In a year that marks the centennial of the end of World War 1, commemorations are underway to mark one of the bloodiest conflicts known to man. A war involving all of the secular European empires and their colonies of the time, as well as the Ottoman Caliphate.
Most modern renditions of this conflict that are provided to the population have an overarching narrative that this was a war about ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty’, where millions of soldiers went to the frontlines to make the ultimate sacrifice for these ideals – with the ‘forces of darkness’ being defeated as a result. It is supposedly due to their Herculean efforts, that people in countries like Britain enjoy the freedoms to say, believe and act how they like – efforts which the people of today must acknowledge, be grateful for, and therefore honour the memories of, those who took part in the conflict.
Such a woolly narrative, being devoid not just of any meaningful detail but also being detached from reality itself, is used by governments of all political persuasions today as a powerful propaganda tool to win loyalty towards their armed forces and the modern conflicts in which they take part.
Attempting to strip these conflicts – past and present – of political context and associate them instead with abstract concepts such as bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers taking part, provides governments with a green light to continue with their foreign policies, free of meaningful critique on a mass scale.
It was the 19th century Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz who famously observed that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” A study of the actions of the states which took part in WW1 prior, during and after the conflict, shows how deeply political and inextricably linked with the ambitions of empire this war was, rather than the pursuit of some lofty secular ideals as it is often recast to be.
Britain, in its heyday as the empire of the time, had for the preceding centuries been using its armed forces to slowly and brutally colonise vast lands and hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Once it took hold of these lands, it inflicted terror upon the populace in the event of any rebellion whilst it systematically stripped them of their resources to enrich itself; an event which the descendants of such people are supposed to be grateful for, as it left them with mere relics of its extraction mechanisms like railways.
Britain was not averse to using its soldiers to set up concentration camps – well before Adolf Hitler did – just as it did during the Second Boer War in South Africa during the turn of the 20th century. It oversaw the death of millions in India multiple times due to famines created directly as a result of its rule, such as the policy of exporting grain for the benefit of its armed forces whilst millions died in Bengal.
Britain was also notorious for its rivalries with other empires at the time leading up to WW1, such as Russia in Europe and Central and South Asia – which came to be known as “the Great Game”. It competed with Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium across Europe, as well as with the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.
The greatest prize during WW1 was seen to be the ailing Ottoman Caliphate, with its vast lands spanning key strategic locations in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East, which were teeming with resources such as oil.
Britain’s policies and actions prior and during WW1 were designed to dissect this caliphate – the manifestation of political authority for the Muslim world globally for centuries – in such a way that Britain would take the lion’s share in the event of its fall.
It was not averse to using Machiavellian manoeuvres: such as making Sultan Abdul Aziz, during his visit to London in 1867, a Knight of the Garter – a Royal honour bestowed to him by Queen Victoria herself. As result, then demanding the abolition of his Caliphate State in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 as it conquered lands such as Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and others. It consolidated its conquest of these territories by installing the puppet rulers it supports to this day, such as the tyrannical Saudi monarchy, whilst they brutally oppressed their own people and enriched themselves in the meantime. A region which was without borders and mass conflict for centuries, was now relegated to artificial statelets which have been nothing more than dependent vassals of colonial powers, alternating through the decades in their loyalty towards which foreign power they serve.
WW1, like any other war, was a deeply complex political conflict in which each participant used its armed forces to achieve its own political objectives.
Britain was no different to any other empire in its time, except for the success it achieved relative to others. It continued to occupy other lands, proudly proclaiming how ‘upon its lands the sun never set’, whilst the people it enslaved could be forgiven for thinking the sun never rose for them. Its armed forces were instrumental in carrying out innumerable atrocities under colonisation. Even the secular ideals such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty for all’ that were used as the motivating cause to massacre and plunder, were not given any real thought – as for decades after WW2 Britain remained a deeply racist society. This deep-rooted xenophobia was driven underground in the era of multiculturalism, but has found new open life at a time where “muscular liberalism” is the state-backed policy that sees Islam increasingly vilified in public life and wars abroad in full swing – still framed within the same ‘civilising the natives’ narrative.
It is critical to remember the context in any reflection of a war, without naïvely buying into meaningless abstract slogans or symbols which aim to humanise the very tools of brutality that have caused misery for hundreds of millions around the world for centuries. Particularly as this context remains just as relevant and applicable to the conflicts we see today.