Opinion: We shouldn’t talk about soldiers ‘giving’ their lives in WW1

ww1Much of the news recently has focused on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Rightly so, too. It changed the course of history and approximately sixteen million people died during it.

But there is something that sits very uneasily with me about the way it has been covered. When discussing it, many will refer to how many people ‘gave their lives’ during the conflict. ‘Giving’ is a selfless deed, and it is one that is done voluntarily. One shouldn’t have to ‘give’ out of obligation, nor as a result of being misled. It is here that I have a problem with this phrase. Did those millions of people on both sides of the war really believe that the loss of their life was justified in the grander scheme of things? Did they, in their final moments, feel a sense of patriotic pride in having done something wonderful for their country? Or would they have cursed the futility of mass loss of life on such an unfathomable scale? It is difficult to say for sure, but we can all hazard our own guesses.

I do not mean to denigrate the actions of those who fought in the war. They went through horrors unimaginable to you or me. But it is for this very reason that I am angered by anyone who seeks to glorify the war as if it were a cause worthy of so much bloodshed.

Harry Patch, one of the longest living combatants of the conflict, is held up by many as a hero of the war. To a number of statesmen and politicians, he is a man who epitomised so-called British values of honour and patriotism. Like them, I see him as hero, but for vastly differing reasons. He was a man who understood that killing another human being for the sake of national pride was a pointless endeavour:

‘Why should I go and kill someone who I never knew? For what reason? … No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives, let alone thousands.’

Few have managed to articulate this idea so simply and eloquently. When I hear people who voted in favour of going to war in Iraq, or people who jeered at those who voted against going to war in Syria, mouthing platitudes about how we must remember those who ‘gave’ their lives during the events of 1914-1918, it appals me. Commemoration is vital. We must never forget. But it is even more important to learn from the mistakes of the past to ensure that soldiers and civilians alike are not forced to lose their lives to satisfy the demands and settle the squabbles of those in positions of power.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham

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40 Comments

  • That’s before we even mention conscription…

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Aug '14 - 10:38am

    David Gray

    Did those millions of people on both sides of the war really believe that the loss of their life was justified in the grander scheme of things? Did they, in their final moments, feel a sense of patriotic pride in having done something wonderful for their country?

    More so than you might think because you are looking at it with hindsight.

    Back then, warfare really was far more popular than it is now. There really was quite a big support for the idea of going to war. A lot of the mentality we have now about it stems from what happened in World War I, at the way it did not end quickly and instead went on and on taking so many lives.

    To some extent we need also to see how it is a sort of comfort to those who have lost loved ones to put across the idea that somehow it was all worthwhile. This is a human thing, it helped those left behind move on. They would have been left feeling a whole lot worse if the universal reaction afterwards was “your loved ones died for something pointless”.

    To some extent I can see this in the Northern Ireland peace agreement. I’ve written recently about how I find the IRA and their Sinn Fein mouthpieces disgusting, the violence they pursued achieving nothing but deepening divisions, how very much better it would have been if they had campaigned for their views peacefully. Yet I can sort of see how we have to indulge in a bit of hypocrisy and let them pretend they were heroes for their cause in order to let things move on.

    If we look at the Middle East today, we can see that our idea that war is futile isn’t shared by everyone. There are large numbers of people who find it exciting, and indulge in the rhetoric of martyrdom and the like, which really does mean a sense of pride in being killed while killing. There are Sunnis killing Shias and Shias killing Sunnis, both thinking that what they are doing is blessed Jihad which will be rewarded in heaven.

  • Simon McGrath 5th Aug '14 - 10:42am

    “‘Why should I go and kill someone who I never knew? For what reason? … No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives, let alone thousands.’”
    With all respect to Harry Patch this is nonsense. Whether we were right to fight in WW1 is a controversial question but stopping Hitler was certainly worth the loss of lives.

  • Richard Church 5th Aug '14 - 11:06am

    Well said David,

    People knew they were putting their lives at risk, and the jingoistic propoganda on both sides had told them it was all worth while, they would not have thought they were giving up or sacrificing their lives though. They had no idea in August 2014 what was coming; the trenches and the millions of lives lost. War had not been fought like this before, and they were told it would all be over by Christmas.

    The social pressure to enlist was powerful too. Conscription did not come in until 2016, by which time millions were already dead. My grandfather and great uncle refused to fight on grounds of conscience. My great uncle went to prison and work camps, my grandfather was given dispensation as he had a business and young family, and did voluntary service in hospitals. However, the villification of people who refused to fight was enormous.

    It’s time to take the militarism out of commemorating war. Remember the dead, the soldiers and the civilians alike. Remember too the atrocities that happen in all wars, the deliberate killing of non combatants, not just those caught in crossfire.

  • Matthew and Tom – your arguments lead back to my point about people being misled. Matthew, I understand that we look back with the benefit of hindsight, but given that this hindsight is available to us, surely we must use this and apply it to current and future conflicts to ensure that we never again rush into wars that cost huge amounts of lives? Perhaps many soldiers did feel a sense of patriotic duty, but it seems to be the case that many who lasted long enough on the battlefields became highly disillusioned by the war. As Richard and Tom rightly say, the amount of propaganda about at the time misled people badly.

    Simon – I take your point, and it’s certainly true that WWII is a trickier debate for anyone with pacifistic leanings. Perhaps it is more useful then to look at it in the light of what could have been done to prevent the atrocities inflicted by the Nazi Party on both its own people and others. Without WWI, it is unlikely that WWII would have happened, or at least it would have been a very different war. With circumstances as they came to be, war was a terrible necessity, but I would argue that these circumstances shouldn’t have been reached in the first place.

  • I, too, am uneasy with the way WW1 is being remembered…..Although there was a far greater feeling of ‘my country right or wrong’ then, little has changed….
    The populace in 1914 was bombarded with ‘Huns bayonetingbabies/nurses’ , etc., proganda; today we are being fed the ‘Russia bad; West good’,etc.,….In a more sophisticated way, perhaps, but the aim is the same….WW1 was about the control of world markets; what has changed?

  • “They had no idea in August 2014 what was coming; the trenches and the millions of lives lost. War had not been fought like this before, and they were told it would all be over by Christmas.”

    I believe that most people involved in planning the war expected it to be over quickly. Kitchener was one of the exceptions.

  • matt (Bristol) 5th Aug '14 - 12:42pm

    It’s interesting to consider how the idea of ‘sacrificial death’ has built up around WW1; it comes partially in the context of what was (in the 1920s) an increasingly (but generally still quietly) agnostic but still outwardly religious society, yet still with an enromous dependence on ancient – either Classical or Biblical – language to express ideas.

    There is a sense in which it was a societal compromise; it allowed the nation to agree that the war was tragic, yet not have to concede that it was futile (and, indeed, up to the financial crises of the 1920s, few were prepared to openly state that it had been futile, although the idea festered).

    This sense of an unspoken meeting of disparate views under one umbrella trerminology is also found in the idea of Remembrance Day, the UK’s first truly national and secular ceremonial event (that was not linked to the person of the monarch).

    From the 1910s into the early 1920s, ‘sacirificial death’ was also being worked-up in secret as a theoretical and then a practical concept by the Irish Republican Bortherhood in Ireland, drawing on Roman Catholic influences. I’m sure that historians of other European nations could find then-contemporary instances from other nations.

    It also gained currency because the enromous deaths among the junior officer classes, so WW1 shaped the mindset of arguably 2 generations of politicians and civil servants; everyone knew people who had died; no-on wnated ot blieve it was in vain.

    What made the rhetoric stick longterm more in the UK than anywhere else was WW2, and (in part) Churchill’s narrative of it as a heroic struggle in the the UK never surrendered.

    In Germany, in France, in Italy, in Austria, in Russia, remembering WW1 as a heroic sacrifice is much more obviously out of place; the modern states have little historic continuity with the states that prosecuted the war, and of rmost it stirs up memories of a WW2 which is still controversial or difficult.

    I find that when I attend and participate in Remembrance Sunday events, I wish to remember, with honour, all of any nation, soldiers and civilians, who have died in war, however they died, but there are still so many people who feel that the explicit, Christ-like language of soldiers ‘giving their lives’ or even ‘giving their lives for us’ needs to be perpetuated, to be honoured, because it has been for so long the only language in which these events can be processed. They are not by any means militarists, they often are opposed to any further wars or would agree that past wars were botched or manipulated, but they cannot let this language go; to attack it is an assault on their own memories, their identity.

  • Bill le Breton 5th Aug '14 - 12:44pm

    Dave Begag writes “I believe that most people involved in planning the war expected it to be over quickly. Kitchener was one of the exceptions.”

    This was absolutely not the case. Every miltary strategist among them had studied and been briefed on the Russo-Japanese War 1904/05. After the Japanese had destroyed their fleet, the Russians tried to pursue matters on land, but, with the machine gun and the trench, this had quickly led to stale mate in exactly the fashion it was later to happen in WW1.

    Each of the major powers came to believe in July 1914 that they had an interest in a war taking place in 1914 (and not later) and of being part of that war for fear of what the consequence might have been had they not taken a side. Each was in that way an aggressor, even though each new that it would be a war that favoured the defender, dug in a trench, with scores of machine guns.

    Kitchener had nothing to prove. Others sadly did.

    What is interesting is how and why Britain changed its sea power based strategy that had been so effective through the C19th.

    This has a lesson for us today. If you are interested, long post follows. Feel free to avoid like the plague, if you are not.

  • Bill le Breton 5th Aug '14 - 12:51pm

    Did they ‘give their lives’? I think their lives were ‘taken’.

    There were a number of references to John Parr, believed to be the first British service person to be killed in the war, and the first British soldier to die in Europe since 1815.

    Britain had sensibly avoided getting dragged into continental wars for 100 years and had relied on sea power.
    This policy changed at the start of the C20th. There is rather a good outline of this process here: http://www.1914-1918.net/entente.htm

    Not for the only time in the sorry tale of the ‘Great War’ it resulted largely from the incompetence of the Establishment.

    First, elements in the army were keen to reverse this Navy dominated policy and (against the kind of propaganda typified by stories such as Riddle of the Sands) to plan for Germany rather than France as the likely aggressor of the future. Those in the army who were to advocate this change were later to be among the incompetents that bungled so many ‘attacks’ during the war itself.

    The army gained secret permission for ‘conversations’ between themselves and the French army. When Grey was informed of these on becoming FS in 1906, he did not halt them nor inform his cabinet colleagues.

    Later, during the Agadir crisis of 1911, Asquith called an emergency meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence (23 August 1911). At this meeting the arch Francophile, Germanophobe and Unionist (later Curragh conspirator) Brigadier General Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations, gave a masterful, detailed (because of the talks with French army) but ultimately ruinous presentation of preferred army strategy – committing to an Expeditionary Force. This was followed by an incompetent, sketchy and ill-prepared explanation of naval thinking by Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson. That afternoon, effectively, the fate of a BEF was sealed.

    Thereafter it would be only a matter of time before some excuse would be found to pursue this opportunity for the Army to topple the old ‘Senior Service’ and find glory against Germany on European soil.

    Grey and Asquith’s decision to keep all this to themselves was costly in life and treasure.

    Nor as I wrote above were the army and the politicians ignorant of how a way would be fought and how the balance had moved to the machine gun and the defender. They had been given detailed reports of how when Japan had destroyed its fleet, Russian had tried to win the war on land but how that conflict had ended in a stalemate with both sides dug into trenches World-War-I-style behind barbed wire lines and had remained in their positions for months (Battle of Sha Ho).

    As ChristopherClark has shown us recently (The Sleepwalkers) each of the Great Powers found themselves in 1914 seeing a benefit from a war (now) rather than later or rather than one fought without their involvement. Their elites were all aggressors with similar levels of blame for what followed.

    The incompetence, of key military, diplomatic and political figures (and rabble rousing press) across all of the great powers in the summer of 1914 were lethal to those decent and trusting folk whose lives were taken from them and their relatives.

    That was the true lesson to be remembered yesterday and each day during the next four years. Don’t trust your leaders and opinion-formers, check out their c.v.s for signs of privilege, amateurism, aloofness and arrogance, and dump them with your political and purchasing power.

  • Nine days before his unit was mobilised in Dublin on the 4th August, a detachment of my mum’s uncle’s battalion, possibly including him, fired on a crowd of UK civilians killing four and wounding around 80. Within a month they were in an advanced position at Mons firing some of the first shots against the German army. The BEF in 1914 comprised less than 1% of total number of the British army that served in the war though, so it is the volunteers and conscripts that tend to shape our memory, but to paint them as innocent victims being sent to the slaughter isn’t universally true. Another of my mum’s uncles lost his life in 1918 after lying about his age to join up. He could easily have avoided being there and at the time he joined up he would have been well aware of the scale of the loss of life and the conditions on the western front. There was enormous peer pressure to join in. Behaviour that seems unthinkable now was commonplace , such as women giving white feathers to those they thought cowards for not joining up, although this has to be placed against the scale of a war in which around half the entire male population from cradle to grave served. It was perhaps unsurprising that those that didn’t came in for such abuse. I have admiration for those that did object.

    Six of my mum’s uncles were fatally wounded on the western front. The first to die was the one whose unit fired on the crowd in Dublin that taunted them after they failed to intercept Erskine Childer’s consignment of arms landed there that morning. The arms were put to use two years later in the Easter Rising. Despite the deaths of the four civilians, large crowds, mainly comprised of nationalists, lined the streets to wish them well as they departed for France. History and foreign affairs are a complex and are not easily served by sound-bites, especially for something on the scale of the first world war. Not that it stops Cameron coming out with inane comments about Belgian neutrality or Gove wresting back his version of history from the Marxists that live in his head.

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '14 - 1:18pm

    I see nothing at all inappropriate about the phrase “giving their lives” or “sacrifice”. I see lots of things inappropriate about hijacking these phrases for some modern political purpose.

    These phrases express the deep gratitude that the survivors have to those who lost their lives. I hope that no-one is suggesting that we should not care.

  • Daniel Henry 5th Aug '14 - 1:41pm

    It seems you’ve completely misunderstood the post Richard.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Aug '14 - 1:42pm

    David Gray

    Matthew and Tom – your arguments lead back to my point about people being misled. Matthew, I understand that we look back with the benefit of hindsight, but given that this hindsight is available to us, surely we must use this and apply it to current and future conflicts to ensure that we never again rush into wars that cost huge amounts of lives?

    Yes, of course we should. I never said we should not. In fact it supports the underlying point you are making when I say people at the time went into the war with these sort of heroic attitudes. It is very easy to whip up these sort of attitudes, and then it can be very, very hard to back off from them. That also was part of what I was saying – it would be nice if those involved in war would throw down their weapons and declare “This is pointless, this is not the way to solve problems”, but they won’t, will they? Indeed, the more people have suffered and died, the HARDER it gets to do this, because when people have suffered they find it hard to accept that their suffering was pointless.

    I have been arguing elsewhere about the pointlessness of Hamas’s rocket lobbing. To me it is obvious that it has achieved nothing but brought on a very nasty and over-the-top response, it should never have been entered in to, had the Palestinians chosen a non-violent way to protest and make their points known, they would now come across as a very noble people and the Israelis seen as horrible and nasty for resisting their demands for their own homeland. Yet if you’re a Palestinian who’s seen so much suffering from the responses to it, it’s going to be almost impossible to say “That suffering was pointless, we should never have gone down that route”. That is very basic human nature. Therefore if a solution ever is arrived at, it probably will have to involve quite a bit of hypocritical praise of the pointless violence and those involved in it.

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '14 - 1:55pm

    @Daniel Henry
    How so? It seems to me that David Gray has completely misunderstood the phrase “gave their lives”. He’s using an atomistic interpretation of words, I suppose. See also http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/05/europe-gaza-civilian-suffering-first-world-war

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Aug '14 - 1:58pm

    matt (Bristol)

    From the 1910s into the early 1920s, ‘sacrificial death’ was also being worked-up in secret as a theoretical and then a practical concept by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland, drawing on Roman Catholic influences.

    Well, I’ve only gone as far as Wiki to find actual quotes to counter the suggestion here, but the Roman Catholic hierarchy was completely opposed to Irish Republicanism at the time, here is what it quotes as coming from the RC Bishop of Kerry about those involved with it: “when we look down into the fathomless depth of this infamy of the heads of the Fenian conspiracy, we must acknowledge that eternity is not long enough, nor hell hot enough to punish such miscreants.”

    The Catholic concept of sacrificial death was a pacifist one, not a violent one.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Aug '14 - 2:05pm

    matt (Bristol)

    there are still so many people who feel that the explicit, Christ-like language of soldiers ‘giving their lives’ or even ‘giving their lives for us’ needs to be perpetuated, to be honoured, because it has been for so long the only language in which these events can be processed.

    Note, however, that the language used does not celebrate the taking of lives. There is no talk of soldiers bravely taking down huge number of the enemy before being killed themselves. There is no celebration of killing. There is no delight at the suffering of the enemy. There is nothing like the Islamist concept of a “martyr” who kills himself while killing many of the enemy.

    One need only see how war has been celebrated in many other places and at many other times to see that there is something quite unusual in that.

  • When Belgium was formed in 1830 , Britain guaranteed to defend her if attacked- we guaranteed her liberty. If Britain had not gone to war against Germany in 1914 it would have been likely she would have had to go to war at later date. A War against Germany which had defeated France and Russia would have been even worse. Sometimes in life , one has to take the lesser of evils .

    The Entente Cordial with France signed in 1904 ended our confrontation with this country. We had started to support France.People should research the experience of Belgium and those parts of France which suffered German occupation and consider their opinions.

    Part of the reason was that once trenches were constructed it was very difficult to breach them- tanks had not been invented and the shell fire did not adequately destroy the barbed wire and defences. The extensive railway network meant that artillery could be supplied with vast amounts of shells, bullets and men. Radio communication had not been invented to enable a fast moving warfare.

    The industrial revolution enabled the vast amounts of weapons and munitions to be manufactured and moved to the front. The development of the machine gun enabled mass slaughter to occur.

    Britain largely wanted to keep out of war in Europe. Britain’s European Policy was was always to support the underdog and prevent a single power from dominating Europe and using all the continent’s resources to invade our country. There were conflicts between various countries but they were not of our making. Many of the chocolate manufacturers and union leaders were against war with Germany. Many Britains had married Germans plus worked and studied in Germany.

    People continue to call the generals incompetent but once trenches had constructed and combining with all the other technicals aspects , any war fought between industrialised nations, was going to cause mass slaughter. There was also the factor that if Germany took the channel ports , Britain would not be able to support France. Consequently once Germany invaded Belgium , it was vital to mobilise an army and prevent the Channel Ports being taken.

  • matt (Bristol) 5th Aug '14 - 4:05pm

    Matthew Huntbach,

    Thank you for making my points more nuanced:

    “The Catholic concept of sacrificial death was a pacifist one, not a violent one.”

    Yes, it was and is and always should be, but the ideas were twisted by the IRB ideologues into language like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ireland_unfree_shall_never_be_at_peace Note that I said ‘Catholic influences’, not ‘Catholic teaching’. I did not mean to imply offical Catholic collusion with the IRB ideology; that wouldbe a slur on many Catholics, and I apologise if you felt I mean that, as I did not. This point meant as a side-comment was influenced by my reading on the history of Irish nationalism and republicanism around the time of WW1, in particular by Robert Kee’s ‘The Green Flag’ – the main point was to clarify that a sentimental, concept of heroic sacrifice was widespread in European culture at that time, and the usage of this language which some may now see as an historic anomaly was not just an English phenomenon.

    “Note, however, that the language used does not celebrate the taking of lives. There is no talk of soldiers bravely taking down huge number of the enemy before being killed themselves. There is no celebration of killing… One need only see how war has been celebrated in many other places and at many other times to see that there is something quite unusual in that.”

    Yes, that’s a fair point. The language of ‘giving their lives’ is not a bloodthirsty one; it more has a ‘clean’, eirenic tone, as if some kind of spiritual transformation has been undergone for the good of the nation (and what we are talking about is, I think, a nationalist and not a religious concept; it just co-opts religious language). In the wrong hands it could be misused, but it is generally used by ordinary folk with honest and not malicious intentions, I think. But there is no reason why we should not, as the OP has done, question the concept.

  • matt (Bristol) 5th Aug '14 - 4:17pm

    RIchard, I see why you may not find a questioning of this phrasing appropriate; but it is not a purely modern phenomenon, or have you not read Wilfred Owen?

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '14 - 5:14pm

    @matt (Bristol). WIlfred Owen questioned the inaccurate information on which people based their decisions, but no, I wasn’t aware that he questioned the phrase “gave his life”. Very few decisions are based on complete information, of course, and perhaps it took WW1 for people to start to want to know more. I haven’t read all his poetry, so maybe I missed it – I’m just an ordinary voter – but from what I hear I would expect he’d find that phrase appropriate.

  • Great article. Spot-on. Needs saying. Thanks!

  • Paul In Wokingham 6th Aug '14 - 8:25am

    I have the pleasure and privilege to be in Bayreuth at the moment for the annual opera festival of Wagner.

    Yesterday morning I went on a walking tour of the old town and saw a fountain “to the glory of the king” that was unveiled on July 31st 1914, just days before the outbreak of war.

    And last night I went to the Festspielhaus to see Die Walküre. Exactly 100 years earlier, at a quite different performance of Die Walküre the audience had stood up and applauded in a fit of nationalistic fervour as Siegmund sang the lines “Neidlicher Stahl! Zeig’ deiner Schärfe schneidenden Zahn!” which is “Precious blade! Show me your sharpness and cutting edge!”

    So I accept what is being said, but would temper it with the perspective that fervent nationalistic flag-waving was rife on all sides at the outbreak of the war.

    For me, the lesson to be drawn is to beware demagogues, whatever flag they wrap themselves in.

  • matt (Bristol) 6th Aug '14 - 9:33am

    RIchard Dean: well, thinking and reading up on it further, Owen is maybe more ambiguous on the point than I had believed – certainly his approach to his own death was one of ‘dying on behalf of others’ (in his case, the mane around him whom he felt duty bound to protect and lead).

    But the famous ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ where he calls ‘dying for one’s country’ the ‘old lie’ told to ‘children’ who are seeking ‘desparate glory’, certainly shows a sceptisim and distate about a ‘sacrificial death’ approach to war. I think we can be reaosnably sure that as a poet who chose his words incredibly carefully and was highgly sceptical of loaded languiage, Owen would have agree that the issue with regards to ‘giving’, is as David Gray states, choice – choice about what one is giving, who one is giving it to, and why. Not all those who fought in the War had a meaningful choice; Owen often seems to suggest they had been duped into a cruel personal disaster.

    Obviously, one cannot know exactly what Owen thought about the language of ‘giving’ becoming more widespread and less overtly patriotic after the war, becuase he died.

    But anyway, my main point was – you submit that scepticism about language like David Gray’s is a modern imposition and misreading of the events and experience of WW1; I submit that it is not and that Owen’s scepticism is similar and just as careful as to language.

  • I too have always had a problem with the notion that lives are ‘given’ during conflict. Lives are ‘taken’ by wars and those who precipitate them often for religious or political reasons.

  • peter tyzack 6th Aug '14 - 10:46am

    a very interesting and engaging discussion on this thread, but what has any of this taught us that could be applied to the current situation in Ukraine?
    we are caught in the crossfire of interests of two major powers, Russia wanting to re-establish itself, maintain access through Crimean ports and control our energy supplies; USA wanting to control global markets(as usual) and happy to stir things up behind the scenes, as they do everywhere else where they get their sticky fingers.
    but what are we doing? nothing, when we should be helping our neighbour, – at least sending them supplies..!
    .. and our media? – more interested in the weather, and whether Boris will stand for Parliament next year… fiddling whilst Donetsk burns..

  • My father, living in his native Sligo – no conscription – hated war but instead of avoiding the issue and saving his skin he joined the RAMC and served as a stretcher bearer. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery under fire in the horror of the Somme and came home with wounds which affected him for the rest of his life. I also hate war and can only hope I would have had the courage, if called upon, to do what my father did. Some did go to serve rather than to kill and I wear my poppy with pride every year.

  • nvelope2003 6th Aug '14 - 1:24pm

    Was removing Hitler worth about 60 million premature deaths, immense suffering etc and if so why did the West not bring down Stalin and Mao etc ?

  • Michael Parsons 6th Aug '14 - 2:03pm

    England used to be full of single women still mourning the loss of their beloved to no good cause I suggest.. My impression of the “Great War” is how ludicrous it was, with absurd claims of an instant victory, and the even more absurd claim that is was a war to end all wars and would safeguarded the “rights of small nations”. Britain was totally unprepared to fight and it had no need to -as Bismarck remarked “the land rat does not fight the water rat”. The people, were half-starved and driven crazy by years of suffering, death and hate propaganda and were finally gripped by a witch-hunt of supposed traitors to explain the prolongation of the struggle; The great social liberal achievement breaking the power of the landowner-class and starting social welfare was put on hold; and the victory slogan ” a land fit for heroes” was nothing b ut a hollow mockery as the old men came out to take the victory away.
    Belloc had the right of it: confronted by a woman with the usual bullying tactic of”Young man, why aren’t you at the front fighting to save civilisation?” he replied: “Madam, I am civilisation”. As Kipling put it: if they ask you why they die, tell them because their fathers lied.

    There died a myriad,
    And of the best, among them,
    For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
    For a botched civilization.

    Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
    Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
    For two gross of broken statues,
    For a few thousand battered books.

  • Surely it isn’t glorifying war to think of the participants. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to stand in a muddy trench at 6am then climb over the parapet and walk towards barbed wire and machine guns. They did it because of loyalty to their mates. The shoddy reasons for their being there and the stupidity of the Generals is history but they got on with it it. Surely that is simply worth remembering and I glorify those ordinary blokes who knew better than any of us will ever know the futility of war.

  • matt (Bristol) 6th Aug '14 - 4:50pm

    Brian D – I agree the experience of the ordinary soldier is worthy of honouring and remebering, but I don’t read the OP as an argument against remembering, just a critique of the attitude that we have to by default continue a language that suggests we remember those ‘ordinary blokes’ as having voluntarily by ‘giving their lives’ made some kind of heroic sacrifice for the national ideal, when the truth is more complex, and for many, much less pleasant.

  • Michael Parsons 6th Aug '14 - 5:08pm

    Hi Simon McGrath
    But the 1924-18 squandered lives made it possible for French vengeance to turn the 1918 Armistice into a one-sided
    punitive treaty, without which Germany would never have utilised the enormous energy released by the Hitler revolution against us and so made yet further disaster possible for us by the British pyrrhic victory of1945.

  • David,

    there is a wonderful set of interviews on the BBC archive from 1965- undertaken with survivors of WW1, civilian and military, that conveys very well the thoughts and memories of their experiences of the Great War http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/collections/p01tbj6p/the-great-war-interviews.

    A few years back, Sir Winston Churchill topped the poll as the ‘The Greatest Briton who ever lived.’ Following the furore over the King and Country debate at the Oxford Union in 1933 that passed the motion – ‘that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country,’ Churchill condemned the motion as “That abject, squalid, shameless avowal… It is a very disquieting and disgusting symptom.” He went on to say:

    “My mind turns across the narrow waters of Channel and the North Sea, where great nations stand determined to defend their national glories or national existence with their lives. I think of Germany, with its splendid clear-eyed youths marching forward on all the roads of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland. I think of Italy, with her ardent Fascisti, her renowned Chief, and stern sense of national duty. I think of France, anxious, peace-loving, pacifist to the core, but armed to the teeth and determined to survive as a great nation in the world. One can almost feel the curl of contempt upon the lips of the manhood of all these people when they read this message sent out by Oxford University in the name of young England.”

    Speaking after the debate, the proposer said: “I believe that the motion was representative neither of the majority of the undergraduates of Oxford nor of the youth of this country. I am certain if war broke out tomorrow the students of the university would flock to the recruiting office as their fathers and uncles did.” He was proved right: when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 the War Office organised a recruiting board at Oxford which invited undergraduates and resident postgraduates under 25 to enlist: 2,632 out of a potential 3,000 volunteered.”

    While it remains important to learn from the mistakes of the past to ensure that soldiers and civilians alike are not forced to lose their lives to satisfy the demands and settle the squabbles of those in positions of power; equally, we should not underestimate the power of popular nationalistic fervour and pride or the weight of history and past sacrifices to justify the call to arms in a moment of danger.

  • If the Treaty of Versailles had actually been enforced, Hitler would have been overthrown as soon as he attempted to remilitarise the Rhineland. The problem with the treaty was not that it was “too punitive” but that its most important clauses were allowed to slide by politicians who were either intimidated by Hitler or who were secretly sympathetic to Nazism.

  • Lots of interesting insight, thanks all.

    Peter – my concern with Ukraine is that, as with all conflicts, we have to be very careful about who we end up arming/fighting with. As belligerent and provocative as Russia had no doubt been, there are some pretty unsavory elements in the pro-Ukraine forces too. Which in no way justifies the actions of the rebels, but I would be very wary of deciding that we have to ‘do something’ if ‘something’ involves military action, direct or otherwise.

    Denis – this is a moving story. I hope that you did not take my article to be critical of attempts to remember those involved in the war, whether soldiers, stretcher bearers or otherwise. The war created as many heroes as it destroyed lives. My point is that these people should not have had to have been heroes in the same way that those lives should not have been destroyed.

    Brian D, I hope that answers your point too. Judging by your comments on the futility of war, I think we essentially agree with each other – we just have different ways of phrasing it.

  • Thanks David. For the record I also think the so-called “Great War” was great only in its extent, its appalling human destruction and its ruinous consequences – including arguably the second world war. The distinction you now draw between that and the genuine heroism of so many of those who felt they had to participate is the correct one.

  • nvelope2003 7th Aug '14 - 1:56pm

    Caractatus: You seem to have overlooked, as so many do, that Stalin was Hitler’s ally until 1941 when they fell out after Hitler attacked the USSR. Perhaps they had banned Mein Kampf in Moscow and omitted to keep a copy for Stalin to read.In Britain’s fight for “democracy” and “freedom” we seem to have chosen the wrong people to fall out with. Both Austria-Hungary and Germany were constitutional parliamentary monarchies in 1914 while Serbia was a terrorist state, Russia was an autocracy which oppressed many small nations and France was an aggressive nationalist state which under a cloak of pretend democracy was rabidly anti semitic, as now and in 1939 -45. The only prominent French politician to oppose war, the Socialist Jaures, was assassinated as he sat in a cafe.

    None of the wars Britain was involved in had anything to do with freedom or democracy etc but, as those who fought in them later accepted, they were fought for what certain people perceived as our national interest. They seem to have been mistaken in that perception as they bankrupted the United Kingdom for no conceivable benefit to ourselves.

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