24 JANUARY, 1916: First Draft

I try to avoid too much focus on Britain’s experience during the First World War, mostly because nobody else does, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The world’s most powerful and extensive empire was absolutely central to the story of the Great War, and the War played an enormous part in shaping twentieth-century Britain. So bear with me if you’ve been hearing about this one on the BBC: a century ago today, the Westminster parliament passed the first Military Service Act, introducing conscription for the first time in British history.

The British public was braced for the call up, because compulsory military service had been a hot debate for years.  A vociferous minority of British imperialists had been advocating conscription since the Army’s last major campaign, in South Africa at the turn of the century, had left the country with almost no home defence forces – but in peacetime they had faced overwhelming and noisy opposition. Along with the vast majority of those likely to be affected by conscription, religious organisations, pacifists, socialists, most liberals, some conservative politicians and successive governments as a whole were all firmly against the idea. Five compulsory service bills were comfortably defeated in parliament during the years immediately before 1914, and even after the outbreak of war Asquith’s cabinet greeted Churchill proposal for its introduction with unanimous rejection.

Popular or not, conscription was standard peacetime practice in all the other major European armed forces by 1914, essentially as a way of maximising the number of trained men available when the next war started, and patriotic nationalism was no less a force in Britain than elsewhere, so why were the British so precious about putting on a uniform for the sake of the nation? Ideologies aside, two obvious reasons spring to mind.

The first, more pragmatic argument against conscription was that Britain didn’t expect to need a big army, intending to win any future war with the relatively small force of highly trained men it took to run the Royal Navy. The other major inspiration for opposition was less tangible, and amounted to national self-importance.

A prominent feature of British culture during the imperial era, the idea that Britain was the source and epitome of modern civilisation had elevated the political system to a sacred position as humanity’s home of liberty, defined as voluntary adherence to a shared, organically developed and uniquely British set of values. Many opponents of conscription, across the political spectrum, argued that it was a betrayal of these values, the thin end of a wedge that would create an authoritarian, militarist state along Prussian lines. Other, less eloquent opponents simply believed that whatever Britain had always done was by definition the best, an attitude that hasn’t quite gone away a hundred years later.

The argument that Britain wouldn’t need a mass army had long since bitten the dust by early 1916 – everybody knew the nation needed more troops and more munitions workers – but defence of traditional liberties was a harder nut to crack.

The Derby Scheme of autumn 1915 had been the government’s last, somewhat desperate attempt to avoid the odium of conscription by boosting voluntary recruitment (22 October, 1915: Derby Day), and its failure had prompted an intensified propaganda campaign by the growing number of politicians in favour of compulsory service.   A chorus of press opinion, much of it orchestrated by conservative members of the coalition cabinet and Liberal munitions minister Lloyd George, now presented conscription as the only real alternative to peace talks, and before the end of the year cabinet opposition, led by prime minister Asquith, had evaporated.

The Military Service Act passed through Commons on 6 January 1916 with a comfortable majority of 298, got through the Lords on 24 January and came into effect the following month.  The Act called up single men and childless widowers aged between 18 and 41, starting with those who had ‘attested’ their willingness to fight under the Derby Scheme. Clergymen, vital war workers and conscientious objectors were exempt, although the latter were subject to local tribunals where most ‘absolute’ objectors – those refusing to perform non-combatant war work in place of service – were treated as criminals and imprisoned. Conscription wasn’t applied to Ireland, where the British were already struggling to contain the seeds of nationalist uprising.

Propaganda’s success in persuading the British public into the unthinkable was soon undermined by the incompetence of bureaucrats coping with the unfamiliar. By March, married men who had attested were receiving call-up papers before many of their bachelor counterparts, and the eruption of protest that followed obliged the government to produce a revised Act that made married men liable for immediate service.  Passed through parliament in May, the second Act worked well enough to see the British Army through the next two years, but further legislation was needed in the spring of 1918, when battlefield crises on the Western Front forced a radical expansion of the conscripted intake.

A new Act passed in April 1918 extended compulsory service to 51-year-olds, and in theory to Ireland, although civilian unrest prevented its application there and no Irishman was ever actually conscripted. In May, all males born in 1898–99 were called up regardless of occupation, and by the end of June a further 100,000 men had been ‘combed out’ of war industries and put into uniform.

Now the British were experiencing the kind of total war long familiar to the people of Germany and France, but its social impact on the nation was never really tested, because the arrival of US troops on the Western Front enabled the government to relax its recruitment criteria during the second half of the year. By December, when the last of some 2.3 million British conscripts entered service, most exemptions had been reinstated at 1916 levels.

With all due respect to subsequent outraged generations, it’s fair to say that conscription didn’t turn out to be the catalyst for an authoritarian, militarist takeover in Britain. On the other hand, once broken, the tradition of voluntary service took a long time to fix. In 1938, during the rush to rearm in the face of threatening behaviour by Germany, the British government felt able to introduce limited peacetime national service, and when war broke out in 1939 compulsory service was imposed within a few weeks, netting 1.5 million conscripts by the end of the year.  National service would remain in force for another 16 years after the Second World War, providing troops for Britain’s final fling at independent colonial and world policing.

By the time the last British conscript entered service in 1962, the missile age had rendered mass manpower militarily redundant, and compulsory service is unlikely to make a comeback in Britain anytime soon.  So this isn’t one of those centenaries that links directly with twenty-first century life, just a reminder that Britain wasn’t so very different to other European countries when push came to shove, and that millions of twentieth-century Britons, many of them alive today, fought for their country because they were compelled to do so.

15 JANUARY, 1916: Beneath The Surface

It’s the middle of January, and a hundred years ago the British were talking about the weather.  Fair enough, given that the War in Europe was quiet and the only British actions of note were taking place in Mesopotamia, where propaganda was still masking the failure of attempts to relieve the siege of Kut – and fair enough given the state of the weather.

After the coldest November in British history, and the fourth wettest December ever seen in England and Wales, January 1916 was on the way to becoming the mildest on record.  These records stand today, but in 1916 the end of the world meant global warfare rather than global warming, and they were generally seen as evidence of divine critique rather than climate change.

I mention the weird warmth of Western Europe for atmosphere, so to speak, and apropos of nothing in particular, because its effects on the War were largely confined to fuel savings and logistic benefits. The kind of military opportunism that might have exploited it with a surprise initiative wasn’t on anybody’s agenda, and not just because the major European powers needed to take stock and restock before the inevitable, heavyweight confrontations of the spring.

The technologies of contemporary ground warfare were too vast and cumbersome to do anything spontaneous on a large scale; aircraft technology was only just approaching the capacity to inflict more than strategic fleabites; and, as I’ve mentioned in detail before, naval warfare’s strategic weapons, the most modern surface fleets, were far too expensive and prestigious to be risked in acts of daring. That brings me, in undeniably tortuous fashion, to today’s centenary, because on 15 January 1916 Admiral Reinhardt Scheer succeeded Admiral Pohl as c-in-c of the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet.

The High Seas Fleet was the product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s recklessly expensive attempt to rival British sea power, and had been very big news in the years before 1914.  Its construction had triggered a naval arms race with Britain, and as it grew into a formidable force of modern warships it became both a symbol of German geopolitical ambition and a source of mounting British paranoia, seen as a clear and deliberate threat to national security.  Its very existence, operating out of North Sea bases at Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven, compelled the Royal Navy to protect the North Sea with the Grand Fleet, a superior force on paper and centred on Scapa Flow.  Come the outbreak of war, facing each other across the Kaiser’s chosen battlefield, these naval juggernauts, the most powerful ever seen, stood ready to… wait for the other to make the first move.

And so it went.  Both fleets wanted victory, not least as justification for their enormous cost to both economies, but neither wanted risk, and by the end of 1915 what had looked like being modern warfare’s showpiece campaign amounted to a few raids and one or two largely accidental skirmishes.  This put both fleets under popular and political pressure to do better.  In politically stable Britain, respectful criticism of the Royal Navy reflected its enormous contribution to centuries of Empire.  On the other hand politically volatile Germany had no naval traditions, and at the modern equivalent of between £60 and £120 million a shot, critics of the German Navy could think of more useful things to buy than idle warships.  In short, the High Seas Fleet needed to justify itself, hence the appointment of Scheer, one of very few senior Fleet officers to have emerged from the North Sea’s phoney war with a reputation for aggression.

Approaching his mid-fifties, Scheer had been in command of the Fleet’s Second Battleship Squadron in August 1914, and transferred to lead the Third Squadron that December.  He hadn’t done much with his battleships by the time he took overall command of the Fleet – such action as took place had been carried out by Admiral Hipper’s fast, hit-and-run battlecruisers – but he had talked a good fight, and did prove a more aggressive leader than the infinitely cautious Pohl.  In May, Scheer’s willingness to take a risk would be the catalyst for the only major wartime action between the two fleets, the near miss that was Jutland, but the real significance of his tenure lay elsewhere.

Jutland confirmed Scheer’s opinion that large surface warships were redundant in the North Sea and the Baltic.  A torpedo specialist as a junior officer, he now threw his considerable weight behind increased use of submarines, both as fleet weapons against enemy warships and as purveyors of Handelskrieg, or trade warfare.

Scheer sponsored a rapid increase in U-boat construction, and made no secret of his complete support for ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare against enemy trade.  He lobbied successfully for the restricted campaign against British merchant ships that opened in March 1916, and protested by recalling all his U-boats from the Atlantic to the North Sea when the Kaiser changed his mind in April. Scheer’s death or glory approach to submarine warfare, more concerned with victory than with keeping the USA out of the War, found full support in the autumn, when the Kaiser fell under the effective control of a new supreme command led by Ludendorff and Hindenburg.

Restricted attacks against British trade recommenced in October 1916, and U-boats destroyed about 300,000 tons of British shipping per month for the rest of the year.  British leaders were worried, but kept it from the pubic, while a triumphant German command ensured maximum publicity for the idea that Britain could be starved to defeat in six months.

Could U-boats win the War for Germany? Looks a good bet here…

As Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s opposition to the Navy’s new approach crumbled with the failure of peace overtures to the Allies, the German press, public opinion and most of the Reichstag were strident in their support for the campaign.  On 7 January 1917, less than a year after Scheer’s appointment, the Kaiser bowed to pressure from all sides and signed the order to prosecute unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February.  Death or glory had won the argument over the German Navy’s wartime role, and within a few weeks the victory had provided justification for US entry into the War.

Scheer would go on to preside over an increasingly desperate search for victory through Handelskrieg until almost the end.  Appointed head of a new Naval Supreme Command in August 1918, when he knew the War was lost, he signed off his military career in the style he personified, planning a ‘heroic’ final attack on the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet.  It was prevented by the sailors’ Kiel Mutiny on 30 October, and as Germany crumpled into revolution Scheer was finally dismissed by the Kaiser a day before the Armistice.

So, during a quiet week in January 1916, what seemed a simple change of command designed to bring vigour to the North Sea’s gigantic fleet face-off, turned out to be a catalyst that helped to redefine naval warfare in the context of total war, and to bring the United States into the business of world policing.  Thanks for that, Reinhardt.

8 JANUARY, 2016: SNIPING

There hasn’t been much time for sniping lately, and with so little popular coverage of the War’s centenary there hasn’t been much excuse, but it’s good to keep my eye in so I’ve been scanning for targets. Most of my previous potshots seem to have been aimed at the BBC, possibly because it’s a sniper’s job to pick out the officers, but lately another bigwig who should know better has been wandering about in my crosshairs, and it’s time I responded with a bullet.

I refer to that august institution, the Imperial War Museum. Now I know its name is a mandate to commemorate the British Empire, and I know its brief covers British wars in general (whether or not they fall into the imperial phase of the nation’s history), but I still think its popular coverage of the First World War is shockingly narrow.

That’s not quite fair. I’ve been following the IWM’s Facebook feed for a few weeks, so I’m hardly seeing the Museum’s full show. On the other hand we are talking popular coverage here, and if Facebook doesn’t reflect an institution’s popular face, what does? Anyhow, here’s the problem.

Life in the trenches, British home front, Western Front action and Gallipoli (for the moment), along with an occasional nod to British colonial campaigns and forces elsewhere – that’s your lot, scattered fairly sparsely among a selection of feeds dominated, inevitably, by the Second World War. All very well, and as I never tire of repeating, the horrors suffered by Tommies the trenches are well worth examining for lots of reasons, but I’m prepared to bet the IWM includes education in its CV for funding purposes, so where’s the big picture?

If you’re going to educate people about the First World War, they need to understand its global impact. The easiest, most accessible way to do that is to make connections between the upheavals a century ago and the world we see now. The upheavals in question were enormous, took place all over the world and had world-shaping consequences. They didn’t all directly involve British or British imperial armed forces (and very few of them happened on the Western Front), but they did all make a big difference to our lives today. They are important, relevant stories, but you won’t learn much about them from the IWM’s Facebook page.

iwm-london-imperial-war-museum-london-iwm-0349a75dd6358228e0574a3cb70b0fe2
The IMW, sending a message to the rest of the world…

Just a quick shot – no good sniper ever wasted more than one bullet on a Facebook page.

7 JANUARY, 1916: The Food Chain

Out in Mesopotamia, at Sheikh Sa’ad, on the Tigris just southeast of Kut, the first British attempt to relieve General Townshend’s besieged force was in the process of failing, suffering some 4,000 casualties and gaining a single line of trenches before Turkish defenders withdrew. In Gallipoli, the Anglo-French evacuation was finally drawing to an end, and the Russian Army in Galicia was spending its Christmas Day in a hopeless struggle against Austro-Hungarian artillery. But that’s enough fighting and dying, let’s talk about Arthur Henderson’s trip to the Netherlands.

Henderson was a British politician. At the time he was President of the Board of Education, a member of the cabinet and leader of the Labour Party, one of only three Labour politicians to serve in the coalition government. A hundred years ago he was in The Hague, charged with talking Dutch workers, business leaders and politicians into shaping their national economy according to British war aims. The visit was a watershed moment in a long saga that reflected the changing geopolitics of the age, and that began in August 1914.

For the Netherlands, a small nation dependent on seagoing trade, next door to Germany and across the water from Britain, the outbreak of war was a diplomatic disaster. With no dog in the fight, nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring war on bigger powers, the Dutch could only remain neutral, but that didn’t spare them pressure from both sides as the conflict got underway.

Assured by Germany on 2 August that its territorial integrity would be respected, the government in The Hague turned down a British offer of alliance and instead closed the Scheldt to all warships, a technically neutral move but one that favoured Germany by protecting the flank of its advancing armies from the Royal Navy. This was hardly a choice for the Dutch, given that any other response might trigger a German invasion, but of course it annoyed the British, who announced that they would respect Dutch neutrality – unless it became ‘one-sided’.

In fact the British, certain that naval blockade was the key to undermining Germany’s war effort, treated the Netherlands (and other neutral countries with strong trading links to Germany) as if they were economic enemies from the start. By the end of August 1914, the Royal Navy had stopped more than fifty Dutch ships and seized three loads of American grain bound for the Netherlands, while the UK government had stated its intention to prevent food, as well as war materials, from reaching Germany via neutral ports. As the year went on the British blockade tightened, wreaking havoc on the flow of trade from America that was fundamental to Dutch economic stability.

Compelled to appease the British, the Dutch government managed to reduce ‘stop and search’ delays to transatlantic trade by forming the country’s leading banks and businesses into a consortium, the Netherlands Oversea Trust (NOT). As a private company, and so able to liaise with the British without compromising Dutch neutrality, the NOT acted as a clearing-house for imported goods and guaranteed that contraband (as defined by the British) wouldn’t be sold on to Germany. The British, happy to be handed effective control over Dutch transatlantic imports, generously agreed a temporary relaxation of blockade against goods from the Dutch East Indies. For a year or so relations between the two countries were relatively smooth, as was Dutch passage across the Atlantic, and the British went on to use the NOT as a blueprint for addressing the contraband issue in other neutral states.

Generally speaking, having witnessed at close hand the effects of occupation on Belgium, Dutch politicians, businessmen and civilians were sympathetic to the Allies throughout the War – but the NOT agreement put the neutrality boot on the other foot, and now the Dutch could only appease Germany. Germany needed food and raw materials, and so 1915 saw a boom in the trade of home-produced Dutch goods across the frontier. Dutch exports to Germany in 1915 ran at almost four times pre-War levels, with agricultural produce dominating the market, and were still rising at the end of the year.

So of course the British spent 1915 lobbying the Dutch to stop ‘feeding the enemy’, but diplomatic efforts didn’t cut much ice against the threat of occupation, and by late summer the Royal Navy was again stopping, searching and seizing Dutch transatlantic merchant traffic. In September, recognising the impossibility of a complete ban on exports from the Netherlands to Germany, the British accepted an agreement ‘rationing’ Dutch import levels of staple foods and oil to pre-War levels, a measure that would at least reduce the surplus available for export. Unfortunately for the Dutch, this essentially reasonable compromise didn’t last the autumn.

I’ve already mentioned that the military disappointments of the year, and of the autumn in particular, had left British war leadership at a crossroads, short on ideas but bent on change and looking for scapegoats (19 December, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes). By the end of the year political and military opinion in Britain had decided one key to shortening the War was a tighter naval blockade of Germany, and so Henderson was sent to The Hague to finalise the rationing agreement and bully the Dutch into further concessions.

Henderson got nowhere, but his failure did trigger political reform of the British blockade system. In February, the various departments in various ministries concerned with blockade were merged under a new Minister of Blockade, Sir Robert Cecil.  Cecil renewed pressure on The Hague during the spring, forcing an agreement that required Dutch farmers to sell half their exports to Britain. The farmers refused to cooperate, unsurprisingly when the British paid far less than the Germans, and the so-called Agricultural Agreement soon collapsed, so that by the summer of 1916 the Royal Navy was back at work making life miserable for Dutch merchantmen and, by way of sending a message, doing the same to the Dutch fishing fleet.

Once again caught between a rock and a hard navy, facing immediate shortages and unsustainable economic disruption, the Dutch could only accept an invitation to renegotiate the Agricultural Agreement. When a final version of the Agreement was signed on 1 November 1916, the British finally got what they wanted, genuine (or at least general) cooperation in the enforcement of quotas on Dutch exports to Germany.

The wartime battle for the Dutch economy was over. Food and other exports to Germany from the Netherlands were significantly reduced after 1916, and the British retained effective control over Dutch trading patterns for the rest of the War. But it had been a struggle and, apart from pointing out that Britain treated its good neighbours in the Netherlands as ciphers to be ruthlessly exploited in 1916, that’s the small point of today’s ramble.

In the century of relative peace before 1914, the British Empire had become accustomed to flexing its gigantic economic muscles and dictating policy to small European countries, comfortable in the knowledge that it was far and away the toughest bully in the playground. Britain still wielded the world’s biggest stick during the First World War, but with resources stretched and in the face of serious competition it had to be sharpened and used with greater precision. This was the lesson learned during the shadow war for Dutch cooperation, a clear signpost to an impoverished British Empire’s more modest position in the post-War world.

1 JANUARY, 1916: Pantomime Time

Not much in the way of significant centenaries today, apart from the British capture of Yaounda, the main German inland settlement in Cameroon – but I’ve talked about Cameroon before (6 September, 1914: They Speak French Now…), and Yaounda was just part of a long endgame that would see the colony subject to Anglo-French partition in March.  Instead, let’s mark the appointment, on New Year’s Day a century ago, of Russian Tsar Nicholas II as a British Field Marshal, and spin it into a reminder that the Great War in Europe didn’t take holidays.

To be fair to the British heritage industry’s seasonal focus on trench hampers and letters home, most of the European battlefronts were quiet over Christmas and New Year.  Despite very mild weather, and leaving aside the BEF’s incessant campaign of trench raids and nuisance operations (essentially the high command’s way of reminding everyone there was a war on), nothing much was happening on the Western Front.  Meanwhile British operations in Gallipoli were ending in evacuation, and the new front at Salonika was a masterpiece of inactivity.

Most European fronts not contested by British ground forces were similarly becalmed.  The alpine battle in northern Italy had been snowed off for the winter, and the invasion of Serbia was all but over, though Austro-Hungarian troops were almost ready to move into defenceless Montenegro.  On the Caucasian Front, where the distraction of Gallipoli had curtailed Ottoman ambition, Russian forces were preparing steadily for an offensive in the early spring. Stasis had also set in along the northern and central sectors of the Eastern Front, where trenches were too far apart for nuisance raids, German and Austro-Hungarian numbers had been depleted by the Serbian campaign, and the weather was cold enough to kill whole units of ill-equipped Russian infantry overnight.

Winter weather was less of a menace at the southern end of the Eastern Front, generally known as the Galician sector, but the mere fact that fighting was possible doesn’t explain why a full-blown Russian offensive was at the peak of its intensity on New Year’s Day 1916.  This was the Bessarabian Offensive, sometimes known as the Battle of the Strypa, after the river that was its main focus, and though it was one of the War’s more pointless exercises in mass slaughter, it was an anomaly that seems worth a look before we all settle down to a stale mince pie from the trench hamper.

I’ll start with a map (stolen of course, and removable on complaint).

romania-map-1000

You’ll notice it doesn’t mention Bessarabia, and that’s because I couldn’t find a comprehensible map that did, but it does put the region in a wartime context. Bessarabia is the wedge of land east of the River Dniester, some 500km of Black Sea coast either side of Constanta forming its base, and the area around Czernowitz (Chernivsti) its point.  Most of Bessarabia is in modern Moldova, and was part of Romania at the start of 1916, but the northern tip of the region (now part of the Ukraine) formed a border between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires – and marked the southern extremity of the Eastern Front for as long as Romania remained neutral.

The Kingdom of Romania, which had been juggling bribes from all sides since 1914, wasn’t likely to stay on the fence for much longer, and the need to impress Bucharest was one strategic justification for an immediate Russian advance south beyond Czernowitz. Another was the desire, albeit somewhat belated, to disrupt Austro-Hungarian operations in Serbia, and a third was the Russian high command’s simple urge to fight back, and be seen to fight back, after the terrible losses of 1915.

The fact that the Russian Army was capable of fighting back at all reflected startling improvements in output and quality of equipment since the summer’s establishment of the War Industries Committee (26 June, 1915: Hope and Hopelessness).  Sadly, the spirit of reform hadn’t extended to Stavka, the Russian high command, which was still a byword for dithering, bickering and scattergun strategy.  At a time when the entire Russian Army was in desperate need of reconstruction and recuperation, Stavka’s decision to fling new resources into action at the first possible opportunity was entirely typical, as was the choice of what was essentially a showpiece operation along a limited front in a far-flung corner of the theatre.

The show got underway as soon as the decision to attack in Bessarabia had been reached – in mid-November, and in time to bolster Russian demands at December’s Chantilly conference for more offensive activity from its allies. The world’s press was provided with regular updates on the offensive’s aims and estimated time of arrival, while Tsar Nicholas II, in personal command of Stavka since the late summer (hence the New Year honour from his cousin, George V), inspected preparations at the front in a blaze of publicity. Pre-match propaganda wasn’t unusual at a time when it was impossible to conceal preparations for a major land attack, but this was particularly loud, and generated high levels of expectation among Russia’s allies at a time when they had little else to cheer.

To say that the offensive itself failed to live up the hype would be a major understatement.  Sector commander General Ivanov prepared for action at a snail’s pace, eventually building a 2-to-1 manpower advantage over Austro-Hungarian defenders before launching the attack on 27 December. In an attempt to imitate the German ‘breakthrough’ tactics used during 1915’s Triple Offensive, Ivanov massed nine infantry and two cavalry corps for assault along a narrow front, but he failed to provide them with reserve support and was unable to respond when initial attacks were repulsed by Austrian artillery. The only Russian success came on the southern wing, where General Shcherbachev concentrated all his artillery along a single kilometre of the line and almost broke through, but lack of reserve support and well-organised counterattacks soon snuffed out the threat.

Two weeks of fierce fighting followed, featuring an equally unsuccessful re-run of the initial operation on 1 and 2 January, and continuing through the Russian calendar’s Christmas Day (which fell on 7 January) before Ivanov abandoned the operation on 10 January.  By that time what amounted to a failed PR exercise had cost the Russian Army about 50,000 men and gained it nothing at all.

The Bessarabian Offensive didn’t make much difference to the grand scheme of things, and the only lesson Stavka drew from the experience was the same one Joffre kept mis-learning on the Western Front:  that breakthrough tactics would work given yet more concentrated firepower at the point of attack.  I still think the battle is worth remembering, and not just as a seasonal signpost along the way to total war.

For great swathes of Eastern Europe, including the battle-scarred imperial margins of the Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, the First World War is not forgotten or reduced to clichés in the British manner, but is a visceral, visible memory of death, upheaval and destruction on a vast scale.  In a modern world that makes Eastern Europe our close neighbour, it seems a shame not to at least notice that.