Monday, 15 October 2012

Shouldn't we just forget World War One?

Last Thursday Mr Cameron gave a speech to the upper echelons of the Imperial War Museum, a couple of Government ministers and the press. It was special for two reasons.

1. I was there, not in the room but down the corridor working security and holding the PM's door open.

2. A further £5m has been pledged to the Museum's regeneration project and the Centenary World War One Gallery.

Indeed, in little over two years the Country will be marking and remembering the start of World War One, the largest war the world had seen since the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814. (the hundred days Waterloo campaign of 1815 doesn't count as it was limited to the Low countries, Britain, France and Prussia.)

The scale of the carnage on both the Eastern and Western fronts was ludicrously high but with both sides armed with the most modern equipment and a command structure that had spent a century fighting native armies it was some what inevitable.

Even on the lesser known fronts the death toll was high, look at Gallipoli or the war in Iraq which saw the majority of British & Indian POWs die in Turkish care.

I think it is important to remember the war that signalled the end of the nineteenth century and in whose wake the first wave of social change came to Europe. People's thinking was rapidly changed and the face of military and political theory changed overnight..

There is also the human tragedy to remember. The waves of soldiers climbing out of their trenches on that bright morning on the Somme and walking towards the German lines only to find the barrage had failed when the German machine guns openned up.
The communities whose young men were wiped out often in the case of the Pals regiments, in one go.
The three cruisers Hogue, Arboukir and Cressy sunk in 40 minutes taking 1459 sailors to their deaths.
The Kindermort in 1914 where the rapidity and rifle discipline of the withdrawing British army cut down swathes of the advancing German armies which were spearheaded by the fresh in take of 17 year old volunteers. German command, whilst counting their dead believed the out numbered British force had armed each man with a machine gun so great was the death toll.

Words like Ypres, Somme, Passchendale, Gallipoli, Mustard gas, Zeppelin, trenches - They're all scars on the living memory and family history. I was quite lucky and only one of my relatives died and one was wounded and one had a very near miss when his warship exploded!

However the war is fading from memory as there are no more surviving veterans and even those whose fathers fought are thinning in number. My nan was born in 1917 and passed away aged 90 some five years ago and I only have one grandparent left but likewise he's 91 now!

Those that visit the Imperial war Museum do filter through the galleries respectfully viewing the remains of the war and symbols of victory over the Kaiser. School groups are less interested, complaining about the smell in the Trench before hurrying through to look at the Nazis. It holds no relevance for them.

Even the reasons for going to war are long forgotten. Unlike the Second the Germanic powers of the Central powers were not the evil of Nazism and the Kaiser and Franz Josef's Empires were little different to Britain or France. The overall cause can be put down to German aggression or Empire building but coming from Britain that is a little hypocritical  War had been somewhat inevitable for some time and both the Royal Navy and German high seas fleet had been itching to test out their comparative strengths. However it was hardly a fight of good vs. evil!

There has always been stories of "lions led by donkeys" throughout our history that no one remembers now. In 1776 the British army advanced in rank order at a steady march three times on Bunker hill, the American infantry forced them to retire twice under heavy fire and only when they ran out of ammunition did the "Lobsters" take the field.

General Braddock and his men walked into a massacre at Monongahela in 1755.

The last stand of the Gloucesters on Gloster hill during Korean war in 1951.

Heroism like Lieutenant Latham wrapping the King's colour about him and suffering grievous injuries from the French Cruassiers at Albuhera or Lieutenant Coghill and Melvill's heroic ride to save regimental honour after the massacre of Isandlwana in 1879 which saw 1300 British and NNC troops butchered by 20,000 angry Zulu warriors.

How many of these incidents are remembered any more? Who cares what happened in 1776? How is it still relevant to us in the modern age? Who cares about Korea - Who even knows it happened?

No one remembers the Boer War, a war that ended just over a century ago and cost my family TWO great-great grandfathers. This may be because we were the bad guys in that war or just because no one is there to remind us of it.

For me, the relevance is that the War had been pointless. We say "They died for us" but they didn't, not like my Grandparent's generation did. Despite the shelling of Great Yarmouth and a smattering of air raids the UK was never under threat. They died for the official reason that Belgian neutrality was violated but really because one of Queen Victoria's grandsons spoiled for a fight with the others.

They died for "King and Country", because Kitchener told them to, because they were expected to.

Although the adage of "we should remember to stop it happening again" isn't applicable because it did happen again - we should remember them and the War for its futility.

We should not let this War to end all wars be forgotten like so many others and should impress upon the young the conditions that the British Empire asked its soldiers to live, fight and die in.

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