I recently wrote in this blog about the First World War. In it, I said, “In British history, there are two topics which I cannot approach without a certain sense of dread. One is the Slave Trade, and the other is World War 1. Not, oddly, World War 2 – why that is may be the subject for another post.”
Well, this is that other post! And I’m prompted to write it because of an interesting comment I received from Mark Hone about that post (which you can read below that post). I’m only sorry it’s taken me so long to respond, but I needed a bit of time to think what to say!
First, I agree with everything that was said there.
My Dad was one of three siblings – his sister and brother were both killed in World War 2. My Mum was one of seven siblings – two of her brothers and one sister died in that war.
So why do I not feel the same way about World War 2 as I do about World War 1?
Well, I think that one reason is, the second war was fought for undoubtedly good reasons. Hitler really, really had to be stopped.
If one looks at the causes of the First World War, it is actually quite hard to see how the British government could have kept us out of the carnage. Nevertheless, taking all the governments, of all the Great Powers, into account, what comes across is that everyone blundered into the war. A main cause of this was that no one had any idea of how terrible the war would be – the 19th century had rather accustomed Europeans to short, sharp conflicts. It therefore seems to have been the result more of stupidity than of wickedness.
This makes all the sacrifice harder to stomach. For World War 2, it does seem much more the case that those who died, died for a cause (I’m obviously talking about those on the Allied side here, not the poor young souls fighting for Hitler).
Another reason for my attitude to World War 2 is that it was so much more mobile than the World War 1. This gives it an interest and drama which the first war lacks. It also means that the logistics tail had to be longer (as Mark’s comment states), and therefore those at the sharp end were comparatively fewer in number (or rather in proportion) than in the first war.
Of course, the Eastern Front was every bit as ghastly as anything in the first war. In fact, the Russian generals seem almost wilfully to have thrown their men’s lives away.
And (gulp) I must be honest here: I suppose one of the reasons why I prefer looking at World War 2, is that it is so darned fascinating. For sheer drama, it beats the rest of the 20th century into a cocked hat. You get a sense that the whole future destiny of mankind is at stake. Moreover, the actual campaigns were fluid and decisive, and not just slogging matches.
I am all too conscious that everything I’ve said above is open to challenge by those who know more about the wars than I do; and please do come back at me on what I’ve said. I’m also conscious that my comments, especially the last one, do not necessarily show me in a good light.
However, when all’s said and done, I’m quite sure most of us hope with all our hearts that we don’t have to go through anything like World War 1 or World War 2 ever again.
By Peter Britton