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Volume 48 Number 22, November 11, 2018 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Commemoration of the Centenary of the End of World War One

British Imperialism and the First World War

Gassed by John Singer Sargent

To this day the conflict which led to World War I continues to be presented as a noble and just cause. One of the main arguments advanced at the time Britain declared war on Germany was a duty to defend the right of self-determination of small countries, Britain's stranglehold over Ireland notwithstanding. To this day, official circles continue to assert that the British government declared war in response to Germany's invasion of Belgium and therefore "in defence of international law and a small state faced with aggression". Some go even further declaring that the government of the day acted to end "warmongering and imperial aggression" .No attempt is made to look at the underlying causes of the war, which include the "warmongering and imperial aggression" of all the big powers, including Britain.

Map of borders and empires in Europe before World War I

By 1900 the world had been almost completely divided between the big powers that had staked out colonial territories and spheres of influence. Nevertheless, contention continued with all the major powers seeking re-division of the world in order to gain an advantage over their rivals.

For instance, Britain's "entente" with France was a consequence of its evident international isolation following earlier imperial aggression in South Africa. Britain's alliance with France then led that government to threaten Germany with war when the latter squabbled with France over which power should invade and occupy Morocco. It is clear that in this case Britain did not defend the sovereignty of a small state faced with aggression. It was content to support France's aggression against their common rival Germany, because France had agreed to accept Britain's prior invasion and occupation of Egypt.

British imperialism chose to use Belgian "neutrality" as a justification for war against its rival Germany but did not seek to prevent the aggression of the Belgian monarch, Leopold, against the people of the Congo. In the 30 years preceding the First World War, Belgian imperial aggression led to the deaths of some 10 million Africans, probably half the Congolese population, without any intervention by any of the big powers. This is not surprising because all the major powers fought wars of aggression and conquest not only in Africa and Asia but wherever their predatory interests led them. In this regard, Britain was the most aggressive and predatory of all the big powers at that time.

The British government's warmongering and imperial aggression was also expressed in the rapid expansion of its navy and the secret naval agreement with France in 1912, both of which were directed against Germany. A new alliance with Russia in 1907, which opened a new chapter in what was then known as the "great game" of Anglo-Russian contention in Central Asia, was based on a joint agreement that denied Afghanistan and Persia their sovereignty and placed the resources of these countries at the disposal of banks and monopolies of Russia and Britain. Such alliances were clearly undertaken in the context of British imperialism's predatory interests and in contention with Germany, its main rival at the time.

Plaques to conscientious objectors in Tavistock Square, London

The division and redivision of the world not only precipitated war and created the conditions for the international alliances that turned Europe into two camps of armed robbers. Secret negotiations and treaties during the war sanctioned further re-division. In 1915, the British government reached a new secret agreement with Russia over the division of Persia, that decided it would fall into Britain's hands, while Russia was compensated with rights to parts of the Ottoman Empire, including its capital Constantinople; and Britain and France would acquire other Ottoman territory. When Italy joined the Allied powers, the British government entered into a secret treaty partitioning the Austro-Hungarian Empire, allowing Italy to seize further territory in Africa, including Libya and in the Horn of Africa, thus violating the sovereignty of the Libyan, Somali and other peoples in that continent. Secret plans were also made for the dismemberment of Ethiopia. These secret agreements paved the way for France to annex Syria and Lebanon, and Britain would take what is today Iraq. The secret treaties paved the way for the British government's Zionist occupation of Palestine, which to this day denies the Palestinian people their right to be.

Significant opposition existed to the "Great War" throughout Britain, and not only amongst workers and peace-loving people in Britain but also throughout the empire. In Africa, for example, large-scale rebellions against forced conscription and other aspects of colonial rule were widespread. In what is today Malawi, for example, John Chilembwe led an armed uprising against colonial rule after warning the colonial authorities: "I hear that, war has broken out between you and other nations, only whitemen, I request, therefore, not to recruit more of my countrymen, my brothers who do not know the cause of your fight, who indeed, have nothing to do with it ... It is better to recruit white planters, traders, missionaries and other white settlers in the country, who are, indeed, of much value and who also know the cause of this war and have something to do with it." The rebellion was viciously suppressed and Chilembwe and other leaders executed.

John Chilembwe, Baptist church minister, pictured on left

In Britain, the Jamaican conscientious objector Isaac Hall refused to be conscripted declaring: "I am a negro of the African race, born in Jamaica ... My country is divided up among the European Powers (now fighting against each other) who in turn have oppressed and tyrannised over my fellow-men. The allies of Great Britain, i.e. Portugal and Belgium, have been among the worst oppressors, and now that Belgium is invaded I am about to be compelled to defend her... In view of these circumstances, and also the fact that I have a moral objection to all wars, I would sacrifice my rights rather than fight." Hall was tortured and incarcerated in Pentonville Prison for two years but refused to renounce his principles.

The notion that the British government entered the First World War to uphold "civilised values" or for a "just cause" or to defend the rights of small nations is a dangerous fiction that has no basis in fact. It is disinformation advanced to deprive the people of an outlook which is required to give rise to an anti-war government today. The conditions for the First World War grew out of the conditions of the imperialist system of states at that time, not least the intense rivalry between the big powers for markets, raw materials and spheres of influence, which they sought to secure through a violent re-division of the world.

The 100th anniversary of the end of World War I is an occasion to draw warranted conclusions from the experience of the working class and people before, during and after the war.


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