Chaos band 
and black bloc march Jolly Roger Hot anarchist artist @ WEF protest

What was the First World War all about?

Part One             Read Part Two


Lest we forget – the cause
    The German invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg in 1914 was of military benefit but a political gamble. It enabled the German armies to flood into France by avoiding the main border defences and it allowed Belgian coal mines and factories to fall into German hands. The political gamble was whether or not this move would bring Britain into the war on the side of France?

    For the past century, Britain had remained neutral in European conflicts, preferring to use diplomacy to maintain their top position in the Balance of Power by setting their capitalist rivals against each other. The British capitalist ruling class had supported Prussian aggression and a united Germany in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and had applauded the formation ofa German Empire. However, during the last quarter of the 19th century, British capitalists began to realise that Germany was now rapidly replacing the traditional French enemy as their major commercial rival.

Mourning the loss of the German colonies: this one for Togo.
German stamp mourning the loss of its colonies: this one showing a German Togo stamp of 1900.


    The mad European scramble for African colonies saw Germany savagely acquire four large areas of that continent. This new swift-growing capitalist society was in desperate need of sources of raw material, markets for their manufactured goods, and regions for capital investment and possible emigration.

Gold coin minted in German East Africa in 1916,
when the war caused short supplies from Europe.
German East Africa (now Tanzania) minted this gold coin in 1916. Supplies from Europe had stopped due to war conditions,

    When tremendous mineral wealth was discovered in the independent territory of the Transvaal, the anti-British Dutch settlers (Boers) favoured allowing Germany to access these riches. This prompted the voracious British capitalists to embark upon a vicious and ruthless military policy of consolidation in Africa. By destroying, disarming and dispossessing war-like tribes (including the well-organised and disciplined military Zulu nation, in 1879), they were then able to concentrate on annexing the Boer territories of Orange Free State and Transvaal.

German Samoa postcard view in 1907.
Click to see the postcard in actual size.
A scene in German Samoa, 1907.
Click to see the full postcard.


    The first armed conflict between British and Boer (who were well armed with German weapons, 1881) resulted in a British disaster but led directly to a far more determined action from 1899 – 1902 (known as the Boer War, during which 26,000 civilian Boer women and children died in British concentration camps!) The eventual British victory assured British capitalists an additional income in wealth and completely foiled the plans of their devastated German rivals. Having staked everything on an industrial society, German capitalists were left in a desperate situation of having no access to the raw materials that were so essential.

Unidentified concentration camp in Transvaal.

    The German ruling class now turned their thoughts to the limitless riches that surrounded them in Europe. By expanding their control in all directions, Germany could obtain all the resources her industries would ever need, and would rocket Germany easily to top spot in the world capitalist league. Plans were made accordingly.

German imperial battle cruiser "Gneisenau".

        The battle zone, World War I.
The battle zone, World War I.

Wars are loved by capitalists, for the longer they continue, the more profit they make from it. But for workers, they are the worst possible disaster!

    British capitalists were also anxiously aware of the possibility of Germany gaining access to Europe's riches, and with the invasion of Belgium in 1914, the great fear was that such a nation, with a powerful fleet controlling the Channel ports, could seriously challenge Britain's command of the seas. Britain could not allow this to happen.

Lest we forget – the action
    So Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, and had troops in France alongside her Allies just in time to face an almighty military onslaught. A massive German army of 1½ million men stormed through Belgium with the objective of reaching and occupying Paris and the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. On the left of the line, the British halted the German advance at Ypres where heavy fighting continued through to November. This was the first Battle of Ypres.

De-bogging a gun from the Ypres mud.
The mud at Ypres.
Click photo to see a larger picture.

    In the centre of the line, the Allies were driven back to the outskirts of Paris where, in September, the Germans were halted at the Marne River. Counter-attacks by the Allies then pushed the Germans back to the Aisne River by the end of 1914. The front line then stabilised and for 3½ years, trenches and massed artillery transformed the war into a virtual interminable seige, extending from Switzerland to the sea.

Ypres in 1916, after the Battle of Ypres.
Ypres, 1916, after the Battle of Ypres.
Click photo to see a larger picture.


   All along this "Western front" the names of obscure towns and villages became immortalised as grim reminders of the obscene indifference that exists towards the expendability and suffering of workers in our present social system, known as "capitalism". Young men were shot, bayonetted, gassed, blown to pieces, or drowned in water-filled shell craters in their tens of thousands . . . human sacrifices to the God of Profit and Commercial Greed.

Canadian division at Passchendaele, 1917.
Click to see a larger photo.
Canadian troops at Passchendaele, 1917.
Click photo to see a larger picture.

    The fighting in capturing, losing, and re-capturing a few yards of territory under the most horrific conditions and the great expenditure in effort and explosives plus the unacceptable casualties and loss of life . . . all became quite acceptable. The only significant movement, which swayed back and forth, was in the centre of the line between Loos and Verdun, known as the 'Somme Battles.'

Fallen soldier, Chateaubriand.
Fallen soldier, Chateaubriand.
Click photo to see a larger picture.

    Fighting was continuous all along the Western Front but ferocious major battles were unleashed at strategic points. On 22nd April 1915 a heavy bombardment signalled another attempted "break through" by the Germans in the second Battle of Ypres.


    Civilians streamed out of the town and headed south. During the afternoon the Germans launched a poisonous gas attack . . . the first time such a weapon was ever used in warfare. 60,000 allied troops died in this extended battle, during which the Germans advanced 2 miles. This portion of the front was then pounded by artillery shells almost unceasingly for the next 2 years. The region was reclaimed marshland which was used as pasture. Farmers were required by law to maintain drainage ditches which, of course, were quickly wrecked. Rains added to the already soggy terrain which eventually became a landscape of foul-smelling mud, peppered with water-filled shell craters. In time, this treacherous morass would suck in and engulf men, horses, guns and . . . later . . . even tanks! Every new shell explosion would throw up rotted corpses which would slowly sink from view again.

Early British tank.

    In the Spring of 1916, the Germans launched a massive attack against the French at Verdun. For four months the battle raged and troops on both sides were massacred. The line held, but to relieve the exhausted defenders, the Allies mounted an equally massive offensive against the Germans on the Somme (1st July 1916.) This first Battle of the Somme was aimed at pushing the Germans back on a wide front. A seven-day artillery bombardment was followed by a 'creeping barrage' . . . infantry advancing behind a screen of slowly progressing shell explosions. Constant pressure was applied to the German positions . . . British tanks appeared for the first time in September 1916. The few tanks became ineffective when this area of irrigation and river systems also turned into a quagmire. Conditions worsened during the winter, but the 'push' was resumed in the Spring of 1917. Progress was slow and at a huge cost in lives . . . 600,000 Allies were lost for a gain of about 20 miles.   more

Mayday | Pictures | Contact us | Home | Links | Campaigns | Products | World War 1, part 2