I attended Remembrance Sunday at St Bride's Church on Hyndland Road in Glasgow. Designed by G F Bodley, a leading church architect in the 19th century, and opened in 1907, St Bride's is a splendid example of a church in the Scottish Episcopalian tradition. The service was beautiful and deeply moving. The organ music and the singing of the large choir, led and directed by Alan Tavener, were especially fine. After the two-minute silence at 11 o'clock, the names of the local fallen in the two world wars were read out by the priest, Kevin Francis. The Great War list contained over 20 names, that of the Second World War under 10.
As on such occasions in the past, I found it impossible not to dwell on the difference. The two wars were fought against the same enemy, and lasted for roughly the same time, but there was no similarity in the number who gave their lives in the pursuit of victory. Nor was there any similarity in the causes and aims of the two wars. I understand perfectly how the Second World War had to be fought. The rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain had made war inevitable. Ultimately, the Western democracies had no alternative but to try to prevent the takeover of civilisation by the dire and genocidal policies of Adolf Hitler and his minions. (No less than six million Jews paid the price for their failure to act sooner.)
So we rightly remember and honour all those men and women – like my own cousin Alastair Fraser who died at sea in the Royal Navy at the age of 19 – who gave their lives in 1939-45. Their cause was a just one. But however strange it may seem, I like many others I'm sure, find it hard to understand why exactly so many more had to die in 1914-18.
On one level, this is simply a question of the kind of war it became – in particular on the Western Front between France and Germany. For four years, huge armies faced each other from deeply dug-in trenches which were particularly well-fortified on the German side. The leaders of the British Army, such as General Sir Douglas Haig and General Rawlinson, came up with nothing better than to launch their troops across the mud and barbed wire of the no man's land between the sets of trenches in the face of deadly German fire from machine guns and repeater rifles.
The American Civil War in 1861-65, in which between 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers died, had shown how deadly modern arms had become, but it seems as though no lesson had been learned. One might have thought that the price paid in soldiers' lives for such attacks would have led to recognition of their failure, but such was not the case. Even the Battle of the Somme brought about no change. That battle lasted for several months but on its very first day – 1 July 1916 – British casualties totalled 57,470, of whom 19,240 were killed. Such figures are surely incomprehensible. But nothing changed. Later in the war, the development of tanks began to have an impact but by then how many were needlessly dead?
Equally, or perhaps even more troubling, is the question of what all these men were dying for. No doubt when war was initially declared in 1914 there was plenty of public support for war. Young men rushed to join the Army. My father was one. Born in 1898, he must have been one of the many who lied about their age in order to get themselves enlisted. But the scale of the carnage on the Western Front soon changed things.
Later in the war, my maternal grandfather made sure that his stomach ulcer enabled him to avoid conscription. Again, the scale of the losses changed even the pattern of enlistment in individual regiments. Many such regiments had a strong local attachment. Thus, the Seaforth Highlanders were largely made up of recruits from towns and villages in Caithness and Sutherland. If such a regiment was involved in the kind of attack I've described, it could mean that all the young men of a small village could be wiped out. The answer was to ensure that no more than half the men in a regiment could be local. The main point, however, is that I am among those who find it hard to understand what exactly the Great War was about.
While agreeing that, from the 1920s on, the British public in general felt that the war had been a mistake, achieving nothing of importance, some contemporary historians insist that we are the ones who are mistaken. They argue that Kaiser Wilhelm, urged on by the German political and military elite, had determined to make Germany a superpower and that the way to achieve that status was to win a war over France and the UK – just as Adolf Hitler would aim to do in the 1930s. Thus, the UK had no alternative but to fight for its survival in 1914.
No doubt they are correct about the Kaiser's aims, but there is still a crucial difference between him and Hitler. Hitler's goal was above all the triumph of genocidal fascism. In 1939, if democracy was to survive, the UK had no alternative but to go to war. No such situation existed in 1914. The Kaiser may have aimed at making Germany a triumphant imperial power, but fascism existed only in the future. Despite its lethal reality, I remain unconvinced that, unlike the Second World War, the Great War had to be fought.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow