Posts Tagged ‘‘To End All Wars’’

The Grim Reality Behind First World War Enlistment

April 4, 2014

WWI Poster

World War I Recruitment Poster, playing on the British love of sport

Yesterday I posted a sample of the great artwork from the strip, ‘The Coward’s War’, from the anti-First World War graphic novel anthology, To End All Wars. I also criticised Jeremy Paxman’s comments made a few weeks ago during his recent tour of the Gulf State. Newsnight’s long-running anchor had complained that today’s young people lacked the idealism and patriotism that had moved their great-grandfathers to volunteer for the War. He declared that most of today’s kids wouldn’t know what to do if they were put in trench. In his opinion, they’d probably just photograph it with their mobiles rather than do anything useful. I argued in the piece that if today’s young people don’t have the ideals of the Victorian and Edwardian predecessors, it’s because history has shown that all too often those ideals merely resulted in imperialist wars of oppression and exploitation.

I also received two comments on the post from Ulysses and Jess pointing out that the men, who volunteered to fight were hardly motivated by patriotism. The reason instead was to escape the grinding poverty and harsh unemployment conditions of Britain a century ago.

Ulysses stated

After reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, i seriously doubt Patriotism was the main reason for the majority of British working class men signed up.
I gather, from reading that account, conditions on the front were immeasurably better than the struggle at home to keep body and soul together by prostituting yourself to the tender mercies of employers or the poor laws, charities and Churches of the time.
The Army gave you 3 square meals, a pair of boots that reasonably fit and weren’t 4th or 5th hand when issued, and reasonable clothing that needn’t be pawned and clawed back by hook or crook between bouts of unemployment and the choice was eat, or sell the clothes off your back.
The description of Town Councillors of that time, I could easily put contemporary names to the characters in the book the parallels are so striking, it seems as though the Local Authority have taken that work of semi fiction as a working plan on how to run a town for the last 100 years.

And as for Paxo and his views on the youth of today?
I seriously hope they’d all have more sense than to spill their blood for the ideology of the ruling classes.

Jess also commented that there was no mass voluntary enlistment, and that the soldiers who did join the army did so to escape hardship and deprivation at home.

” volunteer en masse as they did for the War”
This is an old canard beast.

Quite simply, people didn’t ‘volunteer en masse’ for WW1

No ‘reputable’ historian would still suggest they did.

There were many things that caused people to enlist….over the course of the war….But the BEF that went to France in 1914 was a professional army

It would take too long, and too much space to go into detail, but , as one example, single men, thrown out of work by the outbreak of war, were denied Unemployment Assistance unless they (guess what?)

And workhouses and labour colonies were toured by recruiting sergeants looking for ‘suitable’ recruits, until a magistrates court put a stop to that…

The fact that the myth of the British volunteering en masse for service in the War is still believed, despite being discredited by historians, shows just how desperately we do need popular treatments of the War, like the To End All Wars volume above.

I don’t really know much about the First World War, and so rely on those who know more about it than me. But Ulysses’ and Jess’ comments corroborate some of the other pieces of information I’ve also come across about the reasons men volunteered for the armed forces in Britain’s imperial heyday.

Way back in the 1980s a radical historian from South Africa or Zimbabwe – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten which – presented a controversial piece on the BBC’s history programme, Timewatch. He compared the miserably malnourished British squaddies of the time of the Zulu War, with their Zulu opponents. The average British soldier joined up to avoid starvation due to unemployment, and the lack of nourishment showed itself in their poor physiques. The army had to reduce the minimum height requirement several times until it was gradually reaching four feet simply because of the poor physical standards of the men, who were volunteering for service. He also argued that they were held in contempt by the rest of British society, as Kipling depicted in his Barrack Room Ballads with the lines

‘An’ it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that,
An’ throw him out, the brute,
But it’s the thin red line of England
When the drums begin to beat.’

Their Zulu opponents, on the other hand, were the fit, well-fed elite of their society.

This caused a storm amongst the patriotic, and the BBC said they’d received a number of angry letters in response to the programme. Nevertheless, the poor physical standard of British troops was a major concern to the late Victorian and Edwardian establishment. These years saw the emergence of the Campaign for National Efficiency, which sought to make Britain and her empire better governed, and which sought improvements throughout society. And one of its aims was to improve health and physical fitness of the British people in order to raise the physical quality of the army’s recruits. The army had been alarmed at how the Afrikaaner farmers had been able to hold off the British until defeated through sheer force of numbers and superior military equipment during the Anglo-South African War. And, it should be added, other, horrific tactics such as the imprisonment of Afrikaaner women and children in concentration camps, which has created a bitter legacy amongst some Afrikaaners towards their Anglo-South African fellow countrymen.

Back to the sample artwork from To End All Wars, it struck me that the pose adopted by firing squad at the bottom of the panel mimics the pointing finger gesture in the recruiting post at the top of the page.

Coward's War pic

Sample page from To End All Wars printed in Wednesday’s I newspaper.

It’s probably me reading too much into it – after all, this is the natural posture used to sight down a gun. Nevertheless, it seems a bitter comment on the patriotic posters like that above urging the young and idealistic to sign up for death, pain, fear and mutilation.

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‘To End All Wars’ Sample Page

April 3, 2014

Coward's War pic

Page from the story ‘The Coward’s War’ from the To End All Wars Graphic Novel

Yesterday I put up a piece about the article in that day’s edition of the I newspaper reporting the publication of a new graphic novel on the First World War. Introduced by 2000 AD’s Pat Mills, the comic aims to present the grim reality of the conflict, documenting some of the challenging, embarrassing and difficult facts and attacking the jingoistic lies told about the War by Michael Gove and similar Right-wingers. The article also contained the above sample page of artwork from one of the stories, ‘The Coward’s War’, about Thomas Highgate, the first British squaddie executed for cowardice in the War. I didn’t put it up yesterday, and so here it is today. It’s credited to Jonathan Clode, writer, Matt Soffe, artist, and with lettering by Jim Campbell. Enjoy!

This is not the first time comics have taken an anti-War stance. Back in the 1990s during Gulf War I there was a strip attacking that conflict, The Unknown Deserter, if I remember correctly. I don’t know if Alan Moore is anything to do with the above anthology, but he also wrote another anti-war comic, Real War Stories. This was intended to show the horrific reality of modern conflict. Moore wrote it in connection with a conscientious objectors’ group in the US, and based it on real soldiers’ accounts of combat, such as what it feels like to be shot and so on. This volume seems to be similarly meticulously researched, as you’d expect from a creative team that includes Mills, the writer of the classic comic First World War story, Charley’s War. I’ve reblogged Mike’s story about the forthcoming graphic novel adaptation of classic First World War poetry, and the news that Mills and his artist, Hitchcock, also have another First World War project, Brothers in Arms, waiting for a publisher. With all this coming out from the funny papers, it should provide something of an antidote to some of the views on the War being broadcast by the BBC. It’s also a reminder why David Cameron’s recommendation that people should commemorate the centenary of the War’s outbreak with street parties is such colossal, tasteless and offensive nonsense. Jeremy Paxman, away on a lecture tour of the Gulf States, criticised Cameron for that.

Unfortunately, Paxo didn’t get the reason why so much of British yoof arguably wouldn’t volunteer en masse as they did for the War. A few weeks ago the I reported that Paxo had complained that in today’s climate, the army would struggle to fill a trench due to the apathy and luxury of today’s young people. He claimed that most of today’s kids really wouldn’t know what to do with a military trench, and instead of doing anything militarily useful would probably stand around taking pictures of it on their mobile phones.

This is too cynical and dismissive a view of modern kids. Right through history the older generation have complained about the immorality of the younger. One old Soviet cosmonaut, when asked how he felt about Russian young people grooving in a disco held at the Moscow Space Museum the day before the collection was due to be broken up and the Museum closed, simply remarked that they’d found a complaint about how terrible the kids of today were scribbled on a wall in Babylon. He had no desire to complain about the young lads and lasses partying the night away there, but quietly sat there with his wife enjoying the evening. It’s a good attitude.

If today’s young people aren’t as ready and willing to volunteer to fight and die for their country as they once were, it’s because history has left them with fewer illusions than that generation. The lessons of history have all too often shown that the imperialism, which the British and other Western powers viewed with pride as bringing civilisation and justice to the benighted peoples of the rest of the world was all too often simply a pretext for invasion, carnage, oppression and exploitation. And people are now far more aware of the reality of warfare – the soldiers returning home with shattered minds and missing limbs, or who simply don’t come back at all. The illusion that you can somehow have a sportsman’s war that’ll be over by Christmas is extremely difficult to maintain. Hence the way the reporting of the harsh reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are very carefully concealed and managed by the military and civilian authorities. The American radical magazine, Counterpunch, did a piece on this a few years ago. They noted, for example, that unlike in the Vietnam War, the journalists covering the conflict are embedded within the troops themselves, so they get to feel part of the team, and rely on them for their own personal safety. It’s all part of a strategy of managing the War’s coverage to keep it as positive as possible, and avoid the negative coverage like that which turned American public opinion against the Vietnam War.

And with Pat Mills and his fellow artists creating these strips, the lessons of what war is really like in the case of the First World War, will be brought home once more. And its going to be grim. Wilfred Owen’s piece, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, anthologised in To End All Wars, contains some truly horrific descriptions of what actually happened. It describes the froth spewed from a stricken trooper’s lungs after he was gassed as like a ‘cud’ and ‘a Devil’s sick of sin’. This is ugly stuff, described in beautiful poetry and doubtless with beautiful artwork that’ll do the poem justice. And the fact that Paxo doesn’t understand why so many young people after the First World War are less than enthusiastic about joining the army for another one shows how needed such comics are. Except that it’s probably not the kids who need to read them, but the older generation of the establishment looking on and castigating them for a cynicism that has been ground into them by the bleak lessons of history the elders of the establishment don’t understand or share.

Zarjaz! British Comics Lay in to Gove over First World War

April 2, 2014

Pat-Mills-header

Pat Mills and some of the characters from 2000 AD

There’s a great bit of news for comics fans in today’s I. According to the article ‘Graphic Novelists Take on Gove over First World War’, Britain’s leading comic artists are to produce a graphic novel, To End All Wars. It’s going to be an anthology of 27 stories based on real events, some of which are told from the point of view of the soldiers themselves. The I states that the novel aims to undermine the jingoistic commemorations of the conflict’s centenary.

As part of this, it takes very firm aim at Michael Gove, who earlier this year complained that ‘left-wing academics’ were misrepresenting the War and casting aspersions over the courage and patriotism of the men, who fought in it. In the introduction, veteran British comics writers and editor, Pat Mills, states

Currently, we are fed the spin-doctors’ version of legalised mass murder, legitimised as ‘heroic sacrifice’ with challenging, embarrassing or difficult facts whitewashed from the record. Michael Gove and his ilk dutifully talk about a noble sacrifice and a just war. I hope this collection will help to counteract their lies and commemorate the centenary as … a search for the truth.

The I duly notes that Mills as the creator of ‘Charley’s War’ and, as Squaxx Dek Thargo (Friends of Tharg, the comic’s alien editor) will know, the classic SF comic 2000 AD. As the writer for ‘Charley’s War’, Mills has previous on such issues. ‘Charley’s War’ ran in the 1970s and 80s in the British war comic, Battle. Set during the First World War, the strip was profoundly anti-war, and portrayed the emotional and physical costs of the conflict on the troops. For example, I remember one scene in which one old soldier back home in Britain breaks down in tears as a squad of lead toy soldiers melts into the fire, reminding him of the very real mates he lost in the fighting.

The new comic book includes a strip, ‘The Coward’s War’, the story of first British soldier to be executed for desertion, Thomas Highgate, as well as other stories where the architects of the conflict are put on trial at the Hague.

I’ve blogged before about the need for more radical comics and graphic novels to tackle some of the injustices and wicked policies committed by this government. I’m very glad that Mills and the other leaders of the British comics industry have decided to wade in to tackle this issue. It certainly needs tackling, as yet more television documentaries and drama series set in the War come out. This should correct the historiographical imbalance and show just how terrible the War was, stripping it of some of the romantic glamour that may have accrued around it in some of the mainstream offerings.