In 1917, the third year of the Great War, as it was then known, a young British soldier named Horace Field Westmacott came under German artillery fire at Hill 60 near the Belgian town of Ypres. Captain Westmacott of the Royal Berkshire Regiment survived the bloodbath and lived to the age of 85, though he remained crippled for life.
“Every family in Britain has an emotional connection to World War I. It’s a part of our national consciousness,” said Sir Peter Westmacott, the soldier’s grandson and Britain’s ambassador to the United States. “There were huge casualties from all classes. In just one day of fighting, 20,000 soldiers died and 40,000 were injured. It was an enormous conflict in terms of the shared human scale of the sacrifice, and the millions who lost their lives.”
Although European hostilities broke out on June 28, 1914 — the day a Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne — it wasn’t until Aug. 4 of that year that the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.
With that date in mind, the British government has organized a series of high-profile events this month marking the centenary of the First World War. On Aug. 4, a service of remembrance will be held at Scotland’s Glasgow Cathedral following closing ceremonies for the Commonwealth Games the night before. That same day, Britain and Germany will hold a joint service at the military cemetery in Mons, Belgium; a candlelight vigil at London’s Westminster Abbey is also planned.
In early November, Westmacott will install a brass plaque at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier inscribed with the names of four American recipients of Britain’s highest military honor. On Nov. 7, the embassy will receive an official delegation from the American Veterans Center, followed two days later by a multidenominational service at Washington National Cathedral to mark Armistice Day.
“The First World War and the way the United States came to help us out was not only a decisive turning point in bringing the war to a close in 1918, but the beginning of a pattern of the U.S. engaging with its European allies in defense of freedom and liberty, and against fascism,” Westmacott told The Washington Diplomat during a recent interview at the British Residence fronting Massachusetts Avenue. “This has been an essential feature of our relationship ever since, but it started with World War I.”
In fact, our notion of modern warfare began with World War I, which introduced tanks, chemical weapons, aerial bombings and killing on an industrial scale. The Great War obliterated empires, gave rise to new countries and literally redrew the world map, planting the seeds of conflicts that continue to this day. It pitted the Allies, anchored by Britain, France and Russia (also known as the Triple Entente), against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The fighting eventually sucked in dozens of nations from Australia to Japan to the United States, which made its reluctant debut as a global power. In all, it caused an estimated 37 million military and civilian casualties and set the stage for the Second World War, which would claim another 60 million lives, if not more.
And it all began almost by accident: A clumsy assassination, set against the backdrop of rising imperialism and a nationalistic backlash, triggered a domino effect of military alliances springing into action, seemingly oblivious to the destruction they would unleash. Ironically, this intricate web of alliances had been forged to maintain a balance of power in Europe, but would instead tear it apart.
On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, backed by Germany, declared war on Serbia a month after the killing of Archduke Ferdinand in a bid to quash Serbia’s growing ambitions. The Russian Empire, wanting to preserve its influence in the Balkans, mobilized a day later. Germany, eager to flex its growing economic and military muscle, quickly initiated a plan to neuter the threat in the west before attacking Russia to the east. It invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg before setting its sights on France, prompting Britain to enter the fray. After the German march on Paris was halted, a new form of trench warfare erupted along the Western Front, leading to a bloody stalemate for the next three years.
Finally, in the face of steady Allied gains, the Central Powers began to unravel. With the fall of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, Germany was forced to surrender and a ceasefire went into effect on 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918— “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
Scholars continue to debate the underlying causes of the war. It may have been sparked by an assassination, but it was fueled by economic rivalries, an arms race, the colonial desire for more territory, geopolitical maneuvering, rising nationalism and — in no small part — a gross miscalculation that the war simply wouldn’t be that bad (most leaders thought the conflict would be over by the end of 1914).
Westmacott, 63, said the Great War caught his people by surprise. “There was a very high level of volunteering early on to go and solve the problem in what everybody thought would be the space of a few months,” he told us. “Nobody knew what they were letting themselves in for.”
Between 800,000 and 1 million British citizens died, the vast majority of them soldiers. That’s equivalent to roughly 2 percent of the country’s 1914 population.
The fact that Britain has 22 Commonwealth war cemeteries in the Gallipoli peninsula of Turkey alone speaks to the bloodshed suffered by Allied forces in a horrific war Westmacott says no one either anticipated or wanted.
“It was an indication of the strength of the alliances that had been put together before 1914. Some would say they were almost too complicated,” he said. “For the U.K., our commercial and cultural links with Germany right up until 1914 were actually quite strong. It was this network of alliances — plus, of course, Germany’s response to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand — which unleashed all the military activity.”
The carnage had a deep and lasting impact on British society, where many still question whether their country should have even joined the war — and whether their leaders wantonly led Brits to slaughter. The bloody day that Westmacott referred to, when 20,000 soldiers died and 40,000 were injured, took place July 1, 1916 — the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, which ultimately took the lives of more than 1 million soldiers. Even today, it remains a symbol of the mindless inhumanity and futility of war.
What, if anything, we asked Westmacott, did the world learn from this nightmare?
“The supreme importance of diplomacy to try to resolve problems through negotiation, without having to resort to force,” he replied without hesitation. “War in general is a sign that diplomacy has failed, and that’s one of the lessons of the First World War — and to an extent the Second. People these days are obviously very cautious about foreign military interventions. That is partly because World Wars I and II were horror stories which none of us want to see repeated.”
On the other hand, Westmacott said, public opinion in Britain “is still very much in favor of maintaining military capabilities so that we can act against aggression if we have to — or for reasons of humanitarian emergencies.” As an example, he cited NATO, which was formed to protect Europe against Soviet aggression following World War II but which also rallied in support of the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
Westmacott added that even though war casualties are no longer measured in the tens of millions — as was the case in World Wars I and II — today’s armies are dramatically smaller than those of 1914. “One soldier with modern weaponry can have much more effect than a soldier with a bayonet 100 years ago,” he said, referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which British soldiers fought side by side with their American allies.
These days, Britain’s biggest worry isn’t the outbreak of renewed hostilities, but rather the rapid and alarming rise of extremist parties fueled by many of the same xenophobic fears that led to World War I. In the European Union’s May parliamentary elections, the decidedly euro-skeptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) took a shocking 29.5 percent of the vote — marking the first time in a century that a national election was won by a party other than the Conservatives or Labor.
Those far-right victories were replicated in France, the Netherlands, Hungary and elsewhere, as nationalist parties ride a wave of populist opposition to the centralized authority in Brussels.
The anti-EU mood coupled with the ongoing economic effects of the euro crisis mark the biggest threat to the project of European integration since the continent emerged from the ashes of the Second World War. And while Europe isn’t likely to ever plunge back into the kind of warfare that marked much of its history, the EU backlash has shaken the post-war order.
Yet for Westmacott, there’s a clear distinction between then and now.
“Let us be quite clear. The rise of fringe parties in many European countries is not equivalent to the rise, in the 1930s, of extremist groups calling for war,” he said. “When we say ‘fringe parties’ now, yes, some of them are anti-immigrant, sometimes anti-Semitic, anti-EU and even racist. They are not pleasant. But they’re not pro-war.”
Even so, the ambassador said it’s a “matter of concern” to see the rise of political groups that seek Britain’s secession from the 28-member EU.
“Of course, everybody has the right to their own opinions, but personally, I believe Britain’s place is inside the EU. But as my prime minister has made clear, the rise of euro-skeptic parties — and not just in Britain — is an indication that Europe needs to change and reform. And so, all of our governments have a responsibility, and so do European institutions, to begin to put things right and counter this hostility which is growing at a worrying rate.”
Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly said that if he wins the May 2015 general election, he’ll attempt to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Brussels ahead of a referendum on the issue by 2017.
“Before putting the issue to a referendum, which he’s undertaken to do if he’s re-elected toward the end of 2017, he will need to see improvements,” said Westmacott, who was appointed to his current job by Cameron in January 2012, taking over from his predecessor, Sir Nigel Sheinwald.
The irony, he claims, is that his country’s anti-EU sentiments have absolutely nothing to do with the economy.
“We have the fastest rate of growth of any G7 country. Our unemployment rate, currently below 6.5 percent, is half the European average,” Westmacott said, predicting the British economy will grow by at least 2.9 percent this year. “In the U.K., where we have more people working than ever before, our deficit is half the level it was during the financial crash of 2008. So this euro-skepticism is not about economic dissatisfaction.”
Despite the relative economic stability, the United Kingdom is facing dissention within its own ranks. Tens of thousands recently protested against austerity measures imposed by the government. And Scotland will soon be deciding whether to leave its 307-year union with Britain — just as Britain itself is considering breaking away from the European Union.
A referendum on Scotland’s independence is scheduled Sept. 18, and according to a survey carried out in early July and published by The Scotsman, 41 percent of voters support leaving the U.K., up from 39 percent in June. At the same time, 46 percent oppose independence — up from 44 percent a month earlier — with the remaining 13 percent undecided. Once the undecided are factored out of the equation, survey results point to a victory for the “no” vote.
“Nothing can be taken for granted. The current polling suggests that the motion will be rejected, but it’s close,” Westmacott said. “We’re all very conscious that it could go either way on Sept. 18.”
The ambassador conceded that Scottish unhappiness with London stems, among other things, from “years of neglect of Scotland by British mainstream political parties and the rise of the Scottish nationalist party in recent years. Scots have often felt, for whatever reason, that they wish to be even more Scottish and a bit less British.”
Yet Westmacott says his government is working hard to persuade Scots not to dissolve the union.
“I would like to see my country remain intact. There might well be some rebalancing of investment and economic activity, for example in financial services. Some 90 percent of the customers of Scotland’s financial sector are in the rest of the U.K. And nobody has made contingency plans about what happens to defense and our nuclear capabilities,” he warned.
“If Scotland is no longer part of NATO, it’s hard to think things would go on as they have in the past. Most of the foreign investment to Scotland goes there because it’s part of the U.K. and part of the European single market,” said Westmacott. “If it leaves the U.K., it leaves the EU. Scotland would then have to reapply like any other candidate country. They’d also have to take on some of the U.K.’s debt. Assets and liabilities would have to be divided. This could really happen.”
Interestingly, the British Empire reached its nadir a century ago, just after World War I. But it never fully recovered from the shock of the war and began its military and territorial decline shortly afterward.
Even though Great Britain is no longer the vast empire “on which the sun never sets,” Westmacott thinks the future for his country looks bright.
“We’ve got less than 1 percent of the world’s population, but we’ve got the sixth-biggest economy,” he said in a wide-ranging speech last year at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Our military is able to meet threats in the world wherever they arise, even very far away from home, on land, on sea, in the air and in cyberspace.
“And of course we have an unparalleled partnership with the world’s most important and powerful democracy,” he added. “In the 20th century that partnership played a very important role in facing down fascism and in subsequently winning the Cold War.”
President Obama also praised the partnership during a press conference with Cameron on June 5, the day before another major war-related anniversary: the 70-year commemoration of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France, that helped turn the tide of World War II.
When peppered with questions about Scottish independence and whether Britain might leave the EU, Obama sought to put the disputes in historical perspective.
“I think in light of the events that we’re going to be commemorating tomorrow, it’s important to recall that it was the steadfastness of Great Britain that, in part, allows us to be here in Brussels, in the seat of a unified and extraordinarily prosperous Europe,” he said. “And it’s hard for me to imagine that project going well in the absence of Great Britain.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.