Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

8
In Flanders Fields
Britain and the Great War, 1910–1918

It was August 27, 1917, in the midst of the campaign that came to be called the Third Battle of Ypres. Edwin Campion Vaughan, a low-ranking British officer, herded his troops up the flooded and bombed-out roads near Langemarck in West Belgium under heavy mortar fire. He and his fellow soldiers escaped into a pillbox, a German concrete machine-gun emplacement, to find within two dead Germans and an unconscious German officer who was bleeding to death. Before the German officer came back to consciousness, Vaughan fixed his tourniquet; after the German awoke, Vaughan gave him water and offered him food. In return, the German offered him a lump of sugar from inside his tunic. “It was crumbling and saturated with blood so I slipped it into my pocket whilst pretending to eat it.” After a few minutes the German officer began to feel better. As Vaughan wrote, “He told me how he had kept his garrison fighting on, and would never have allowed them to surrender. He had seen us advancing and was getting his guns on to us when a shell from the tank behind had come through the doorway, killed two men and blown his leg off.” The Great War was not a war about ideology, as soldiers oscillated between attempting to kill each other and expressing their shared humanity (Carey 1987: 474–476).

The Great War represented a tragic failure of diplomacy. Rather than representing ancient warring dynasties, George V of England, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were cousins. Although all of the powers involved in the conflict were interested in colonial expansion, the war was not initially about territorial conquest. Rather, it was precipitated by a naval arms race, by entangling alliances among major European powers, by war plans that provided no flexibility, and by the way in which nationalism in the former Ottoman Empire destabilized the balance of power. To enter a war, as the British would, in

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