A century ago …

I asked, a couple of weeks ago, if this was the end of an era? ~ the end of the  “liberal era?” That got me to thinking about change and especially the changes that 100 years can make. This is an interesting time to look back to 1916, 1917 and 1918 …


… the great battles of the Somme, in 1916, Arras, including Vimy, in 1917, and the Hundred Days offensive and, finally, the Armistice in 1918 have been and will be celebrated.

Although the Edwardian era ended, officially, in 1910, many people believe that actual end of the era came during the First World War when Britain’s and Canada’s attitudes towards the military and war changed.

I think the late Victorians understood that Britain (and its empire) was in decline … the issues of Irish home rule and American and German expansion caused the British to “take their eye off the ball” and caused what I have described as the greatest foreign policy blunder in 800 years: entering the Entente Cordiale with France which went a long way to precipitating World War I.

Anyway … I was thinking about that “Great War” and how it changed so much and I think we can see the changes in three short poems:

  • The Soldier (1914) by Rupert Brooke;
  • Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917) by Wilfred Own; and
  • Base Details (1918) by Siegfried Sassoon.

1914-v-the-soldierIf I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England …” Rupert-BrookeRupert Brooke was almost a caricature of the Edwardian ideal, young, handsome, intelligent but, perhaps, a bit idle, almost to the point of being insouciant, but a good and respected poet. ‘The Soldier,’ it seems to me, was how much of Britain and Canada felt in the late summer of 1914 and even into 1915. One can imagine that mothers and wives and sweethearts almost swooned when they read it. But that was all going to change.

99a97270dd12487a69b036fdd88c8e55By the end of 1916 it was clear that war was not a grand adventure, and Wilfred Owen, arguably the greatest poet of that anthem-for-doomed-youthwar, summed it up in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth:’ “What passing bells” he asked, “for those who die as cattle?” (Passing bells are those rung at funerals.) There was no glory, it wasn’t some sort “boys’ own adventure,” rather it was the endless suffering of the Western Front. Owen put in just a few words what philosophers and poets have tried to say for millennia.

But, by 1918 the poets’ hopeful patriotism, Base Details Poemeven jingoism and despair at the tragedy of war had turned to anger and even rage and Siegfried Sassoon, a son of a Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)wealthy Anglo-Iraqi-Jewish merchant family, gave vent to it in his 1918 poem, ‘Base Details.’ He, a soldier who had been decorated for his almost reckless bravery in battle, lashed out at all those who still tried to claim that war was “glorious.” It was, in some respects, a dagger plunged into the bleeding heart of Victorian and Edwardian notions of patriotism and it would colour the thinking of his generation and the next and generations after that.

The Edwardian era was, I think, the transition between the old and our, current, modern worlds ~ both ‘worlds’ were liberal in their values but quite different in their attitudes. The old, Edwardian ‘world’ ended with a bang and with a rise in anti-military feeling that was fuelled, in some part, by the British war poets, especially Owen and Sassoon. That anti-military attitude and distrust of the “military mind” persists today and it makes it easier for some politicians, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ~ but he’s not alone in this, to ignore valid military and national security requirements and focus, instead, on sunny ways and making policy based on false hopes. The British, as I said, make bad policy choices and the British and Canadian peoples paid a high price in blood and treasure for them. But our attitudes towards the military and defence policy and grand strategy should not, in 2017, be shaped by events of 100 years ago, no matter how horrid they may have been.


2 thoughts on “A century ago …”

  1. Ted, like you I have been thinking a lot about the word “liberal” these days – and its metamorphosis from meaning “tolerant if ideas” in the era of Adam Smith and The Church and Absolute Monarchies to the modern standard of definition by means of a list of acceptable tenets.

    Adam Smith and the Masons accepted any and all ideas and people that held them and enjoyed spirited debate about them. They tolerated the ideas of the opposition. As free traders they didn’t bother themselves over much about how natives managed to get furs to factories on Hudson’s Bay or whether the local’s widows felt it appropriate to jump on their husband’s burial pyre, those were “internal matters”.

    I like Napier but he represented a changing of views. A changing that continued through the Victorian era and which culminated by the end of WW2.

    Along the way people were asking themselves which rules are appropriate? Which standards? Shouldn’t we have one set of standards and hold everyone to those?

    But that is precisely what the Old Churches, the Old Monarchies were arguing – and what the Old liberals were opposing.

    WWI represented the victory of the “liberals” with their populist notions of democracy and toleration, over the Old Church and the Old Monarchies.

    The Thirties demonstrated to many that the Church and the Monarchs had been right all along.

    Liberalism brought chaos.

    WWII was a worse shock. The liberals won again. Democracy was the flavour of the day.

    But in the aftermath of WWII there was a change.

    The Aristocrats of Europe were not inclined to change their views. They still saw a difference between democracy and true democracy, between people (the masses) and real or true people, between sheep and shepherds. And they looked for opportunities to recover the Status Quo Ante.

    Meanwhile the “liberals”, in the interest of securing a quiet life at home, started acting in a decidedly illiberal manner abroad. They started to tell people they must be “liberal”. When asked what that meant they then fell into the trap of defining tenets of their societies and demanding that they be aped.

    This played into the hands of the old order, those that were still in place in most countries, those that were still communicating along well known paths. They told the “liberals” that they could deliver “peace” by imposing “order”. People were ordered to be liberal.

    And the “liberals” believed them – because they wanted peace, peace that allowed them to continue their peaceful lives of co-existence at home. Disregarding that some at home weren’t as satisfied with their lives as they were.

    Some of them liked the effect of imposing liberalism so much that they started doing the same things at home. The started to demand that everybody act like a liberal. Even America has had its Aristocratically inclined – after all George Washington was offered the Kingdom and New York (home of the Tammany Hall Democrats) is still known as The Empire State.

    Peace, Order and Good Governance are conservative values. Not liberal ones. Liberal values are toleration and change.

    The problem is, and continues to be, how much of one and how much of the other and when to modify the recipe to accommodate the change that surrounds us.

    You can’t make people liberal. You can only, within yourself, be liberal.

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