It’s important to remember that the First World War was divisive from day one, people had different opinions on the war then as well as now, both at home and at the front. While pacifists and some politicians opposed the war on principle (there were some well managed high level resignations and heated debate within the Cabinet in the days before the war began) they were not alone in questioning the validity of the war.
Save for Lloyd George’s barely concealed political opportunism there was a real possibility that Britain’s entry into the conflict might have been delayed or may well might never have taken place at all. For many people the principle of Belgium’s independence was enough, it was certainly enough for the Cabinet, combining both principal and political expediency.
The war in Europe meant that the UK Government could avoid a civil war in Ireland over Home Rule. It also touched upon a genuine and historic English strategic necessity - that of preserving Belgium’s independence fulfilled a long term strategic necessity in relation to control of Flanders. The problem was that war of Belgium’s independence became almost inevitably war over other things especially other peoples Empires.
The war that most of the volunteers signed up to fight in 1914 and 1915 was not the war they ended up fighting, it became something else, something that prompted Siegfried Sassoon (the Poet) and a decorated serving soldier (in July 1917) to send a letter entitled ‘Finished with the War: A Soldiers Declaration’ which ended up being published in The Times (and other newspapers) and read out in the House of Commons, he wrote:
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.
Sassoon (Who had been awarded the Military Cross) narrowly escaped courts martial, was declared unfit for service and treated for shell shock. Yet he returned to the front (as did his fellow poet Wilfred Owen) where he was wounded in August 1918. The letter, which is still powerful even today, should remind us that despite the image presented by the commemoration ceremonies people’s attitudes to the war were not uniform even amongst serving soldiers.
We should not diminish or cheapen the memories of those who fought, who served, who survived and who died by simplifying them or hiding the reasons (both complex and simple) as to why people served and fought or chose not to. Neither should we gloss over the exceptionally poor statesmanship and the bad decisions made by the ruling elites that plunged Europe (and other parts of the world) into four years of bloody conflict the legacies of which are still with us today.