The Fallen – For­got­ten?

The Wokingham Paper - - VIEWPOINTS - TONY JOHN­SON

THE grave­stones of John Parr and Ge­orge El­li­son lie just over six me­tres apart at the First World War ceme­tery near Saint-Sym­phorien, around 30 miles south west of Brus­sels.

Yet be­tween them lay four years of war and three quar­ters of a mil­lion Bri­tish dead.

As well as the mak­ing of the modern world.

Wo­ken scream­ing

Vis­it­ing our Grandad’s house one day when we were lit­tle, his screams when he woke up were so fright­en­ing that my brother and I ran to get help. Nei­ther of us liked the hor­ri­ble thing he had on his face, the hiss­ing noise, nor the big cylin­der that stood next to his chair in the par­lour.

Mum told us that he’d been gassed dur­ing the Great War and that on some days, he needed oxy­gen to be able to breathe.

“What does gassed mean?” was our ques­tion, but I don’t think we re­ally un­der­stood her an­swer. We we just scared of him.

Now ap­proach­ing the age he was back then, this seems so un­fair. Yet at the time we couldn’t know what hor­rors haunted Grandad’s dreams, over 40 years af­ter the First World War had ended.

Lest we for­get

Our fam­ily wasn’t unique, nor spe­cial even. That war reached into mil­lions of lives, cast­ing its aw­ful shadow down the gen­er­a­tions.

The death toll of the First

World War is so large it de­fies un­der­stand­ing. But if the num­bers of Bri­tish soldiers killed on the first day of the Bat­tle of the Somme were to hap­pen in our Bor­ough, we’d all be gone in just eight days.

That bat­tle’s Bri­tish leader was Gen­eral Sir Dou­glas Haig. The same Gen­eral Haig who in 1925 said that ‘the op­por­tu­nity for the horse in fu­ture [was] likely to be as great as ever … aero­planes and tanks … were only ac­ces­sories’.

That the mem­o­ries of the First World War have lasted so long is down to many fac­tors.

At first it was the wreath lay­ing cer­e­monies with vet­er­ans, civic and mil­i­tary lead­ers, to­gether with the works of the war po­ets and war artists. To this was soon added the war me­mo­ri­als and war graves, often with lists of the lo­cals who’d lost their lives along with the re­mem­brance poppy.

To­day, we know it as Re­mem­brance Sun­day, the near­est Sun­day to ar­mistice day, 11th Novem­ber 1918, along with the twominute si­lence at 11am as a mark of re­spect and trib­ute to the mo­ment the guns fell silent – as well as to all who fell in sub­se­quent con­flicts.

An un­known sol­dier

Mem­o­ries of Grandad came to mind when tidy­ing up our Mum’s things af­ter she passed away in 2013.

One oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able square en­ve­lope, post­marked

1921 and marked On His Majesty’s Ser­vice, caught my at­ten­tion – not so much for its ap­pear­ance but for its heav­i­ness. Open­ing it, I found an­other en­ve­lope along with a thin square of heavy card­board with four tri­an­gu­lar flaps cov­er­ing what­ever lay in­side.

Those flaps re­vealed a bronze medal­lion – far larger than a medal and with a man’s name in raised let­ters. The mes­sage on the pa­per in­side the other en­ve­lope was from the King and it read:

“I join with my grate­ful peo­ple in send­ing you this memo­rial of a brave life given for oth­ers in the Great War.”

The in­scrip­tion around the medal­lion said sim­ply

“He died for free­dom and hon­our”

It was the memo­rial plaque sent in mem­ory of a man who’d given his life a cen­tury ago. A man we’d never known, nor even knew any­thing about, yet the feel­ing of sor­row for that un­known sol­dier’s pass­ing cut just as keenly and as sharply as if he’d died yes­ter­day.

The le­gacy of The Fallen

A cen­tury has now passed.

Far from be­ing the “war to end war” as was said at the time, French re­van­chism (re­venge) in the Ver­sailles peace treaty led to the eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity that John May­nard Keynes pre­dicted, then in­ex­orably to the Sec­ond World War just 20 years later.

Far from be­ing a con­flict of to­tal fu­til­ity with “li­ons led by don­keys” as cap­tured and car­i­ca­tured in Black­ad­der Goes Forth, the First World War ac­cel­er­ated many de­vel­op­ments that we ben­e­fit from to­day.

WORLD POL­I­TICS: By the end of WW1, the four big­gest em­pires had dis­ap­peared: the Rus­sian em­pire through rev­o­lu­tion; the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire through eco­nomic col­lapse; the Ot­toman em­pire through Turk­ish and Arab in­de­pen­dence; the Ger­man Em­pire through ab­di­ca­tion of the Kaiser. The in­equal­ity of rule by the few was chang­ing as na­tions re­placed em­pires.

BRI­TISH POL­I­TICS: Dur­ing WW1 you could die for your coun­try, but you couldn’t vote for it. This started chang­ing in 1918 to in­clude men aged 18+ and women aged 30+, but it took un­til 1928 for women to gain elec­toral equal­ity and un­til 1969 for vot­ing age to match con­scrip­tion.

ECO­NOM­ICS: lit­tle seemed to change, save that the war economies were re­placed by planned economies (state con­trol) and the recog­ni­tion and growth of trade unions. Na­tional debts be­came the para­mount threat to sta­bil­ity.

SO­CIAL: The slaugh­ter of the aris­toc­racy at roughly twice the rate of every­man thinned the ranks of the rulers and the old ways of rank and hered­ity gave way to a more egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety based on ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic merit.

TECH­NOL­OGY: Pow­ered ve­hi­cles of all types and sizes were trans­formed. The fledglings of

1913, barely able to keep a per­son fly­ing for more than a few min­utes, evolved into the air­craft that made the first non-stop transat­lantic flight in 1919. Cars changed from the toys of the rich to the tools of the well-off. Ra­dio changed from be­ing un­heard of to be­com­ing com­mon­place, as the broad­cast me­dia be­gan to take off.

HEALTH: Huge leaps in san­i­ta­tion, surgery, medicine and then psy­chi­a­try all stemmed from a re­ac­tion to the ap­palling con­di­tions in the trenches. Plas­tic and or­thopaedic surgery were driven by the need to re­con­struct those mu­ti­lated by war. Nurs­ing was trans­formed from the pre­serve of the few – em­ploy­ing just hun­dreds in 1914, to an or­gan­ised pro­fes­sion – em­ploy­ing tens of thou­sands by 1918, such was the con­tri­bu­tion of nurses to soldiers’ re­cov­ery.

Take away any one of these and life to­day would be far dif­fer­ent, much shorter or more un­pleas­ant - the true le­gacy of those who went to ‘do their bit’ in the First World War.

They gave their lives and by so do­ing, gave us ours.

As did their sons and daugh­ters.

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