The First World War in 2016


If 1915 was the ‘forgotten year‘ of the First World War, the same cannot be said of 1916. The year 1916 has been well remembered for a range of reasons, most of which will be reflected in a myriad of centenary commemorations planned for 2016. If strategists still believed the war could be over quickly in 1915, the same cannot be said for 1916. The year 1916 was a year marked by hitherto unseen and unforeseen battles of material, and this had importance consequences. In many respects, 1916 can be seen as the year in which the First World War became ‘total’ war, as all belligerents were forced to introduce political and cultural changes to feed the insatiable demands of the battlefields. The year also saw important changes within both coalitions, with Great Britain growing in significance in the formulation of Entente strategy, particularly on the Western Front, and Germany taking even more control over operations on the Eastern Front.

These changes can be seen early in 1916. In February, the German army launched its first major offensive on the Western Front since November 1914. The German offensive against the French army at Verdun, explored by Dr Robert Foley in his book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, began the longest battle of the entire First World War. Before the battle drew to a close around Christmas, three-quarters of the French army and a large portion of the German army cycled through the ‘hell of Verdun,’ fighting over the capture or loss of meters of ground. Indeed, for most Germans and Frenchmen today, this battle continues to be a symbol of the futility of the First World War. While events in 2016 may not have the same impact as the famous ‘reconciliation‘ of France and then West Germany in 1984 epitomized by President Francois Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s holding hands, Verdun in 2016 will witness considerable activity and commemoration.

If the year 1916 is most remembered by the French and the Germans today for the battle of Verdun, for Britain and its former colonies, the year is remembered for the battle of the Somme. This battle saw the first major British participation in the war on the Continent, and with the French army battered and deeply engaged at Verdun, the battle is often seen as primarily a British battle. The social and cultural impact of the high British casualties of the offensive’s first day have not only been largely overestimated, they also overshadowed the important developments in tactics and techniques that were apparent to the German defenders throughout the rest of the battle. While recent research has contextualized British participation in the battle, as well as the broader impact of the battle, for many today this is still seen as the iconic British battle of the war. Given this, it is understandable if the Somme 2016 commemorations are some of the most prominent events of the centenary.

The year 2016 will witness the main centennial commemorations of the war at sea in Britain. The decision to concentrate upon the maritime aspects of the conflict in the year of the anniversary of the battle of Jutland was an understandable one, yet as discussed in this recent post, it poses a series of significant challenges for the organisers. Events concentrated around the Jutland centenary itself risk becoming conflated with the more numerous and extensive activities associated with the battle of the Somme, which will begin shortly thereafter. Moreover, whilst memorials to the Battle of Jutland itself will doubtless be a moving and fitting tribute to those who gave their lives in the fighting of May 31st-June 1st, the prominence they will enjoy compared to the wider war at Sea remains problematic. The partisan and highly technical debates about the Battle render Jutland inaccessible to the majority of the public, who understandably struggle to relate to something so far removed from their own experience. At a broader level, whether it is appropriate or representative to focus attention on the War at Sea around a Battle is also open to question. Battle was the exception, not the norm in the maritime sphere, and the importance of seaborne communications – the security of which was the ultimate objective of British strategy – should arguably receive more attention than the means used to secure them. The role of maritime power could thus be discussed in a range of other contexts; the economic war against the Central Powers, the movement of Allied and Imperial forces by Sea or the vital role the British merchant fleet played in supplying and financing the war effort, for instance. The failure of recent scholarship on the war as a whole and Britain’s contribution in particular to pay due heed to the maritime elements of the conflict has been striking and unfortunate. The centenary may serve to entrench these trends.

Recognition of maritime aspects of the conflict will hopefully be provided by a recently announced lecture series and by the National Maritime Museum’s ‘The First World War at Sea’ conference. The proceedings of a recent event on Britain’s War at Sea promises to integrate maritime affairs more effectively into their diplomatic, political, economic and international context. A fresh approach to Jutland itself, not attempted since Andrew Gordon’s Rules of the Game in 1996, could also shed new light onto old controversies about the fighting itself. Perhaps the most appropriate means of presenting a more holistic treatment would be for the Somme commemorations to acknowledge the fact that the battle would not have been possible were it not for Britain’s maritime strength. Presenting the War as a whole in this way would offer a more satisfactory impression for the public and historians alike. A shift away from battles and categories of analysis like ‘the war at sea’ would be a welcome legacy of the centenary.

The King’s College London First World War Research Group members will be very busy marking the centenary of these events. Some of the highlights for 2016 include:

In February, Dr Helen McCartney will present a keynote address ‘The First World War in 2014-15: New Commemoration Projects, New Public Narratives?’ at the First World War: Commemoration and Memory symposium at the Imperial War Museum North.

In April, the Bundeswehr’s Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr (ZMSBw, Potsdam) and the French armed forces’ Service Historique de la Défense (SHD, Vincennes) will be hosting ‘Great Battles 1916‘ in Trier, Germany, which will explore the battles of material of 1916. Dr Robert Foley will be presenting a keynote address at this conference.

Members will also be support the British Army’s Somme 2016 programme, which will include a number of conferences and battlefield tours involving serving British, French, German, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and Belgian officers.

The First World War Research Group lunchtime seminars in 2016 will continue to be recorded and made available via the Defence Studies Department’s YouTube channel and SoundCloud account. Additionally, the Group will soon be launching its ‘First World War in Brief’ website, which will provide podcasts and short articles on the war. See the Group’s webpage for the latest developments and events.

Finally, stay tuned to Defence-in-Depth for series on the major events of 1916, including the battles of Verdun, Jutland, and the Somme.

Image: Canadian troops practicing for the Somme offensive in 1916. Photo taken by Canadian official photographer Ivor Castle via Wikimedia Commons.

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