Blogs Coffee House

There are no lessons from the first world war

4 August 2014

8:23 PM

4 August 2014

8:23 PM

I’ve just been in France, where the shadow of the First World War always seems to be darker and longer than that cast over Britain; it is partly that, aesthetically, their war memorials are far more haunting than ours, but also that in sheer numbers our allies lost more men than we did, up to 1.4 million French soldiers died in the conflict. It still seems to haunt the country, and anyone travelling through empty countryside into a small town with its thick list of casualties engraved under the legend ‘mort pour la patrie’ can see why Frenchmen would ask ‘why die for Danzig?’ 20 years later; and can’t quite manage even a faint smile to the weak jokes about France’s supposed military failures.

But then we ought to be wary about commemorating an event that is still so relevant to international politics today, and to which everyone therefore naturally draws their own preferred lessons. While in the Pays de la Loire, a 78-year-old man engaged us in conversation and told us that he had one reason to dislike the English and one reason to love them; firstly we burned Joan of Arc, which led him to burst into a joyous song about defecating on the head of the king of England; more importantly, our brave young pilots had fought on against the Nazis when all looked lost, which left a lasting impression on him as a young boy. He would never forget them.


Did I love Europe, he asked me? Yes, I tried to explain in French (he spoke good English, but I try to wrestle the conversation back to French), I did love Europe, but I didn’t particularly like the EU. My terrible French probably didn’t convey the distinction, but he said we must all stand together to stand up to the thuggish Putin, as we hadn’t stood together in the past.

I shared his sentiments about Europe, but not the idea that Putin is Hitler or even the Kaiser (or Napoleon or Louis XIV, for that matter). We’re mistaken if we can learn anything from the past, in my opinion, because historical dramas contain storylines with only superficial similarities; both the Ukrainians and Russians are living out the trauma of the 1930s in their heads, as are the supporters of the European Union – and, for that matter, our (in my opinion) mistaken decision to fight a just but unwise war has no bearing on whether we should be part of the EU.

Neither 1914 nor 1938 are any sort of guide to foreign policy today.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Ilya Grushevskiy

    Sure you can learn lessons – just that if there are only cosmetic similarities, you can only take shallow lessons out – “War is bad” is a pretty good guide for foreign policy, one that Western governments would do well to remember after all the “humanitarian interventions” and biased support for various national struggles! :p

  • Free Rudy Guede

    “Neither 1914 nor 1938 are any sort of guide to foreign policy today.”
    Oh dear, if Kiev were to shoot down a few more civilian aircraft might Ed West see reason?

    • Andy

      Only Kiev didn’t shoot down any ‘civilian aircraft’. Russian separatists did that with gear supplied to them, and probably operated by, Russia.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        No, Kiev shot it down.

        Or at least, there’s as much proof of that as there is of anything else .

        • Andy

          There is more evidence that it was Russia.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            No, there isn’t.

            There’s more evidence that Kiev did it.

  • Curnonsky

    Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that we must avoid the lessons that Britain and France drew from WWI in its aftermath: that all war is folly, that it must be avoided at all costs, that international institutions are capable of solving all international disputes, that war is outmoded and unnecessary. These are the same lessons Britain and America have drawn in our time from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and instead of ushering in an era of peace they will – as before – lead to a sort of paralyzed horror while the storm builds again.

  • jack

    No point in fighting for the land, house or property that you think you own, but is in fact owned by the King, landlord or the bank.

    The lesson is never to give your precious life away for your masters disguised as your friends.

    • Wessex Man

      get back in your box.

      • jack

        What do you mean?

  • Mark

    Utter piffle. What we learned from WW1 is that secret diplomacy has unpredictable consequences; that we may delude ourselves that perverse ideologues and their followers will inevitably listen to reason (read HS Chamberlain and see if nationalist, racialist German nationalism isn’t the same kind of sick political perversity we say can be ‘dealt with through diplomacy’ today elsewhere in the world, if not in detail then in spirit); and that there is no inherent connection between the presence of civilization and the will for peace. Pretty important lessons, I’d say.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Its ironic that 100 years ago we went to war to save the sovereignty of a country within which today is based an institution which is now the greatest threat to our own sovereignty (an enemy that already has its flag on our shores)

    There is a lesson to be learnt from today and that is the meaning of sovereignty. In 1914 our leaders respected what it meant. Today they demonstrate ignorant contempt for it!

    I wondered what those brave soldiersof 1914 would have made of the betrayal perpetrated by our cotemporary leaders?

    • telemachus

      Sovereignty is the concept of a whole where we can be safe and prosperous with like minded people
      Only little englanders now believe that a tiny island can offer what we need in our complex sophisticated world

      • Wessex Man

        You lying sick piece of work, are you trying to say that the 7th largest economy in the world can’t cope with the sophisticated world out there.

        • Count Dooku

          6th. Soon to be 5th when we displace France,

      • Lady Magdalene

        Your definition of Sovereignty is wrong.
        Sovereignty is a nation over which the Sovereign (in a Democracy, the people) have the right to govern and make the law.
        It has nothing to do with good neighbourliness or “being safe and prosperous with like minded people.”
        The EU is not Sovereign. And there is nothing “safe, prosperous and like minded” about it. The PIGs are being sacrificed for the greater good of the EU and Germany; Eastern Europe has very little in common with western Europe.
        The UK is not a tiny island; and it is perfectly capable of governing itself and making its way in the world without the “assistance” of the corrupt, incompetent and dangerous EU.

      • Ordinaryman

        I would much rather be a “little englander’ than part of a worldwide homogenous mass controlled by a socialist elite that you and your kind are trying to force on us. Believe me, I and many like me will fight all the way to prevent this happening. I am English and proud of the fact. I will not bow to socialist dogma which belittles the history, culture, customs and way of life that has evolved in this country of England over the last 1000 years and more. I glory in the differences between nations and respect the right for people to live in a society of their own making. I am more than ready to adopt those parts of other cultures that can improve my society, but I will not agree to have something alien thrust upon my country by people with a very narrow, and generally, self-serving agenda.
        So call me a “little englander” if you wish, but the hopes I have for my country, and the world as a whole, is far more benevolent than yours.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …but you don’t have any problem with the EUSSR shoving that all down Ukraine’s throat, apparently.

  • The Masked Marvel

    How about not appeasing until the point of no return?

  • Span Ows

    “We’re mistaken if we can learn anything from the past, in my opinion…”

    This is at odds with the old adage ‘learn from your mistakes’; it’s a fairly well known and accepted saying.

    • Terry Field

      Only idiots live mindlessly by ‘old adages’.

      • Span Ows

        Such an idiotic comment already a vote up? Come come Terry.

        So you have never learnt from a mistake?
        Experience is the best teacher
        It pays to be prepared
        The early bird catches the worm
        Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
        Many hands make light work
        Waste not, want not.


    • HookesLaw

      You need to recognise the past before you can learn from it.

      • Makroon

        Curious that Ed West (and most commentators), ignore the effect of the Franco-Prussian rout on France. It not only humiliated France militarily, but imposed brutal, impoverishing, reparations.
        And left a bitter legacy of hate and the yearning for vengeance – you can’t really understand France’s part in the Great War and it’s aftermath, without considering this prelude.

  • TrulyDisqusted

    WWI & II are the best thing that ever happened to the EU.

    Whilst I can understand why Poland, Belgium and France et al may falsely believe they need the security-at-any-cost solution the EU affords them, it is not and has never been the case for us.

    For those who believe Lest We Forget, let’s not forget the belief of Winston Churchill who warned us that given the choice between choosing Europe or the open seas, we must choose the open seas.

    Unlike the clowns we have now, Winston Churchill knew a thing or two about Europe and about life.

    We ignore his wisdom to our cost.

    • Terry Field

      ”WWI & II are the best thing that ever happened to the EU”

      You insensitive, illiterate, brutish, cardboard-headed cretinous apology of a human being

      • TrulyDisqusted

        But every crisis makes them stronger… and none more than the crisis of WWI & II.

        We know this because Barrosso, Van Rompuy, VerHofsted and Merkel herself tell us often that it is only because of the EU (no mention of NATO, the US or British Army on the Rhine) that Europeans haven’t committed Genocide on themselves for the third time in a century.

        If the EU fails, the Europeans are getting it, like Genocide is some weird genetic disorder they suffer from or something.

        If you believe I’m evil for speaking the truth out loud, wait and see how benevolent your beloved EU is first time someone, like the Ukraine for instance says No to them.

        No need to apologise, I’ve got really thick skin but at least the old brain still works !

      • IainRMuir

        He said ”WWI & II are the best thing that ever happened to the EU”, not ”WWI & II are the best thing that ever happened to Europe”.

        Pity you can’t appreciate the difference.

        • TrulyDisqusted

          I’d be surprised if he understands the difference, besides, for some people, it isn’t what you say, but how loud you can shout your insults that counts.

          Ignore him, chances are he’s being paid £7.23 per hour to carpet bomb blog sites by someone much better off than he is, or maybe he really doesn’t understand the difference between Europe and the EU?

          Blame The Blair and his three R’s…

          Educashun, Educashun, Educashun!!! :oD

          • telemachus

            You reply with ad hominem
            The binding together of France and Germany has been crucial to our peace for 50 years now and will be key for the future
            Our role if glue and binding tape
            We should not turn our back on this role for selfish ends

            • Andy

              Oh shut up, you dim Fascist. What has kept the peace in Europe was the American and British Armies, and NATO. That kept the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.

            • Terry Field

              Yes. For the first time I agree with you.

          • Wessex Man

            Your and Iain Muir’s arguments would carry more weight and might even impress him if you weren’t rude about him.

            • Terry Field

              How do their absurd comments carry any value at all?

              • TrulyDisqusted

                Because Terry, unlike you, our comments tend to be relevant and interesting!

                You should try it some time!

            • IainRMuir


              “insensitive, illiterate, brutish, cardboard-headed cretinous apology of a human being”

            • TrulyDisqusted

              He’s a droid. He doesn’t have feelings, or even his own thoughts. He does what he’s told on command.

              I don’t cuddly my toaster or sing lullabies to the washing machine either!

        • Terry Field

          You cretin. It is your juxtaposition of slaughter with any political entity you do not like that is the offence. You are thick. You are insensitive.

          • IainRMuir

            A truly sensitive person would know better than to use the word “cretin” in such a way.

            • Terry Field

              Oh come on, sometimes a robust response is an obligation. The word was well earned. Indeed it understates the level of IDIOCY.
              Come on, get a grip – you have some sort of mind – USE it!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Don’t sugar-coat it, Terry.

      • Lady Magdalene

        In the propaganda stakes, they do. Why else did they have a choir “la-la-ing” the EU’s anthem Ode to Joy at the commemoration ceremony in Belgium?
        Why else did Francois Hollande politicise his speech by continually alluding to the EU.

      • Hegelguy

        But all these miserable people are writing Mafia history: the
        descendants of the Mob Dons arguing there was no need for the cutthroat war that destroyed them all. Ruing the end of white empires.

        The rest of us – the coloureds, the workers – have every reason to
        celebrate the crash of the bloody system in 1917, the direct result of
        the War.

        What would the world have been like had there been no 1914-18 War?

        • Terry Field

          You have a particular view of life as a ‘coloured’. I think it is an ex post view. Had things been different, your view would have been different.
          Is it better for the ‘coloured’ peoples now?
          You are hard pressed to say that it is.
          Africa is a living nightmare.
          China is beginning to dominate and control south Asia in a very ruthless way.
          In what way is life better now?
          Please do not reply with political nonsense – just measured reality will do fine.

  • trace9