100 years ago today the guns fell silent on the world’s first truly global war.
This was the war that gave us annual commemorations and war memorials around the world, a marked grave for every soldier, the wearing of the poppy and millions of people killed and maimed; and was a war so terrible that no family in Britain remained untouched. This year the festival of remembrance is especially poignant as it falls on the day that is the centenary of the Armistice.
Even after 100 years and four years of remembrance, we struggle to comprehend the numbers. It’s said every Remembrance Sunday that if all the British and Empire dead walked four abreast past the Cenotaph it would take three and a half days for them all to pass. We can make no sense of such numbers.
These men and women were not conscripts; for since the 17th century Britain has always been mistrustful of a standing army, deeming it to be the weapon of foreign tyrants. They enlisted voluntarily and gladly – soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, stretcher bearers, pioneers, ambulance drivers – because they believed that fighting to defend their country was, in the hackneyed phrase beloved of certain politicians, the right thing to do. They came from every class and every part of the Empire
Cook’s son – duke’s son – son a belted earl
Son of a Lambeth publican – it’s all the same today!
What Kipling wrote of the army that went to South Africa in 1899 was even truer in 1914-1918. What I believe we struggle with, having the benefit of hindsight in a much more cynical age, is how the British men and women of 100 years ago were prepared to suffer struggle and sacrifice and death on such a monumental scale, yet it is clear from historical records that although they enlisted for many and complex reasons, the people of 1914 believed that what they were doing had to be done, and that they were the people to step up and do it. In the words of historian Gary Sheffield
The country in 1914 was a democracy, albeit an incomplete one, governed on liberal principles. For such a state to wage a total war, involving not just the armed forces but the whole of society, the consent of the masses was essential. By and large, in First World War Britain, that consent was given.
Near my home there is a war memorial, as there is in so many towns – it stands outside the hospital that that bears its’ name. The names are weathered and faded, and the men it remembers – a lot of them – are overwhelmingly the ordinary men who were soldiers for the duration. ‘Private,’ ‘private’, ‘private,’ ‘corporal’ – only occasionally ‘2nd Lieutenant,’ ‘Colonel’ or ‘Sergeant.’ The men who faced the German machine guns at the Somme, floundered through the mud at Passchendaele of climbed the cliffs at Gallipoli were just that – ordinary men – who had no idea that they were performing what their children and grandchildren would think of as something extraordinary and worthy of remembrance; or that at a time when most of them would expect to have been forgotten even by their descendants, we still celebrate their courage and camaraderie. I wonder, as well, what the world would be like if this generation had lived.
The Great War is as distant from us as the battle of Waterloo was for them. Why do we have this deep need to remember every year? Up until the 1990s, remembrance ceremonies (apart from the one at the Cenotaph) barely existed. Two world wars were treated as if they were historical incidents that should be decently brushed under the carpet: then shops and offices started to observe the 2 minute silence at 11am on November 11. It was almost as if some collective decision had been made formally to remember and acknowledge the sacrifices and sufferings of people who, had they not fought in two great wars, would barely be remembered.
One hundred years on, the story of the Great War, especially on the Western Front, continues to grip the imagination and stir up deep emotion. You only have to watch programmes were made with surviving veterans, and see their grief for a lost father, sweetheart or comrade, and their memories of battle: still vivid and poignant after nearly a century.
Personal bonds to those who fought 100 years ago remain strong, and I think that’s why the remembrance of the wars of the 20th century is significant to so many people. Up until 1914, death in war concerned only the families of the soldiers involved. The war of 1914-1918 was almost a mass media war and came to define a culture, with songs, plays, poems, fashions, developments in technology and above all films, photographs and sound. We see them – we hear them – they come very close as they mug and smile for the camera, or wave at the cameraman as they march past. We can see what they experienced and relate it to our own family experience and in some ways the suffering becomes personal – it brings home with great force exactly what great grandad suffered at the Somme, or what great uncle endured at Gallipoli. So we wear the poppy – that humble field flower that grows in profusion where the soldiers fought and fell, and which lasts a day or to, just like those men. The innocence and trust those young men and women placed in the hands of their leaders was totally and tragically misplaced; so I see each act of remembrance as an atonement. We stand in the silence, and we try to comprehend the heart breaking bravery of so many who were, as they saw it, simply doing their duty. We listen to the names tolling like a funeral bell, and read the war memorials, and think not just of the lives cut short but the fatherless children, grieving parents and the thousands of women left with no marriage and a family to raise, often in hardship and poverty. It is right to be moved by the courage while being enraged by the futility.
And perhaps that is why we still choose to remember: the deep sense that by doing so we are making small repayments on a massive debt we can neither ignore nor ever really repay.
Annual remembrance has not always been solemn. In the 1920s many veterans believed that the best way to honour dead comrades was to live life to the full, and according to historian Hew Strachan, the Festival of Remembrance was established in the 1920s so that old soldiers could have a singsong and a drink to celebrate their survival and mourn the dead once the solemnity of the Cenotaph ceremony was over. It was only in the mid-1920s that the orthodoxy for solemnity became established and the parties came to an end.
There is no right way to remember. All that matters is that we do.