In the third article from the RCN’s May Day Special Bulletin, Eric Chester (RCN), Convener of the Scottish Peace Network’s August 4 Working Group, examines the reality behind the First World War, and the UK government’s attempts to rehabilitate British imperialism’s role, to prepare the working class today for future imperial sacrifice.

One hundred years ago the world was engulfed in one of the deadliest conflicts in history. World War I brought the deaths of tens of millions, and tens of millions more were severely wounded. The war lasted more than four years as it spread throughout the globe. World War I had an enormous impact on the course of history, and its effects are still felt to this day. In a very real sense, World War I marked the end of the old world of tradition and stability and led to a new world of constant change and pervasive insecurity.

Promoting a militarist ethos

The United Kingdom played a central role throughout the war, and, indeed, the imperialist rivalry between Britain and Germany was at the core of the conflict. The ruling coalition in Westminster looks upon the coming commemoration of the centenary of World War I as a way of justifying the British role in the conflict, while also promoting a militarist ethos for the present era. The official line holds that while World War I was a dreadful event, an Allied victory was necessary. From this perspective, only the military might of the United Kingdom and its allies prevented Germany from consolidating its position as the dominant power in Europe, thus threatening the security of the British Isles.

Prime Minister David Cameron has written that in commemorating World War I “we should not be afraid of recognising” that “the world would have been a much darker place” had the Allied Powers not defeated Germany. Britain had entered the war to defeat “the threat of a Prussian dominated Europe.” (Daily Telegraph, December 18, 1913). Education Secretary Michael Gove has contended that World War I was a “just war,” since it was essential to defeat Germany and its “aggressively expansionist war aims.” (Daily Mail, January 2, 1914).

Grossly distorted view

This official narrative follows along the line set by British propaganda during World War I itself. It presents a grossly distorted view of the actual course of events. The war started when a simmering regional conflict in the Balkans exploded when a Serbian nationalist shot the person next in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne. This led to direct warfare between Czarist Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and yet this, in itself, would not have triggered a global war. A tangling web of alliances was a further underlying factor, but it was the imperialist rivalry of the United Kingdom and Germany that led to a global war fought to the bitter end. Germany had become a world economic leader, and it was also seeking to become a global military power, with its own empire and sphere of influence. British decision makers viewed the rise of Germany as a dire threat, and were convinced that Germany had to be crushed or the British empire would be fatally threatened.

The UK government has planned a series of events to commemorate World War I, and to promote its line justifying the war. The first major event is scheduled for Glasgow on August 4 of this year, exactly one hundred years after the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. A ceremony attended by the queen, Cameron and heads of state from throughout the Commonwealth will take place at the Glasgow Cathedral, followed by a wreath laying at the cenotaph in George Square. The events of August 4 will also mark the end to the Commonwealth Games, a clear sign of how closely related sports extravaganzas are to nationalism and militarism.

An alternative to the official glorification

The Scottish Peace Network has come together to present an alternative to the official glorification of the British role in World War I. Organisations ranging from the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Edinburgh Peace and Justice Centre to the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Republican Communist Network have come together to coordinate a series of protests and forums, not just on August 4, but throughout the next four years. Our aim is not only to present a true history of World War I, but also to develop the links between this conflict and the current push toward militarism and war.

We are planning a series of events this summer, and on August 4 we will be holding a peaceful protest to demonstrate our opposition to militarism and the glorification of the British role in World War I. Anyone who is interested in helping the Peace Network to organise events should contact me. We meet regularly, and we need the help of those with a wide array of interests and skills.

Eric Chester (