This week, battened down in my metaphorical trench dug-out, enduring the snowstorm of incoming centenary WW1 articles, news stories, television and radio programmes, I was reminded that the conflict – at various times described as ‘The Great War’ and ‘the war to end all wars’ – was also seen by some as potentially a form of Armageddon for either the British Empire or European civilisation.
Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) seemed to point to the theory of a pattern that all great civilisations eventually fall prey to complacency, debauchery and irreversible decline – then to be succeeded by the next.
Some British politicians and observers felt that, from about 1885 onwards, the growth of free-spirited, self-indulgent, slightly louche fin de siècle attitudes in some quarters of society – cue Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and, of course, various ghastly French impressionist painters – potentially signalled just the sort of symptoms Gibbons had been alluding to, i.e. evidence of dissoluteness that would herald the decline of British and/or European civilisation.
When British and colonial forces were given the run-around by the Boers’ guerrilla tactics during the Boer War (1899-1902), the resulting enquiry, highlighting the antiquated tactics and inefficiencies of the British army and the abysmal general level of the recruits’ physical fitness, only seemed to reinforce the theory. Despite the glories of the Edwardian era (as supposedly exhibited by ITV’s Downton Abbey and similar), many at the time were convinced that, if Britain didn’t take radical steps to rectify its ‘weaknesses’, it was heading for a certain fall.
We may all have our personal views on whether WW1 hastened, brought about, or was just a factor of that fall – or not.
However, here’s an article on another – modern – version of Gibbon’s theme, as spotted this morning on the website of THE GUARDIAN