Grim les­sons of war that we still need to learn

Yorkshire Post - - OPINION -

TO­MOR­ROW WE com­mem­o­rate the fi­nal day of the First World War. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Fight­ing con­tin­ued right up to the last sec­ond and many men on both sides lost their lives in the fi­nal hours.

But the strug­gle for sur­vival was not over.

Even be­fore hos­til­i­ties ceased on the bat­tle­field, an­other threat to life and well-be­ing struck a deadly blow – Span­ish flu.

I’ve al­ways been fas­ci­nated by the First World War.

Not just the in­de­fectible courage in what for much of the time, and for many of the men, was hell on earth, but for much more.

The ca­pac­ity to en­dure the nor­mal de­pri­va­tion of shel­ter, of warmth, of some­where dry to sleep tested the hu­man spirit to its very lim­its.

Those who suf­fered sur­vived where pos­si­ble, fought from the trenches and ex­pe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple de­pri­va­tions at the same time as un­heard of, and un­speak­able, bom­bard­ment.

When my wife and I went to the war graves in north­ern France and Bel­gium with friends in the au­tumn of 2014, we were struck by the au­dio­vi­sual pre­sen­ta­tions, of the im­pact the con­stant bom­bard­ment must have had, not just on the ner­vous sys­tem, but on the very psy­che of those who found them­selves in what could only have been thought of as an in­ferno.

Of course not ev­ery­one in the First World War had those kind of ex­pe­ri­ences.

Some in the up­per ech­e­lons of the mil­i­tary con­tin­ued to eat, drink and sleep well.

Some found them­selves in other the­atres of war across the world where there were hell­holes such as those en­deav­our­ing to build roads in wide-flung out­posts of the Balkans and other the­atres of war in the Mid­dle East.

But it was those on the West­ern Front, and the re­call which the war graves now of­fer, which en­sures those who gave their lives will never be for­got­ten.

For in­stance, when I vis­ited what is now a tran­quil glade en­ti­tled Rail­way Cut­tings, close to the Sh­effield mon­u­ment, I came across a short let­ter home kept in a wa­ter­tight con­tainer from a sol­dier to his fam­ily in the Hills­bor­ough district of my city. It of­fered an in­sight which I never ex­pected to gain.

Yes, I’m aware that the cen­sor was pretty strict on the let­ters home but the young man in ques­tion never needed to tell his par­ents that ‘‘this land and th­ese peo­ple (the French) are worth fight­ing for’’.

Given that many sol­diers were be­wil­dered as to ex­actly what they were fight­ing for and those who led them into the First World War were pretty un­clear them­selves as to how they got there, this is, in it­self, a re­mark­able mes­sage which must have been wel­come to this young man’s fam­ily.

The con­se­quences aris­ing from the loss of so many young men in their prime, and of course the dev­as­tat­ing flu epi­demic that I wish to re­flect on here, car­ried for­ward for gen­er­a­tions to come.

As sure as eggs are eggs (as my grandad would say), the losses in­curred dur­ing and be­yond the end of the First World War cre­ated the fer­tile ground from which fas­cism grew.

It is, of course, true that the slump of the late 20s and early 30s was as much about the spec­u­la­tive be­hav­iour, al­most like a sec­ond gold rush where mil­lions of peo­ple in the United States, and the chain re­ac­tion here in Eu­rope, added to the tur­moil.

Sadly, this is all too rem­i­nis­cent of a decade ago and the emer­gence of the global fi­nan­cial melt­down and bank­ing cri­sis.

Cou­pled, as it was, al­most a hun­dred years ago with in­creas­ingly poor po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, in­er­tia and nos­tal­gia for a by­gone era, the cir­cum­stances were ripe for ex­trem­ism, with the eco­nomic slump fol­low­ing the fi­nan­cial crash on the one hand, and the prom­ise of na­tion­al­is­tic bel­liger­ence and sim­ple so­lu­tions on the other.

Whilst the rich dance the night away and debu­tantes look for­ward to com­ing out balls, com­pla­cent politi­cians be­lieved that the Em­pire would go on for­ever and a ‘‘world fit for he­roes’’ could be put off to an­other day.

Post-war eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity dropped, the slump took its toll on those who had al­ready suf­fered griev­ously both abroad and at home dur­ing the First World War, and Hitler came to power in Nazi Ger­many.

This was not – as Harold Macmil­lan once put it – ‘‘events dear boy, events’’, but a mat­ter of con­se­quences.

Sure, as night fol­lows day, the choices made a hun­dred years ago at Ver­sailles and the fail­ure to ad­dress an en­tirely new world in the 1920s, re­ver­ber­ated through the Sec­ond World War, and, in many ways, all the way through to to­day.

A cen­tury is a blink of the eye in the de­vel­op­ment of cre­ation but to us it should be as im­me­di­ate as yes­ter­day. In that way we can learn from his­tory rather than liv­ing in it and we can en­sure that, in do­ing so, we do our very best to avoid the mis­takes of the past.

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