The second Battle of the Marne a hundred years on

In August 2014, exactly a hundred years from the day World War I began, I happened to be in France driving along the battle front that crossed from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border and visited many of the WWI battlefields and came across not a single ceremony of any kind to memorialise the start of the most devastating and consequential war in the history of the West. There have been battles that have probably been more consequential – Tours and Vienna [1683] come to mind – but no war has so uprooted every aspect of the European continent, and indeed the entire planet, than the First World War. Whether it was the disappearance of entire dynasties, “the sealed train” which led to the Russian Revolution, or the deadly meddling of Wilson in European affairs, the fact is that even now we are still trying to wind back its effects. There could have been no North Korea without Communist China and there could have been no Communist China without the Soviet Union. There would have been no Nazis and no World War II if there had been no Kaiser and World War I. And on it goes. Yet the same has occurred throughout the period since August 2014 with no memorials and remembrances of any significance that have brought to mind this fantastic war that had done so much to create the havoc of our world today. Those who died on the battlefields of France are barely remembered.

So in The Oz a few days back there was this tiny article on the editorial page foreshadowing the centenary of The Armistice on November 11: 100 years, 100 reasons why Armistice matters. I imagine the Armistice, too, will go by without much notice. So I will just remind us that we are now living through the hundredth anniversary of the second last battle of World War I, The Second Battle of the Marne, whose dates are officially July 15 to August 6 of 1918. August 6, of course, was the date that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Two days from now will be the 100th anniversary of the start of the last battle of WWI, Amiens, which brought the war to its end.

We are the products of history whether we think about it or not, and the fact is no one any longer cares about our own past which in itself means we are rudderless and without bearings. We no longer barely know who we are since we no longer know who we have been and from whence we have come. We may well be heading for changes that will make even the eruptions of World War I seem mild and inconsequential in comparison.

Reflections on World War I

When I was young I would go to the Armistice parade which were just around the corner from where I lived, and there I would see the elderly veterans from the first World War. And as I grew up, I would meet the same elderly veterans, except they were by then from the second World War. And now I meet the same elderly veterans but this time from the War in Vietnam who are, of course, my own contemporaries. No reason to mention it other than that sense of personal connection to the war that began this month a hundred years ago.

But what is remarkable is that the country each of these defended was a different country, and each of these was very different from the country we live in now and no doubt very different from the country as it will be thirty years or more hence. Amongst the many things that I read as a university student very few have stuck with me as active memories, but one was the statement made somewhere by someone that every social theorist and revolutionary, had they returned to earth a hundred years after they had written, would have hated the world they had helped to create. Maybe part of getting old is that sense of alienation from the present. Things look crazy, and I speak as someone who was not only contemporary with the hippies and the new left but was actually one amongst them. No one since has been as crazy as we were and I continue to feel my generation has a very great deal to answer for. But perhaps I am just one more of those theorists who would find the world they helped to create more awful than they could possibly have imagined, but there are still fifty more years before the hundred years has gone by. But it will not surprise me that I would not like the world I will never see but have helped to create. It was perhaps ever thus.

My contribution to the mass of discussion on the outbreak of WWI is to mention my own favourite book on the war which is Frank Furedi’s World War One: Still No End in Sight. He makes the point that The Great War presented one of the great discontinuities in history from which the world we are in is still experiencing major aftershocks. But he reviewed the way things evolved decade by decade so that there is almost a geological stratification of the various periods. My hippy/era-of-the-new-left foundation period has its own ways of marking individuals. And if you see the 1960s against the 1950s, the 1940s, the 1930s and of course back through to the 1920s, you cannot help noticing how different each period was from each other, and of course from the present. Part of it is the technology but there is something else too. The mood shifts and the temper of the times changes. The only time I ever remember my mother being outraged by something I said – and she was a woman of the left – was when I quoted a friend of mine who said, “better a sexual revolution than no revolution at all”. I see my mother’s point, but to tell the truth, the 1960s were as puritanical compared with today, as Edwardians were in comparison with we 1960s types. Such sweet innocence but it was very heaven to be young. I suppose it always is.

That World War I broke up ancient empires and created new ones is not in doubt. That we would be as different as different could be had WWI been somehow prevented I have no doubt. But such is the way of the world. Major historical events happen as they will continue to do. What the book does is remind you that things change, nothing stays as it is, there is no permanence, and that everything you think really matters, down to the core values that you set your moral compass by, are but windblown ephemera whose existence a century from now cannot be even remotely guaranteed. We all live in the present, but the present keeps moving along into that unknown future which holds horrors one cannot even begin to imagine. And great pleasures too, of course, so we must just battle on.