I hope that nobody is unaware of the fact that 2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, in August 1914. To many of you, especially those still young, it might seem like a dusty old piece of history, played out on TV in black and white. You may well consider that it has no relevance any more, and it is of no interest to you whatsoever. You will have no intention of sitting through the endless documentaries, dramatised reconstructions, or worthy coverage of commemorations. Please think again. We can all learn much from the follies of this tragic conflict, and the reasons that it began.
My own grandparents were born in the year 1900. Both of my grandfathers were lucky enough to not have to serve in this war, as they only reached the required age of 18 as the war ended. Other relatives, some uncles and cousins of my parents, did take part in this war. When I was very young, one of them would tell me of his experiences in the Royal Flying Corps, as part of the crew of an early type of bomber. I would read books about the battles, which ranged from France to Africa, and across the mountains of Italy, to the deserts of Arabia. Even the outbreak of the terrible Second World War, from 1939, could not diminish the impact and legacy of this first global war.
Look hard enough, and you will see that many problems experienced in the world today, stem from unresolved issues after allied victory. Instability in the Balkans, power struggles in the Middle East and Arab lands, all have roots that can be traced back to the time immediately after the armistice, in 1918. Once-great empires. such as those of Turkey and Austria-Hungary, were shattered by involvement in the Great War, and eastern Europe was splintered as a result. Russia experienced its revolution during this war, and the world changed completely as a consequence of that alone. American involvement late in the war changed the relationship between that country and Europe irrevocably. German resentment at their post-war treatment led directly to the start of the Second World War, and the ‘Cold War’ that followed it for decades.
I used to think that all this was something not to be dwelt on, to be constantly reminded of. Patriotism and Nationalism are not healthy in extremes, and every Poppy Day and Remembrance Sunday seemed to be celebrating the past, instead of looking to a better future. We lived in fear of a nuclear Armageddon, and the flickering footage of troops digging trenches before I was born had little relevance. So it seemed. A little over twenty-five years ago, I went on a five-day trip with a friend. We had decided to make our own tour of the battlefields in Belgium and France, to see for ourselves these cemeteries and monuments, and the preserved sites of these immense battles. Within seven hours of our arrival in Ypres, my mind was changed forever, by something that happens every day, and has done since 1927, interrupted only by the Second World War.
Every night at 8pm, the road under the Menin Gate Memorial is closed. Buglers from the local Fire Brigade arrive, and play ‘The Last Post’ on their bugles, the sound resonating inside the arch. This short ceremony is well-attended , by curious visitors like ourselves that night, and by war veterans; though sadly no longer from that actual war. The occasion is incredibly moving. Surrounded by the carved names of those who died but have no known grave, it was impossible not to get caught up in the feelings and emotions under that arch. The fact that it continues to this day, a tribute by the local people, to those who came from other lands to fight in a mutual cause, is tradition made flesh. We returned to a nearby bar, visibly shaken, close to tears, and quietly reflective.
The rest of the week was spent visiting cemeteries, mostly maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They are immaculately kept, and the rows of neatly carved headstones go on into the distance, overwhelming in their scale. We saw preserved trenches, huge craters caused by massive explosions, and everywhere still, pieces of barbed wire, and the metal posts that it once hung from. We visited the massive Thiepval Memorial, like a cathedral in a field, and the monumental memorial at Vimy Ridge for the Canadians who died, again with no known graves. We stopped at tiny isolated cemeteries, containing small groups from one company, then on to massive graveyards on the Somme. It was all too much to take in. The enormity of the loss was beyond all understanding. After that week, everything changed for me. My attitude to remembering this conflict became completely different, and my respect for those involved increased dramatically. So much of Belgium and France contain these cemeteries, it is impossible to appreciate them, unless you see for yourself.
So please don’t disregard the commemorations of this war. Count yourself lucky that you never had to be a part of anything like it, and spare a thought for those that were there. Whatever we may think of the reasons and justifications, with the benefit of hindsight, and the information available to us now; they did their best, for something that they believed in.