The big imperialist picnic

It was meant to be the war that would end all wars.

A century ago today the inexorability of a naval arms race and choreographed mobilisation schedules dragged a generation into the mass grave of Flanders.

The Britain of 1914 was one where women did not have the vote and where the population was overwhelmingly, as the BNP would have it, “ethnically British”.

Then the Westminster polity controlled the entire archipelago and this grid reference in the north west of Ireland was within the United Kingdom.

Here in Ireland two armed militias squared up to each other over whether or not Ireland should have a devolved parliament similar to what Scotland has now.

This was an appalling vista for unionists in Ireland, especially in the North east of the island.

This was the Home Rule Crisis and a month after Gavrilo Princip had fired those seminal shots in Sarajevo blood was spilled on the streets of Dublin.

Unarmed civilians were shot and bayonetted by the fine chaps of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers who couldn’t take being taunted by some jeering Dubs on Bachelor’s Walk.

Earlier that day the Irish volunteers had successfully landed guns at Howth from the Asgard.

This was their response the arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force earlier in the 1914.

If the Peace Process in the last twenty years sought to take the gun out of Irish politics then it was introduced in the 20th century by the Clyde Valley.

John Redmond asked the Irish Volunteers to go and ‘fight for the rights of small nations’.

Most of them did, thankfully my lot in Mayo demurred and remained at home. Their war would come soon enough and when Britain was entangled in the barbed wire on the Western front in 1916 it was time to strike.

Redmond was a decent man, but he naively trusted David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.

Big mistake.

Redmond had imagined the 16th Irish Division being welcomed home as a victorious army of a free Ireland under the crown.

Instead post Easter Rising Ireland saw them as traitors.

It was cruel turn of fate and many Great War Veterans in Ireland saw out their lives in quiet sadness at how this country viewed them for many years.

In 1914 Britain was a world power.

To make the same statement today would be risible.

Although men in Britain were conscripted later on in the war initially it was an all-volunteer effort as the regular army was simply too small to get the job done.

The lads who cheerfully signed up to fight the ‘dirty Hun’ were convinced that it would be all over by Christmas.

However, Hiram Maxim’s invention meant that the ‘Big Picnic’ would last four grinding futile years.

The American had originally offered his killing machine to the British , but the army high command could see no real use for the oil-cooled machine gun he demonstrated to them in 1885. Some officers even regarded the weapon as an improper form of warfare.

By the end of the Great War variants of his weapon was the preferred method of slaughter for both sides although they had also played around with mustard gas too.

What jolly japes!

Contrary to the Hollywood institute of military history the war was not won by the arrival of the Yanks, but by the development of a new form of warfare by the British after years of blood soaked stalemate.

The Battle of Amiens in 8–12 August 1918, almost four years to the day of the outbreak of war, was a decisive British victory and the first Blitzkrieg.

It was Henry Rawlinson and Sir John Monash, not Heinz Wilhelm Guderian, who worked out how to use tanks to maximum effect on the battlefield.

Britain now has one tank regiment dear reader and the Queen’s boys have only 156 of the things.

With the war won a citizen army was demobilized and the chaps in the equine high command went back to polo and pig sticking.

In 1940 over the same ground the Wehrmacht would teach them that they had learned well from the British in 1918.

Last week I was in the Imperial War Museum in London and outside of that splendid building are two huge naval guns.

The left-hand gun of the pair situated outside Imperial War Museum London was made by William Beardmore and mounted in HMS Ramillies in 1916. The right-hand gun was mounted in HMS Resolution from 1915 to 1938.

The Great War was preceded by a naval arms race that gave the English language a word that today sums up the jaunty road to war and mindless chauvinism:


The music halls where the Fox News of the day and the crowd was whipped up into a marital frenzy.

‘We don’t want a war, but by jingo if we do, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the guns and we’ve got the money too!’

These huge guns were built to be put on ‘Dreadnought’ class ships and the nation was told that they didn’t have enough of these sea going monsters.

The music hall cheer leaders got the crowd to join in with ‘we want eight and we won’t wait!’

In the end these huge ships played little real role in the war on either side.

The naval conflict was dominated by German U-Boats and the race to develop counter measures.

The Royal Navy was the biggest in the World at the start of the Great War and it remained so once the fighting had stopped in 1918.

Today it is tiny by comparison and way down the league table of navies in the world.

The Royal Navy now has a shiny new aircraft carrier that they can’t afford to staff or run.

Moreover it was designed for a plane built in the USA that will probably never be operational due to design faults.

The F35 B may one day be in a design museum in the section of the building reserved for massive failures.

The music hall crowds were also encouraged to get in touch with their inner-German hater.

This caused the British Royal Family to have a quick makeover and so Prince Louis of Battenberg became Lord Louis Mountbatten.

I doubt that many of the lads who were captivated by Kitchener’s pointing finger had heard of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.

Windsor is just the name of their big house…

The Imperial War Museum is a fabulous establishment with helpful staff although I was disappointed that there was no section on the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921.

When the Imperial War Museum  was established in 1920 Great war veterans, some of them in fancy dress as Irish policemen , where committing war crimes on the street of Dublin and in the boreens of Cork and Mayo.

Lest we forget.

The war changed the financial landscape for Britain too.

During the war the United Kingdom would become indebted to financial institutions based the United States of America.

The war, which started  one hundred years ago today, did not end all wars, but it signalled the start of Britain’s decline on the world stage.

There are still some chaps in private clubs in London that think that, somehow, the London elite that they were born into can still be a major global player.

Thankfully Britain’s military abilities are becoming so atrophied as to make this just brandy fueled fantasy.

For Britain the war games are over.

I suspect that most ordinary people in Britain would just rather live in a country that doesn’t have food banks.

A war to end hunger and poverty would be one worth enlisting for.

Discover Phil’s dramatic play Rebellion