First World War - Ominous portents for today

One hundred years ago, Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. The following day the British Grand Fleet sailed to war stations in the North Sea. The slide to war was rapid; Russia mobilised its armed forces on 31 July, Germany and France mobilised on 1 August. Britain declared war on 4 August. The first imperialist world war had been long in preparation. Over 70 million military combatants fought. Leading the Allies were Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, Serbia and, from 1917, the United States. Against them were the Central Powers including Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. Nearly ten million combatants were killed, 21 million wounded and eight million went missing. Barbarism, the age of mass murder, was upon us. The same forces that drove humanity into the conflagration of 1914-18 drove us into the Second World War and impel humanity towards Armageddon today. Trevor Rayne reports.

The First World War introduced tank, submarine and air warfare and widespread use of chemical weapons. It elevated the importance of oil supplies. The Turkish genocide of some 1.5 million Armenians was a precursor to the Nazi holocaust of the Jewish people. Theatres of war included the Western Front (Belgium, north eastern France, Alsace-Lorraine), the Eastern Front from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. This was a war between the major capitalist powers to redivide the world. Amidst the carnage, the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland stood out and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was launched in Russia. As Lenin explained, imperialism ushers in an era of wars and revolutions. The threat of revolution accompanied the German delegation when it signed the armistice on the 11 November 1918.

Partitioning the world

In 1899 British colonial possessions covered 11.6m square miles with 345 million people, a fifth of the world’s population. The division of the world between the major capitalist powers had been achieved by 1900, but it had been done on the relative strengths of European powers in the mid-19th century, when British capitalism was unrivalled. This no longer corresponded to the realities of the early 20th century with Germany and the US ascendant. Between 1870 and1874 British iron and steel production was triple that of the US and Germany, but by 1913 both US and German outputs were greater than Britain’s. British industry was in relative decline compared to the US and Germany. From 1900 to 1914 Germany’s share of trade rose at the expense of Britain in the Balkans, South America, the Ottoman Empire and even in the British Empire itself.

British capitalism depended upon overseas markets for its goods and investments. ‘In 1913 Britain was the only nation whose economic interests were global and the only one whose status as a great power rested upon world-wide commitments.’1 Between 1909 and 1911 65% of British exports went outside Europe and 55% of imports came from outside Europe. The proportion for German exports was 25%. The basis of the strength of the British ruling class was also its vulnerability – it felt challenged by German industry’s encroachment.

By 1900 total British investment abroad was £2bn, yielding an annual income of £100m, compared to a British GDP of £1.85bn. By 1914 both capital invested abroad and income had doubled. Interest on these investments, paid mainly in food and raw materials, far exceeded the profit derived from foreign trade in goods. Export of capital as loans and investments was linked directly to territorial expansion. ‘Britain became, to an ever-increasing extent, a parasitic usurer state and the interests of the bondholders became the determining factor in her foreign politics.’2

Britain’s predominant global position before 1914 depended on trade, overseas investments and the role of the City of London in world finances. These required British naval supremacy. In 1889 the British government adopted the Two Power Standard; to maintain a navy of greater strength than the combined forces of the next two largest naval powers. In 1883 ‘the number of British battleships almost equalled the total of all the other powers combined (38 to 40); by 1897 this comfortable ratio had shrivelled away (62 to 96).’3 German naval construction accelerated from before 1900. The British ruling class saw the growth of the German fleet as a threat – the greatest threat since Napoleon a century before. They were determined to prevent any single power dominating Europe. The Daily Mail encouraged an invasion scare, helping to boost the naval budget and prepare people psychologically for war.

Lenin and imperialism

Building on the work of Marx and Engels and the later Marxists Hilferding and Bukharin, Bolshevik leader Lenin analysed the tendency of capitalism towards monopoly, overseas investment and war: imperialism. A series of economic crises between 1870 and 1900 resulted in the concentration of capital and fusion of large scale industry and banking capital to create monopoly capital. These monopolies dominated economic life and generated a financial oligarchy commanding power in capitalist societies. The export of capital, distinct from the export of commodities, became particularly important as capital searched for profitable outlets for investment. International monopoly combines divided up the world. As different combinations of monopolies competed, so they would redivide the world. This process drove the world towards war.4

Lenin’s analysis was conducted against that of the leading Marxist of his time, the German Karl Kautsky, who believed that militarism and keeping the colonies was becoming too costly for capitalism and that a peaceful division of world was possible in an ‘ultra-imperialism’ – an alliance of imperialists. These conflicting analyses had profound consequences for the working classes of Europe and Russia. Any expansion of German capital abroad could only be at the expense of British imperialism; conflict was inevitable. At the war’s outset Kautsky claimed that Germany was fighting a defensive war against Tsarist Russia.

Two days before the start of war, Labour Party leaders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, addressing crowds in Trafalgar Square, called for opposition to the war. By the end of August the Labour Party and TUC called for an end to ‘all existing disputes’ with the bosses; a manifesto issued by Labour’s leadership proclaimed that a German victory ‘would mean the death of democracy in Europe’.5 Of all the European socialist parties only the Bolsheviks and Serbian revolutionaries carried on a struggle against war on anti-imperialist lines. Elsewhere, revolutionary opposition was limited to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, James Connolly in Ireland, John Maclean in Scotland and Sylvia Pankhurst in England.

A tangle of secret treaties

Confronted with growing German power, Britain established strategic agreements. Germany planned to build a Berlin to Baghdad railway via Serbia and Constantinople (Istanbul). This would threaten Russian access to the Mediterranean from Crimea and the Black Sea and its influence in Persia (Iran) and could challenge British rule in India. The Anglo-Russian entente was signed in 1907. Also in 1907, Britain and Russia agreed to divide Persia into three parts to keep Germany out. As early as 1905 Britain secretly agreed to militarily support France; this was unknown even to some members of the cabinet. There followed an equally secret Naval Agreement, whereby the French fleet would concentrate on the Mediterranean and the Royal Navy on the North Sea.

The globe was entangled in a series of treaties between the major powers: France accepted Britain’s hegemony in Egypt and in return Britain accepted French predominance in Morocco; Germany reorganised the Turkish army; France would not allow Russia to fight alone if attacked and Britain pledged to defend northeast France in the event of war. The assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Ferdinand by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on 28 June 1914 took place in a conjunction of alliances between major powers and their proxies that swiftly configured into world war.


The horrors of the three years of siege warfare on the Western Front claimed almost a fifth of French men of military service age. Britain lost half a million men under 30 years and 800,000 in all. A quarter of Oxford and Cambridge students under 25 who joined the British Army were killed. The Battle of Verdun, February-July 1916, pitched two million people against each other, producing one million casualties. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 cost 420,000 British dead; 60,000 on the first day – wave after wave of futile attempts to break through enemy lines in battle after unsuccessful battle.

On the Eastern Front the closure of the Baltic and Black Sea prevented Britain from supplying significant war materials to Russia. The key was seen as the Turkish Dardanelles; if they could be captured by the Allies, Turkey could be forced out of the war and arms sent to Russia in exchange for wheat from Ukraine. Allied troops, including many Australians, New Zealanders and Indians, landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. They held on to territory for months but the Turkish forces were too strong for them. The Russian Tsarist government refused to cooperate with the Allies, wanting to occupy Constantinople itself, suspicious that a victorious Britain would take the city. 252,000 Allied troops were killed and wounded; Turkey suffered similar losses.

In the Atlantic, submarine warfare claimed a growing toll on shipping. In January 1917 368,000 tons of shipping were lost and in February Germany announced that all shipping, neutral or not, could be attacked without warning. This provided the official reason for the US entering the war. More importantly, the US had advanced massive credits to the Allies and if Germany won those debts would not be repaid. The US declared war on 6 April 1917. By mid-1918 300,000 US troops were arriving at the Western Front each month.

The spoils of war

In the Middle East the Allies promised sovereignty to win the Arab peoples to their side against the Ottomans. Unbeknownst to the Arabs until the victorious Bolsheviks revealed the documents, Britain and France had signed the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, with Tsarist Russian assent, which proposed dividing up the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces between British and French spheres of influence with Russia to get Constantinople, the Turkish straits and the Armenian vilayets. Borders were imposed on the Middle East without reference to the wishes of its people. A century later we are seeing them dissolved in blood.

In November 1917 the British Foreign Secretary issued the Balfour Declaration, ‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…’ Among British considerations was the desire to win support from Zionists in the US and Germany and to keep Russia in the war; some leading Bolsheviks were Jewish. The Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the 1920 Treaty of Sevres with the Ottoman Empire (which promised the Kurds a state, a promise soon broken) and the British Mandate for Palestine. The Zionist monster of Israel was conceived in London.

The Bolshevik Revolution

Following the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 thousands of Russian soldiers left the Eastern Front for home. With their slogans ‘Bread, Peace, Land’ and ‘All power to the Soviets’ the Bolsheviks grew from a few thousand members in March 1917 to a quarter of a million by the summer. With the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks in government appealed to all powers for peace without annexations or indemnities. This was hidden from the European masses. The Bolsheviks negotiated a separate peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.

The Bolshevik Revolution inspired desertions from the French army and a general strike of over a million workers in Germany in January 1918. In early November 1918 sailors at Kiel refused to sail and set up soviets in German ports. They dispatched representatives across Germany. Liebknecht was leading a growing resistance in Berlin. The Kaiser abdicated on 9 November. The armistice was signed at 11am on 11 November 1918.

It would take another world war for Britain to be replaced by the US as the dominant capitalist power and for the issues that provoked the First World War to be temporarily resolved. In the decades that followed, as the imperialists pursued their interests, the Soviet Union was to play a vital role in defeating fascism and defending the possibility of progress.    

1. PJ Cain and AG Hopkins, British Imperialism reviewed by D Yaffe, FRFI 114, August/September 1993.

2. AL Morton, A People’s History of England.

3. P Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery.

4. VI Lenin, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

5. R Clough, Labour: A party fit for imperialism

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014


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