I was walking through Buchanan Galleries today (November 11) when a voice on the loudspeaker asked everybody to stop what they were doing and observe the two-minute silence in honour of the dead in two world wars. So I did. And as I stood there I thought: What – again? I had been in exactly the same mall at 11 o clock on Sunday morning when they had a two-minute silence for the war dead.
I had already watched the silence at (Saturday) rugby matches and heard it on the radio and was beginning to wonder if there was no coordination. Or does everybody just have as many salutes as they want? It’s not as if you can carry on yelling into the iphone as silence descends…‘I said the plumber promised he would come on Tuesday…’ and march on through the indignant statue shoppers, is it? ‘ Sorry, I’m in a rush and I did the two minute silence earlier…’
For weeks we have watched the build-up get underway like an army preparing for departure – all active personnel start wearing a poppy to act as a spur to the rest of us then we have a programmed series of media events advertising ceremonies of wreath-laying and remembrance films and stories. The BBC has a Head of World War One and is planning coverage to last for the full equivalent duration of the war itself – four bloody years.
Here’s what one BBC producer wrote about it.
‘Put simply we will gather 100 stories in eleven English Regions and the three nations (BBC Scotland, BBC Wales and BBC Northern Ireland), and showcase them on radio, online and on TV. This of course makes it a hugely ambitious project; 1400 stories, which must all be well told, and which reflect a whole range of different perspectives, across different media. The scale is dizzying, but I’m heartened by developments so far.
First and foremost I am delighted with the sheer enthusiasm from the 40 plus (yes 40!) BBC producers from across the UK who are currently gathering these great stories. This plays to our strengths in the BBC’s Nations and Regions – telling stories steeped in a sense of place, through the eyes of the people (and their relatives) who lived through the experience of the First World War.’
Wow. What fun! Sounds great, doesn’t it? It could be the BBC’s Summer of Family Fun Coming to a Venue near You…let’s hear your stories of growing up in the 80’s – Multi Coloured Swapshop, Transformers and Cabbage Patch dolls.
Apart from the mega network productions, the regional BBC is putting up 40 producers paid at your expense to tell family stories about life during the war. But hold on. Where does the excited BBC man mention the horrors experienced by the million who never returned or the pain and disfigurement of those who did?
The machine gun killed more soldiers overall and death was frequently instant or not drawn out and soldiers could find some shelter in bomb/shell craters from gunfire. A poison gas attack meant soldiers having to put on crude gas masks and if these were unsuccessful, an attack could leave a victim in agony for days and weeks before he finally succumbed to his injuries.
On the Western Front the lucky ones were killed instantly. The majority of wounds were mainly from artillery. Steel shrapnel from exploding shells was white hot and travelled at two times the speed of sound. It literally tore men to pieces.
Among the most tragic of injuries were horrific shrapnel wounds to the face, in thousands of cases the entire face was torn off and the men were unable to see, hear, speak or drink. These injuries were so severe that returning soldiers were unrecognizable to their families. Most found it impossible to assimilate into civilian and were left destitute. Thousands committed suicide.
The war claimed millions of civilian victims through malnutrition and famine, forced resettlement, herding into camps, epidemics, forced labour and aerial bombing. In addition, the war saw the first genocide of the 20th century, that of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. That violence would not be restricted to armed combatants (as the pre-war Conventions of The Hague had prescribed), soon became clear; for the war started with massacres of civilians.
I agree with this from a former BBC religious affairs correspondent Ted Harrison.
The British Legion was set up after the First World War to help the thousands of soldiers, many suffering from horrendous disabilities, who had returned from war to find themselves betrayed by the political classes. They did not find the land fit for heroes that they had supposedly fought for, but one of deprivation and unemployment.
Within 20 years an even greater betrayal became evident. Far from being the war to end all wars, the politicians had so badly handled the peace that a second military conflagration engulfed Europe and spread to the rest of the world. By 1945 a new cohort of war victims required British Legion help.
He reminds us: It is part fiction and part propaganda designed to reassure those bereaved, traumatised or wounded in warfare that their ‘sacrifice’ had a noble purpose. While some soldiers have indeed died courageously in battle defending the innocent or protecting colleagues, huge numbers have not. They died because of incompetence, inadequate preparation, disease, and sometimes in pursuit of futile objectives. Many fought because as conscripts they had no choice; or, they joined up through peer pressure; they signed on through immature bravado; or because they had no other chance of work.
When I think of the world wars, I don’t think in terms of millions but of one. I imagine what a young man of 20 would think in the mud of France as comrades were ripped to pieces and mustard gas floated on the wind, of the crash of weaponry and bedlam of conflict and of what it meant to stare into the void of death. Did he see honour and national pride all around? Did he feel heroic as the day he signed up? Did he imagine home – a kitchen, a mother, a coal fire, a warm bed? I have seen his grave – many times in different places from Scotland to Normandy. I wonder how I would have coped and feel eternally grateful that I will never find out.
I honour him. I do it at different times in different circumstance and am touched every time, either in the war museum at Ypres or at the Menin Gate or in the cemetery at home where the ages on the tombstone give it away, or on my sofa when a poignant programme reminds me.
I also recognize that there is value in a collective remembrance which demonstrates a national gesture of thanks. This was originally designed as one moment when everybody knew to show respect in an age before electronic media and marketing. It was heart-felt. And then it was done.
What I can’t abide is being dragooned into wearing my heart on my sleeve with a poppy weeks in advance and being forced-fed a constant diet of media splurge that demands the attention of my feelings when the schedulers decide.
I am cynical enough watching the earnest faces of men (and women) who have consigned later generations to their death, often to recover their own reputations, as they stand in solemn solidarity. You can count them at the Cenotaph, not one I reckon who has held a gun let alone dodged a bullet.
Do we remember those we killed? Or more accurately in many cases, murdered? Do we atone for the lives destroyed by our incursions and the legacy of hate Britain has trailed across the continents?
For years now I have called for our former enemies to be present at the commemorations because all nations are caught in the maelstrom of death and because – to be prosaic – the war is over. Where are the Germans, Italians and Japanese? Did their soldiers not also fight for their nation and are we not allies now with a joint interest in learning from the past? Isn’t that what the EU is for and the UN? Where are the children? Why not the voices of those too young to know as a reminder to the older generation of why we must avoid war and never – never – argue for it as a political tool.
It has taken 100 years for Britain to invite the Irish to the Cenotaph. It’s a sign of warmer relations since peace was – legally at least – settled. But it’s also a sign that the undeclared war of the Troubles is also mutually forgiven at official level and it is now time to move on – by rightly and belatedly remembering Irish volunteers who fought for the UK. But if we can do that in the case of a struggle in which violence still hasn’t been totally eradicated, why can’t we turn the remembrance of a war from a century ago into a multi-nation celebration of European peace…with our former enemies.
The bit that niggles at me is the tone of glorification implied by designer poppies, of showers of the damn things falling from the roof like party balloons and the art installation of thousands of ceramic examples at the Tower of London which seeks to press our pleasure buttons at its visual luxuriance instead of reminding us of the ripped and smashed faces of the war-wounded.
I fear the memory of tragic loss has been hijacked by the establishment and their media cohorts. It has been turned into a winter holiday ‘event’ where we’re encouraged to feel pity and share a sense of involvement, just like any other charity offering. And, don’t forget, it is charity. For all the pious platitudes of a David Cameron, the funds for old soldiers come from donations, not from the Treasury.
Here’s a story from two weeks ago. Medical experts have accused the Government of failing to honour its promise to care for armed forces veterans injured in Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Professor Neil Greenberg, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and Professor Tim Briggs, a leading orthopaedic surgeon, have said commitments made in the Armed Forces Covenant that veterans should receive priority treatment in the NHS for injuries suffered in the line of duty are not being fulfilled. They include former service personnel who have lost limbs in the course of operations as well as those who have suffered mental health problems.
Politicians aren’t fit to stand beneath the Cenotaph let alone immerse themselves in poppies as if they were party rosettes. I agree with Harry Patch, the last WW1 Tommy who died in 2009.
‘When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?’
*Sigfried Sassoon – The Rank Stench of Those Bodies Haunts Me Still