On the verge of living memory

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Remembrance and regret.

Today is Remembrance Day.

It is a ‘jour ferie’ in France – all the shops closed etc, the nearest France gets to a bank holiday. 

But I read something a few days that shocked me somewhat – that there are only three British veterans left of this war.

Three, count them. Aged between 108 and 116 years of age, frankly it is a wonder there are any at all. They will all be attending the ceremony today, and next year, who knows if there will be any at all?

When I was a child, the old men marching proudly down Whitehall each November 11 were First World War veterans, and the Second World War veterans – my parents among them – were still quite hale and hearty. But for today’s children, those old men and women are my parent’s generation – what is left of them – and the others are almost gone.

I suddenly realise that what for me was the present, the personal experience of my family, is rapidly becoming history. It’s a strange thought, because everyone thinks of themselves as living in the present, not the past. My grandfather missed the war by only months, but as an inhabitant of Oldham in Lancashire, well remembered the local Pals regiment marching away to war, many of them never to return, so in our family, talk of the Great War was of something experienced and remembered, not something one read about or filtered through the medium of books or television. 

I am pleased to see that there is a resurgence of interest in the First World War, due to the upsurge in interest in genealogy. The most awful of events, a devastating war of attrition (which means, in Greek, to ‘rub away’), it deserves to be remembered forever as an example of the total stupidity of which humanity is capable. Fresh into a new century that might have heralded prosperity, technological advancement and better living conditions for all, instead European humanity used its new advances to immolate itself.

It was the first time there was a general draft of the male population of the major European countries, with civilians executed if they deserted and conscientious objectors imprisoned if they refused to murder their fellow human beings. The first time men had killed each other from the air, only a decade after the skies had been conquered. The first time they killed each other from under the sea, only a few years after submarination had been achieved. The first time civilian populations were deliberately targeted in order to induce terror and capitulation. The first time chemical warfare was used on a grand scale, leaving thousands dead, blind and with breathing problems forever. And it introduced a new phenomenon – the soldier ‘missing presumed killed’, a euphemism for blown to smithereens by high explosives, no body left to bury, no remains left to mourn. 

The War To End All Wars. What a start to the bloodiest century in history. France, where I live, has never recovered from the First World War. So many men of marriageable age were lost here that the population has struggled ever since to replace itself. Throughout Europe over 20 million lives were lost.

The reasons for getting into the war in the first place bear some watching and the sheer incompetence of the generals beggars belief. It would lead to near-revolution in the trenches and a seething resentment of the class system at home that would culminate in the General Strike of 1926, but sadly never a full revolution – which is something Britain could certainly do with.

Douglas Haig, the British commander, believed until his death in 1928 that machine guns were no match for horses, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He also believed that British troops should march from the trenches in slow formation, the better to achieve control – whereupon they were, of course, mercilessly cut down by German machine guns like wheat in the field. Alan Clarke’s masterly The Donkeys is a good introduction to the subject, if you haven’t read it. And the memoirs such as ‘Goodbye to all that’ and ‘Memoirs of a foxhunting man’ are also essential reading for anyone interested in this war and how terribly it affected the people who fought it.

If possible, of course, the peace was more mishandled than the war itself by the nasty, vindictive old men who started it, leading directly to the advent of Nazism and another war, just 20 years later, that would end in the deaths of around 60 million people.

I hope that today, as people remember the Great War, and pay their respects to the few survivors that remain, that they also remember to be angry. Angry for the pointlessness of it all, angry for the way the populaces of Europe were betrayed and manipulated by their leaders, and angry for the way that a whole generation of hope and promise – our grandfathers and great-grandfathers – was left by their leaders to rot in the mud of Flanders. 

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