DOUGLAS NEWTON. What are the real lessons of the First World War?

The Centenary of the Armistice of 1918 is almost upon us. There will be sincere and solemn events. But prepare also for a hurricane of media puffery, a cascade of clichés, narrow nationalism, the familiar medley of cheers and tears – and little serious attention to the real lessons of the First World War. 

Back in 2011, the official report of the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary stressed this: The most bitter disappointment for the original Anzacs was that their war was not, in fact, the “war to end all wars”. The best way we can honour their memory is to focus our thoughts on how we might reduce the risk that future Australians will have to endure what they endured.’

Has a national focus on this issue been achieved? The focus has been unremittingly on military experience and achievement. All the hardest issues have been evaded. For what precisely did Australians fight and die? Why was the war so prolonged? Did our government cautiously husband Australian life and treasure, and ensure our lives were not lost in order to realise dreams of imperial expansion and economic aggression?

Australians believe in war – for self-defence, as a last resort. Did our governments of 1914-1918 ensure that our war was incontrovertibly for self-defence, and that our war was undertaken and prolonged only as a last resort? Not a bit of it. Recklessness prevailed.

Let us put aside the pseudo-patriotic platitudes, the holy water sprinkled over the cataclysm, and the sacrificial fantasy of the nation reborn in blood. The real lessons of the First World War are these:

  • That deterrents – then and now – can fail to deter.
  • That accidents, mendacity and rapaciousness can combine to produce catastrophe, as they did in 1914, when the Old Diplomacy sought to manage the New Imperialism through a ‘balance of power’, and it can happen today, no matter what ‘nuclear balance’ we think we shelter under.
  • That matchless regional superiority in weaponry, anywhere, is ultimately no guarantee of peace, for the sense of superiority on one side is matched by a sense of vulnerability on the other, tempting it to pre-emptive action.
  • That a world with weak international institutions and law, in which all nations are armed to the teeth against each other, and all jealously guard their rights to take unilateral or pre-emptive action, is a hellishly dangerous world.
  • That slavish loyalty to alliances can mean slavish loyalty to the misjudgements, gambles and recklessness of others.
  • That competition for empire and commercial supremacy across the world, by powerful people representing only a fragment of the economy, can land us all in a bloodbath.
  • That great corporate vested interests, with an eye on commercial opportunity and the money to be made in armaments and even war itself, can cloak their corporate interests in the false garb of the national interest.
  • That sordid causes can be easily smuggled into noble causes once wars are under way – for there is always a constant inflation of war aims, something we may call ‘mission creep’ today.
  • That the resort to war always follows a series of failures in diplomacy and international law – and great powers that denigrate diplomacy and international law and institutions are part of the problem.
  • That the inner executive in any nation going to war can triumph over parliament and people when the ‘war powers’ are left unreformed, with no requirement to appeal to parliament before forces are deployed abroad.
  • That the passing generation, with its property and careers established, is always tempted to betray the interests of the rising generation – with its little property and careers in infancy – and to place the chief burdens of war upon that generation.
  • That war is the pasture of bigots, so that war almost always serves to dissolve civil liberties as governments feed the fear, peddle the peril and rouse racial anxieties.
  • That nations going to war are very like each other – fearful, reckless, high-handed, undemocratic, easily spooked.
  • That nations immersed in war are also very like each other – intolerant, cruel, authoritarian.
  • That in war, almost always, nations are at their worst, not their best. Fearing the enemy at the gate, they search frantically for the enemy within, demonize newcomers and repress those with principled opposition to war.
  • That wartime governments prefer their people to fight on, in the dark, with the real purposes of war hidden in secret diplomacy.
  • That war-makers prefer to call for more and more sacrifice, that is, to gamble still more lives in a desperate effort to chase earlier losses, rather than to face the people without wearing the ‘fire-suit’ of victory.
  • That those who choose to sacrifice the young often hypocritically create a ‘cult of the fallen’ – and then heap praise upon those young men and women whom they have chosen to sacrifice, misrepresenting their loss as self-sacrifice.
  • That grieving people in every war are told that wars must go on, and on, lest the dead have died in vain. Is it not the truth that wars should end, so that more soldiers shall not die for vanity?

On this Armistice Day, we could do well to turn off the TV and listen to the men who were there. There are scores of interviews with elderly veterans of the First World War available on-line at the Australian War Memorial. These veterans frequently see through the Anzac hucksters, and reject bitterly those insisting the war was worth it. For example, Sergeant Jack Lockett, interviewed by the indispensable Peter Rubinstein in 1997, spat out his contempt for the phrase a ‘war to end all wars’. It made more war. And what was it all for? ‘Only money,’ he lamented. He explained he had changed his mind about days like Anzac Day, because it was all ‘overdone’. It no longer honoured the fallen – because too many people caught up in Anzac were only interested in honouring themselves. There is a challenge for us.

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including, most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the history of diplomatic efforts to end the Great War.


Douglas Newton is a retired academic and historian. He has published on the history of Britain, Germany, and the First World War. His most recent book was Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014).

This entry was posted in Defence/Security. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to DOUGLAS NEWTON. What are the real lessons of the First World War?

  1. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    My hope is that the seeds in this conversation grow in Australia and most strongly in Canberra. The mood I see is militarisation, royal images of security and glory, defence spending for greed mostly in the US and an electorate mostly ignorant. One bright spark not reported in the media was the public address of Penny Wong to the 400 + audience at the Hotel Realm at the annual conference of the AIIA on nuclear disarmament. She says we should do it with the UNSC engaged : if we fail our species will end. Another positive call was the leader of the ICRC speaking to the NPC – we can do more in IHL

  2. Avatar Rod Miller says:

    Douglas, a wonderful essay.
    Thank you for your always powerful and decisive analyses.
    You cut through the banal and misleading ‘pop writing’ about the First World War, by asking those who write ‘boys own’ verbiage based on ‘brave, irrepressible Anzacs facing the evil Hun’ to look beneath the surface to the reasons for them being involved in this dreadful war in the first place.
    The old cliche that ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel is patriotism’ is true enough but it’s often the first, and continues unabated. And a slew of politicians and big businesses saw the many opportunities to make a profit regardless of the deaths, maiming, and destruction of human beings. The war opened the floodgates of profit-making opportunities. And all could be cloaked in frenzied, patriotic flag-waving.
    Douglas, your tabulation of the lessons of the First World War is masterful, and should indeed be compulsory reading by seekers after truth.

  3. Where are the action pathways Douglas?

  4. My lesson is that Colonisation is a thing upheld by military punishment and war.

    If we pretend we are not ourselves involved in colonisation we will perpetuate the processes.

    We must face up that we ourselves, white ones of settler European and now probably asian heritage, must recognise the Frontier and realise that war is colonial punishment metered out by government in the thrall of capital. Diplomacy is meaningless in this context and has now formally pretty much been abolished by Clinton/Obama and Trump.

    This reflection page is a trick to makes us more comfortable – take courage and #disrupt2018. #reclaimArmisticeDay as a day of peace. See you on Twitter

  5. Avatar David Maxwell Gray says:

    Douglas Newton

    Your list of appropriate lessons to learn from the First World War is a magnificent, devastatingly accurate one. I will save these, think about them and use the underlying ideas while I have breath.

    My paternal grandfather, a New Zealander, was a conscientious objector in the First World War, on religious/ethical/moral grounds. This was a very courageous position to take at the time, as the NZ government came down hard, charging such people with sedition, and demonizing them as cowards. Many were incarcerated.

    From these things I learnt: first, that to oppose one’s government’s putative commitment to war requires courage of the highest order; and second, that we in Australia, need a new narrative about who we are as a nation- separated from the ANZAC mythology – which honours the finer aspects of our history. Such aspects might include our path-breaking versions of democracy in its early development, our relatively egalitarian ethos, and our relative tolerance, which has continued to expand and increase. A core component of a new narrative should honour our indigenous brothers and sisters with their complex and uniquely ancient cultures.

    Australian Prime Ministers have arrogated to themselves the “right” to enter Australia into wars without any democratic process. This must be reversed. History is not on their side. The entry on false and spurious grounds into the Iraq war is a clear case in point.

  6. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    This should be taught to students every time a NAPLAN is set. But not to be tested – more to alert our youngsters as they grow older – over and over again – about the duplicity of our governments and politicians. Brilliant analysis/list! Douglas – I have lived in the UK, in Spain, in Germany and in Japan – as well as of course growing up in Australia – studying history at Sydney – and even teaching it for some years at secondary level here. I was much younger then – and not as aware as I feel I am now. I’ve tested ideas of war – of the Great War and WWII and Korea and Viet-nam and Iraq and Afghanistan – and more recent destructive pursuits of the US (in particular) usually not supported by the Australian population – and I have found them totally wanting – particularly but not solely as set by the LNP (mates in the arms industries to be supported)! It’s time we did away with Marise Payne, Chrissy PYNE and others engaged in arms manufacturing – spending our tax dollars by giving them to US shareholders in their WMD Industry. I hate that a whole couple of generations of young Australians have been screwed up by LNP military/war-time engagement – and a truly disgusting level of post-military/injury/etc support from that ugly institution the Department of Veteran Affairs. How many suicides has it caused? Are there any studies yet undertaken on its bastardry. If not? Why not?

  7. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    Thank you Douglas.

  8. Avatar John O'Callaghan says:

    Great article Douglas and i cant disagree with much of what you’ve written!

  9. Avatar john tons says:

    My reflections on the conflict are that it set in train the so-called ‘military – industrial complex’. One of the lessons business learnt from WWI was that there was money to be made from war. After 4 years of profiting from war the idea of going back to the pre-1914 industrial world was not attractive. Since 1918 the armaments industry has grown to such an extent that part of its business model is the idea of perpetual war. Australia has not been immune to that. Virtually the only manufacturing industry we have left is devoted to producing armaments. Clearly there is no profit in beating swords into plowshares.

    • Avatar Malcolm Fraser says:

      malcolm fraser (Marrickville NSW)

      Excellent article by Assoc Prof Newton

      I also commend the comment above:
      “Virtually the only manufacturing industry we have left is devoted to producing armaments. Clearly there is no profit in beating swords into plowshares”.
      How true. We must update our culture to enable swords to be beaten into plowshares.

      Is part of the answer to Australia’s inability to compete in manufacturing peaceful goods that we should adopt the Japanese processes used in the 1970s and 1980s. These processes where company books were open to workers ensured their companies were profitable & their workers adequately paid with in general amicable relations between management & unions. Incidentally this period which marked Japan’s remarkable economic growth was one where a very minimum expenditure occurred on armaments.

  10. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    Hi, thanks for this reflection.

    My own top 3 lessons would be:

    (a) that loyalty to our national identities can make us vulnerable to manipulation by others, to the point of causing violence;

    (b) that our alliances can hinder our ability to look at a matter objectively; and

    (c) that focussing on our rivalries lead us to neglect the (much more important) opportunities we have for cooperation.

    Beware of the counsel given by the kind people in our security, defence and military establishment. Their careers and expertise are predicated on conflict, not cooperation.

  11. Avatar Bruce Cameron says:

    What will you be thinking about during the Silence on 11th November?

    I’ll be thinking about those who are adorned with the mantle of making the world a different place to that in which competition between nation states led to the loss of so many innocent lives.
    The same thing has happened over and over in the years since and every tomorrow seems destined to herald the Last Post. I know the answer, but who will listen to me?
    In my despair, I will think of the birth of my children. How is it that such wondrous things can occur in a world which is so conflicted? I know the answer, but who will listen to me?
    Elections will be held next year, a chance for everyone’s voice to be heard. I will seek out the candidate who promises to safeguard my grandchildren’s future. Is everything now safe for our future generations? I know the answer, but who will listen to me?
    My thoughts will end in outrage at the outlook for the future; in frustration at the inability of those who are adorned with the mantle of leadership to do so; in anger at the misrepresentations made by those seeking my vote. What qualities are required of the person to lead our nation at such a time? I know the answer, but who will listen to me?

    Bruce Cameron. MC

    • Avatar Malcolm Fraser says:

      Malcolm Fraser Marrickville NSW

      Mr Cameron, as an old soldier with such experience we must listen to you.

      I very much respect your comments.

Comments are closed.