotamia contains some of the richest oil fields in the world.” So said British Prime Minister Lloyd George on 23 April 1919.

Why read The Junius Pamphlet

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Right up until July 1914 anti-war activity was rife across Europe, led by the socialist parties of the Second International. In the face of growing nationalism Rosa Luxemburg and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) organised mass rallies and the SPD headquarters put out statements confirming their stance against war: "The class conscious proletariat of Germany, in the name of humanity and civilisation, raises a flaming protest against this criminal activity of the warmongers."

Fighting the war on the home front

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The claim of national unity during the First World War is a myth. The reality, argues Chris Fuller, was huge levels of repression by the British ruling class and a largely untold history of resistance.

The carnage of the First World War has been seen by many commentators as different from any conflict that went before. In fact there were hints as to how terrible a war between the rival imperial powers of the early 20th century might be. At the battle of Omdurman in 1898 the British had deployed the Maxim gun for the first time and slaughtered 10,800 Sudanese rebels. However, the war mindset was still that of the "cavalry charge"; few people envisaged the scale of the horror that was 1914-18.

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