A conflict started by the ruling classes of Europe’s imperialist nations for the right to expand or maintain their empires in the Balkans, the Middle East, India, Africa and Asia, the Great War was overwhelmingly fought by the working classes of those nations, who – even if they saw through the nationalist rhetoric of their country’s propaganda – were trapped between the firing squads of their own army and the trenches in which their fellow working men faced the same. Of the 200,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers court-martialed during the First World War, 20,000 were found guilty of offences carrying the death penalty, 3,000 were sentenced to death, and 346 were shot by firing squad. Up to 1.25 million were killed in combat or by disease, and a further 1.675 million were wounded. Those who survived the slaughter returned to the poverty and exploitation of the economic system they died to defend.
Although the defeat of the Germany Army brought down the German Imperial Family that had initiated the conflict, the working-class communist revolution of November 1918 was bloodily suppressed by an alliance of that army and various right-wing militia, and in place of the old constitutional monarchy a social democratic system of capitalist exploitation by parliamentary republic would last just fifteen years before ushering in Hitler. Great Britain, despite being on the ‘winning’ side, remained a constitutional monarchy under a Head of State and King drawn from the same royal family as the deposed German Kaiser and the executed Russian Tsar, and whose daughter is today the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Head of the Commonwealth.
Contrary to popular perception and official celebration, hostilities didn’t end on 11 November 1918. British troops from the Western Front, many recruited from unemployment into Churchill’s notorious ‘Black and Tans’, were redeployed against the Irish Republican Army in the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. And the imperialist powers of Britain, France and the USA went on to support the White Russians in the Civil War of 1919-25 that cost the newly founded Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic a further 7-12 million casualties, most of them civilian, on top of the 3.5 million dead and 5 million wounded they had already lost in the Great War. In the resulting famine of 1921-22, a further 5 million Russians starved to death.
From the British point of view, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Great War is that at the time of the armistice 6 million British men, almost all of them from the working classes, laid down their arms, their guns, their tanks, their ships and their planes and went back to the factories, farms, mines and shipyards that had produced them, back into serving and waiting on the ruling class, back into rising unemployment, reduced wages, worse working conditions, poor access to healthcare, slum housing and non-existent political representation. And despite the workers’ uprisings of 1919 that were bloodily crushed by the same army that had fought in France and Belgium, and the brief General Strike of 1926 that was betrayed by the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party, within 10 years the families of the men who fought in the Great War were facing destitution and malnutrition in the Great Depression that followed the collapse of the stock market, and in 20 years their children were called up to fight another imperialist war.
A hundred years later, the war that the Saudi-led coalition has waged on Yemen since 2015, that has killed tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians and currently threatens 17 million Yemenis with starvation, cholera and typhoid from a famine the United Nations has declared the worst humanitarian crisis in 100 years, is being supported and armed by the UK, which is now the sixth largest arms dealer in the world, and the second highest arms dealer after the USA to Saudi Arabia, to whom it exports half of all its arms. Since the war in Yemen began, the UK Government that today is solemnly remembering the 1 million British and Commonwealth soldiers that died in the Great War has licensed £4.7 billion of arms to the Saudis.
Remembering the 19 million dead and 23 million wounded in the Great War without understanding why they died and at whose command is to continue to swallow the propaganda of imperialist nations that continue to dispose of the working class bodies of their own nations and those of others to serve the competing financial interests of their ruling classes. Every official act of remembrance is a deliberate act of forgetting what is happening in the present. So lest we forget: there is only one war – the class war, and we’re still losing it.
The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grace is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrappèd up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk and dry’d,
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing, awakening,
Spring like redeemèd captives, when their bonds and bars are burst.
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field,
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air;
Let the enchainèd soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open;
And let his wife and children return from the oppressor’s scourge.
They look behind at every step, and believe it is a dream,
Singing: ‘The Sun has left his blackness, and has found a fresher morning,
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease!’
– William Blake