by Professor Gary Sheffield, WFA Vice-President.
It is a very great honour to be asked to give the address here, in this place, on today of all days. Exactly one hundred years ago the British Expeditionary Force was fighting for its life in the First Battle of Ypres, desperately defending the last Belgian city remaining in Allied hands against powerful German attacks. The first crisis of the battle had occurred on 31 October, when the thin khaki line had given way under pressure of a major enemy push and the British army, specifically Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig's I Corps, stared defeat in the face, only for a hasty counterattack to restore the line. The centenary of the second, and final, crisis falls today. On 11 November 1914 defeat had seemed certain, only for, once again, desperate counterattacks to restore the situation. The Allied victory at First Ypres extinguished the final, flickering hope that Germany had of winning a quick victory. It set the conditions for what came after: a deadlocked front, the product of modern 'hi tech' weapons - quick- firing artillery and machine guns - and some distinctly low tech kit - the spade with which trenches were dug, and the barbed wire that was put out in front. The great battles of attrition of 1915 - 17 were the product of this deadlock: for the British, the main battles were Loos, the Somme, Arras, and Third Ypres (or Passchendaele), with of course many smaller but nonetheless bloody actions.
The generals of Europe did not suffer from collective imbecility: the dreadful truth was that the stalemate, the product of modern weaponry and the ending of one period of warfare, could only be broken at the cost of the huge casualties that heralded a new and revolutionary era in warfighting. Only in 1918 did Haig lead the British army to victory - and this was a cutting-edge, modern army that was virtually unrecognisable from the primitive force that had fought around Ypres in November 1914.
Vast numbers of men, from all parts of society, gave their lives in winning that victory, and in the long years of struggle that preceded it. Standing in this chapel, surrounded as we are by physical memorials of the dead and with the memory of those that died, as it were, just beyond our grasp, it is is only natural, and indeed right, to question the cause for which they died. In round numbers there were one million British Empire dead, about three-quarters of them from the British Isles. It is those dead that, to an overwhelming degree, dominate the British memory of the war. The display in the moat of the Tower of London of ceramic poppies,representing the dead, has been enormously popular. It has obviously touched some sort of national raw nerve. The problem with this approach is that The Million Dead are all too often presented without proper context, almost as victims of a vast natural disaster. The war, the event in which these men were killed, is routinely presented as futile, a meaningless conflict. The fact that within a generation the First World War was succeeded by a second, even greater conflict that cost the lives of many more young men lends itself to the 'futility' interpretation. Standing here in the Guards' Chapel, destroyed by a V-1 in June 1944 with heavy loss of military and civilian life, one cannot help but be moved by the utter tragedy that this world suffered in not one but two total wars in the 20th Century.
Of course, Britain's participation in the First World War was not viewed as futile while the war was going on. It does the memory of those who died, and for that matter the vast numbers of those soldiers, sailors and airmen who survived the war, a disservice to view the war in this way. For families, it must have been bad enough to have lost a loved one, and to have been constantly told, in later years, that they had died for nothing was particularly cruel. These men did not die in vain. For Britain, the First World War was not a matter of the meaningless slaughter of young men. The nation entered the war reluctantly, to face an aggressive, autocratic, militarist enemy that was bent on achieving hegemony in Europe by subjugating its neighbours. If Germany had succeeded, it would have placed the security of these islands - and that of the overseas Empire, which was then of an importance to British people that has been largely forgotten - in the direst peril. Reluctant as I am to take the Holy name in vain in a place of worship, the words uttered by King George V to the US ambassador shortly after the outbreak of war neatly sums up the British response: "My God, Mr Page, what else could we do?"
Today, the zeitgeist is such that the view that the states of Europe have collective responsibility for the outbreak of the war is very popular, and several very well-received books have pushed this argument. Well-received by the media that is: a majority of scholarly historians firmly reject this view. The evidence is very clear. The war came about because of decisions that were made by the political and military elite in Vienna and Berlin. I do not have the time to go into any detail about the rise of German power, or the decline of that of Austria-Hungary. Suffice it to say that, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Austria decided that Serbia needed to be destroyed, and Germany gave its ally unconditional backing. This decision was taken in the full knowledge that it was likely to trigger a general war. Absolutely the best that can be said about Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Franz Josef and their governments was they were willing to take criminal risks with world peace. A much darker interpretation is perfectly possible; that Germany deliberately brought about a European war of conquest. Not for nothing were advancing British and Dominion troops treated as liberators in the newly-freed French and Belgian towns and cities in the autumn of 1918.
The terrible reality is that Europe did not sleepwalk into war. The war came about because of the deliberate, conscious decisions of individuals in Vienna and Berlin. King George V was right: Britain had no realistic alternative but to rise to the challenge, for it was a threat to its security of the utmost gravity. No one in August 1914 fully understood the nature of the war that they were embarking upon, but some could glimpse dimly through the gloom the outline of what was to come. One such was Douglas Haig. He had been arguing for some years that Britain's professional army would be too small, and a mass citizen force would need to be raised, and the war would be long, not short. Haig was right, but not even he foresaw the horrendous cost of waging even a victorious war. Today, many people believe the victory was not worth the cost, and some even believe that a German victory would have been preferable. Such views are profoundly ahistorical. The British people in 1914 and in 1918 recognised that as terrible as the war was, a German victory would be worse.
Increasingly, historians are coming to recognise that during the First World War Britain was a Christian nation, that the Christian religion underpinned people's thinking, and national culture, to a remarkable degree. It is easy to sneer at the debased, militarised version of Christianity peddled by some. It is fairer to recognise the importance of faith in upholding soldiers and civilians alike during this terrible ordeal, and the witness of many individual Christians in the trenches and on factory floors, in headquarters and in offices, across the Empire. I thank God for these men and women, and for their faithful witness.