A War of Numbers
This month’s speaker
was Mr Huw Williams of Merthyr Tydfil, a lecturer in the adult education part time
degree course in History. His lecture was titled “The Causes of the Great War”,
yet it became abundantly clear as the lecture progressed that the variety of
contributory factors that led towards the first world war was an accident of
fate in many ways as against a direct consequence of one factor.
Mr Williams, began his
talk by stating that he had been looking at Resolfen’s war memorial prior to
the talk and was reminded that this was one of thousands around the UK and
Europe and was emblematic of the drastic and lasting memories of what was a
totally unrivalled conflict in terms of combatants, machinery, capital,
transport and weaponry. He noted some relevant facts regarding the war itself.
No conflict in history has been pored over by so many historians, more people
were killed (though more were killed in the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1919)
than any other war and more soldiers took part. It was the first conflict to be
captured on real time photography and revealed the absolute inhumanity of some
of the tactics employed such as the use of gas. On a positive note it also spawned
some fantastic art and literature and
other cultural output.
Mr Williams then
looked at a number of Gobbet’s of the period including a range of contributors which
exemplified how people saw the period at the time and how it is interpreted
today. Excerpts ranged from those of the fictional Blackadder’s batman
“A bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich
because he was hungry”
to that of the journalist Jeremy Paxman who wrote disparagingly of today’s
“The war was a disaster, but we don’t need the
right on prejudices of a generation far removed from what happened”.
It was evident from
other quotes that the view of the political establishment varied from the more
optimistic view of the volunteers rallying to the Colours on both sides.
Foreign Secretary’s lamp-man was euphemistically putting out lights of Europe
for a generation, while at the same time soldier’s expected it to not come to
much and be over by Christmas.
Private Godfrey Buxton
expected to resume his studies at university once the crisis was over,
“We were quite clear that Germany would be
defeated by the 7th of October and we would go back to Cambridge (for
In similar fashion a
German soldier chalked on a troop wagon taking soldiers to the front,
“Auf zum Preiss-schiessen nach Paris/ Off
to Paris for a shooting prize!
The brutality of the
fighting was portrayed vividly by the War Poets such as Siegfied Sassoon and Rober t Graves and Wilfred Owen
MC, who died five days before the Armistice.
“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning……..”
Mr Williams then
turned towards the main theories of the causes of the War. The orthodoxy, that
Germany caused it and deserved to be punished by the reparations of Versailles
in 1919, was counter balanced by the fact that prior to “the Entente Cordiale”, with France our Gallic neighbours had been
the traditional rival. No one had expected, with the possible exception of the
Socialist International and Keir Hardie that a war with Germany was remotely
possible before 1912. The esteemed English historian AJP Taylor, added credence
to the “cock up”, theory of the commencement of hostilities “ as a war of railway
timetabling”, since a mile long munition train had been intercepted met a Serbian
train coming the other way.
The Great War could well
have been a naval encounter. The European Great Powers had embarked on an arms
race surrounding “Dreadnoughts” since 1905. The British Navy held sway over
large swathes of the globe, fuelled by Welsh coal and relayed by bunkering
stations such as Gibraltar, Aden and the Falklands. The battle of Jutland in 1916,was the only
occasion when this hand was played and it ended in a military draw, with the
more severe horrors of the U-boat campaign a greater menace to allied shipping.
This in turn brought the USA into the War in 1917, following the sinking of the
Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.
It was a war of
technology, machine guns. tanks, aircraft, tunnelling/sapping on an epic scale,
barbed wire and hundreds of miles of trenches. The casualties were colossal,
and the level of mobilisation unprecedented. Britain and its Empire alone had
8.9 million combatants and incurred 1.1 million casualties. Mr Williams also
pointed out that some historians refer to a blood spat, in that the three
predominant heads of state were all cousins, yet only one head of state’s position,
George V, survived intact. The Russians, as in the second world war incurred
the greatest casualties despite the fact that they were only combatants for
three years prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.
Mr Williams concluded
his talk, by stating that only those born in the twentieth century could now
appreciate the feelings of those who had taken part. Combatants were usually
sullen and silent regarding the events of 1914 -19 and perhaps could be summed
up as a collective if not unique madness of circumstances.
Mr Gwyn Thomas,
thanked Mr Williams for a fascinating lecture.
ANNUAL ST DAVID’S DAY DINNER WILL TAKE
PLACE AT THE WHITE HORSE INN PONTNEDDFECHAN ON FRIDAY MARCH THIRD AT 7. THE
MEMBERS FREE BUS WILL LEAVE THE SQUARE AT 6:15.