Bri­tain wasn’t a land fit for heroes in 1918 – and, trag­i­cally, it isn’t to­day


WHEN t he guns fell silent on the Western Front on Novem­ber 11 1918, there was as much a feel­ing of re­lief as there was of cel­e­bra­tion that the Al­lies, now sup­ported by the United States of Amer­ica, had fi­nally pre­vailed.

Hardly a com­mu­nity in the coun­try had not felt the agony of war. Only 53 vil­lages in Eng­land and Wales could be clas­si­fied as Thank­ful Vil­lages – in which all those who marched away to war re­turned.

The in­stal­la­tion of 888,246 pop­pies in the moat of the Tower of Lon­don four years ago – to mark the on­set of hos­til­i­ties – de­fined the hu­man cost of the First World War for Bri­tain and her Colonies.

Each poppy rep­re­sented not only a life lost but a fam­ily shat­tered.

The un­fath­omable scale of the be­reave­ment is the fo­cus of this Novem­ber’s me­mo­rial at the Tower, a sea of flick­er­ing can­dles to mark the Ar­mistice. It is a haunt­ing spec­ta­cle. Sym­pa­thy and emo­tion, while im­por­tant, are not enough, how­ever. And to­day, as we look back across the cen­tury in Re­mem­brance, we should also re­flect on the lessons we have learned from the Great War – and the lessons we pre­fer to ig­nore.

How, in the light of that over­whelm­ing sac­ri­fice do we treat to­day’s Armed Forces, the ser­vice­men and women on whom we rely? What wel­come do we give to those re­turn­ing home with bro­ken minds and bod­ies? And just how se­ri­ous are we in recog­nis­ing the gather­ing threat of for­eign pow­ers?

One guid­ing light for the ex­hausted pop­u­la­tion of 1918 was the thought of a bet­ter and very dif­fer­ent fu­ture – that, in the words of David Lloyd George, the new Bri­tain would be ‘a fit coun­try for heroes to live in’.

That hope would turn out to be an il­lu­sion. Af­ter the ini­tial cel­e­bra­tion of the Ar­mistice, hun­dreds of thou­sands of sol­diers re­turned from the war to a Great Bri­tain that had changed sig­nif­i­cantly.

THE Ger­man U- boat cam­paign to starve Bri­tain into sub­mis­sion had come close to suc­cess. The coun­try was nearly bank­rupt and food was scarce. Many of the jobs that the men had left to go to war were now filled by women; and many of the men who re­turned were not the same young men who had gone away.

Tens of thou­sands were phys­i­cally mu­ti­lated with­out arms, legs or sight; and tens of thou­sands more bore men­tal scars which, while in­vis­i­ble, were as de­bil­i­tat­ing as any phys­i­cal in­jury ever could be. ‘Shell­shock’ was hard to ex­plain and even harder to treat.

True, we know a great more about men­tal ill­ness and phys­i­cal in­jury to­day, but the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects are with us still. Is the Bri­tain of 2018 ‘a fit coun­try for heroes’, for our wounded ser­vice per­son­nel or griev­ing fam­i­lies? In many ways, sadly, it is not. The re­sources com­mit­ted to al­le­vi­at­ing post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der and other men­tal ill­nesses re­main woe­fully short and the need very great. This year has seen a spike in the num­ber of sui­cides among serv­ing per­son­nel and vet­er­ans of the re­cent cam­paigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 1918, most re­turn­ing vet­er­ans suf­fered in si­lence – it was a gen­er­a­tion that did not talk about the war. To­day there has been a wel­come change in cul­ture which al­lows those with men­tal health prob­lems to ask for help. If they have the courage to ask, they must re­ceive what they need, which is why I joined The Mail on Sun­day in a suc­cess­ful cam­paign for a roundthe-clock helpline.

‘A fit land for heroes,’ was not the only mis­lead­ing slo­gan of 1918. The na­tion had also clung to the be­lief that the con­flict was a ‘war to end all wars’ and con­tin­ued to do so for years to come.

This proved not merely mis­taken but dan­ger­ous, and em­brac­ing it left Bri­tain vul­ner­a­ble.

In the warmth of vic­tory we for­got some of the cold re­al­i­ties, in­clud­ing the lessons of our own suc­cess. Take t he de­ci­sion to aban­don trench war­fare in favour of fast, mo­bile at­tacks in 1918, a de­vel­op­ment that would help bring the war to a close.

The in­te­grated use of tanks, ar­tillery and air power had been con­ceived by the Bri­tish, yet it was the Ger­mans who paid at­ten­tion and de­vel­oped sim­i­lar strate­gies in the years fol­low­ing.

The mo­bile war­fare which broke the dead­lock in 1918 had been our in­no­va­tion, yet we had no an­swer to the Panzer di­vi­sions as they crashed into France in May 1940.

The idea that the Great War had in­deed been the ‘ war to end all wars’ had other con­se­quences, too. It led to a grudg­ing ac­cep­tance and ap­pease­ment of Ger­many’s steady ex­pan­sion in Eu­rope.

We chose largely to ig­nore the rise of Hitler’s pop­ulist Nazi Party and did lit­tle as the Rhineland was remil­i­tarised in 1936.

Bri­tain was flirt­ing with dis­as­ter and, when rapid re-ar­ma­ment even­tu­ally be­gan, it was a race in which we were dan­ger­ously be­hind.

In our fail­ure to take a clear-eyed view of the 1914-18 con­flict, we sowed the seeds of yet more ter­ri­ble de­struc­tion. (France, of course, had been un­der no such il­lu­sion and, fear­ful of hav­ing to fight an­other war against its ag­gres­sive neigh­bour, de­cided in 1930 to place her faith in con­crete and ma­chine guns, and ac­cel­er­ated the con­struc­tion of the Maginot Line.)

Are we any bet­ter pre­pared to­day? Our Amer­i­can friends think we are not, and say so very clearly. They be­lieve we have our heads in the sand once again – and they are right.

Eu­rope, in the shape of our exit from the Euro­pean Union, is the all-con­sum­ing fo­cus of the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment while an op­por­tunist, resur­gent Rus­sia watches on with ill-dis­guised glee and con­tempt for truth and the in­ter­na­tional rule of law.

VLADIMIR Put i n is de­vel­op­ing new forms of war­fare in space and cy­ber-space, caref ul not to cross a thresh­old that would pro­voke a col­lec­tive re­ac­tion from Nato.

The Rus­sians are de­vel­op­ing a so­phis­ti­cated fourth gen­er­a­tion main bat­tle tank, yet our Chal­lenger 2 tanks are now 20 years old with no im­me­di­ate prospect of re­place­ment or an up­grade.

Mean­while China is de­vel­op­ing its mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity com­men­su­rate with its grow­ing econ­omy.

The United King­dom, by con­trast, has never spent less, de­vot­ing just two per cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct t o de­fence com­pared with 38 per cent on the Na­tional Health Ser­vice. This two per cent has bought us the small­est Royal Navy, Bri­tish Army and Royal Air Force since mod­ern records be­gan.

De­ci­sions on Gov­ern­ment spend­ing are po­lit­i­cal choices, but politi­cians are in­flu­enced by pub­lic opin­ion. And sadly, the re­ceived wis­dom in White­hall is that there are no votes in De­fence.

Per­haps they are right, which makes it all the more es­sen­tial that, as we look back across a long and fre­quently vi­o­lent cen­tury, we must not only com­mem­o­rate the losses of the past, but learn its lessons, also.

There must be com­pas­sion for our liv­ing sol­diers, sailors and air­men and for the fam­i­lies – so many of them griev­ing – who sup­port them. And there must be vig­i­lance about the true state of the world.

Only that way can we en­sure that the car­nage of a cen­tury ago is not re­peated.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.