The carnage billed as the war to end all wars, which began 90 years ago this month, bears a profound responsibility for the world as it is today. Arab discontent, Israeli bullying, the menace of terrorism and Iraq’s anguish can all be traced to World War I, which reinforced and legitimized imperialism although Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi urged Indians to go to Britain’s rescue in her “hour of need” because “the gateway to our freedom is situated on French soil”. He was not alone in professing touching loyalty. Britain’s prime minister, Herbert Asquith, received a telegram that read, “Do not worry, England, Barbados is behind you.” But if the war betrayed promises, exemplified duplicity and set horrendous precedents, Woodrow Wilson’s vision also sparked the twin hopes of economic globalization and an equitable new world order.
A German diplomat I knew, Prince Hubertus zu Loewenstein, could never forget June 28, 1914, when a footman informed his father that a Serbian nationalist had shot dead the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The father’s first words were to order the castle flag to be lowered to half-mast. Protocol satisfied, he pronounced, “This means world war!” And so it did, though Britain did not enter the fray till August (dragging in an unasked India) when German troops invaded Belgium — the Kuwait of 1914, endlessly eulogized as the gallant little victim of aggression — on their way to France.
Those four years changed the world. Four empires vanished. Artificial states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, fated to disappear, clogged the map. Poison gas was used for the first time, cavalry for the last. Aerial bombardment of civilian targets and submarine attacks against merchant shipping became commonplace. Censorship, official propaganda and patriotic reticence concealed most horrors from the public. Very little was written, for instance, about the outbursts in Rangoon, Singapore, Belgium and Basra when Indian soldiers rejected orders. They were usually Muslims who would not bear arms against Turkey whose ruler was also Caliph of Islam, but Singapore’s Outram Park metro station bears witness to Britain’s ferocious justice: 37 Sikhs were shot there, and another 18 hanged in India.
Muslim sowars of the 15th Lancers refused to fight the Turks around Iraq’s holy cities, which the Americans now bomb with impunity. Then, too, righteous Western allies claimed to be securing the world for democracy. Their thunder against Kaiser Wilhelm’s “archaic militarism, vaulting ambition and neurotic insecurity” made him sound as villainous as the American media’s portrayals of Saddam Hussein.
West Asia is still bleeding from the war, especially from its politics of perfidy. The secret Anglo-French (Sykes-Picot) pact guaranteed continuing instability by turning Iraq into a colony under a puppet king at the beck and call of Britain’s pro-consul. Edmund Allenby’s sweeping victories and conquest of Palestine, conveniently ratified by a mandate, made it possible to implement Arthur Balfour’s promise of “a National Home for the Jewish People” in Palestine without consulting either the indigenous population or Britain’s Arab allies to whom the land had already been promised. The exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, who organized Arabs to bomb railways and bridges, romanticized terrorist action. Lawrence had a role in playing on the ambitions of Husayn, shareef of Mecca, who provided the manpower for sabotaging Turkish lines of communication.
Appropriately, Harold Pinter, the playwright, poet and bitter critic of the invasion of Iraq, has won the award commemorating Wilfred Owen, the poet who was killed, aged 25, in the trenches and who wrote hauntingly of “the pity of war”. Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter lament, “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still,/ And I remember things I’d best forget” is another reminder that nine million soldiers, out of the 62 million who took up arms, were slaughtered. The letters that Indian soldiers dictated from the front also breathed poignant resignation. “I have no hope of seeing you again and getting safe and sound out of France,” Shankar, a Jat, wrote in 1917. “Give my salaams to Chintaman, and tell them not to be angry for we are about to die.”
India’s 1.4 million soldiers, the biggest contingent from the Empire, 62,000 of whom fulfilled Shan- kar’s dire prediction, again, the biggest fatality list, were not all willing mercenaries. Forcible recruitment was not unknown. Men were kidnapped or women were held hostage until the men enlisted. Michael O’Dwyer, Punjab’s autocratic governor, was accused of using “terrorist methods” to recruit soldiers. In addition, India’s “gift” of £100 million for the war effort was more than a year’s revenue. An impoverished exchequer was also fleeced to yield between 20 million and 30 million pounds for the upkeep of soldiers who were fighting not for themselves or their country, but for England. The Indian Munitions Board was established in 1917 to relieve Britain’s overworked munitions industry.
Some men enjoyed their contact with Europeans, especially with the friendly French. They were flattered to be hospitalized “in the place where the King used to have his throne” (Brighton Pavilion) and were overjoyed “by the great, great kindness of God” when “the King with his royal hand” awarded a wounded soldier the Victoria Cross. But priorities were set by the award of a VC to an English officer and the Indian Order of Merit to the jemadar who also died in that encounter. Contemptuous about fighting “Indians and the scum of Egypt”, the Germans were outraged to find Indians guarding PoW camps.
Victory created further problems, with historians agreeing that the Versailles peace talks (in which Lord Sinha and the Maharajah of Bikaner were allowed a decorative presence) sowed the seeds of the conflagration that engulfed the world in 1939. A cartoon showed Wilson, Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau emerging from Versailles after the terms were announced, one of them saying, “Curious: I seem to hear a child weeping.” Hiding behind a pillar, a little boy labelled “1940 Class” was crying his heart out.
Germany lost territory, was shorn of its colonies, suffered humiliating military restrictions and had to pay huge reparations that Maynard Keynes denounced in The Economic Consequences of the Peace. While the Americans and French brought different agendas to the peace talks, some historians now wonder whether Belgium’s King Albert did not provocatively try to play one side against the other.
But the war also promised a brighter future under the aegis of the League of Nations when Wilson enunciated his famous Fourteen Points in a message to Congress. Eight points referred to specific war issues and six to global equity. They included “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at”, freedom of navigation, disarmament, impartial adjustment of colonial claims, and removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions”. Clause 14, the most far-reaching, proposed “a general association of nations… formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”
The vision was never fully realized. Wilson’s lofty principles excluded Asia and Africa. His own attitude had hardened by the time Germany sought peace on the basis of the 14 points. Congress rejected his benevolent prescription for the League, which itself foundered on Italy’s aggression against Ethiopia. Its successor organization is today struggling against American unilateralism, although the United Nations, with all its weaknesses, remains the best hope for small and vulnerable states and of an equitable world order. The hit-and-run attacks that paralyse the world also flow from the war to end all wars. British strategy introduced terrorism to west Asia and taught Lawrence’s Arab allies to regard surreptitious sabotage as a just, honourable, patriotic and even heroic weapon of self-defence. The children of those Arabs are being hunted down today for continuing similar acts of violence against their new enemies, the United States of America and the Zionism it both protects and appeases.