Sol­diers? No, Bri­tain lost 700,000 poets, teach­ers, in­ven­tors. . . and fathers

The Mail on Sunday - - NEWS -

WHAT do you think about dur­ing the two min­utes si­lence? I used to think of men at war, and hear in my head the shouts and t he cl ash of arms. Now I see a nar­row street of small houses at dusk. A young man in army uni­form is em­brac­ing his wife and lit­tle chil­dren in a lighted door­way. He will not re­turn.

I re­cently learned that, on the first day of com­mem­o­ra­tion, in 1919, the si­lence was of­ten far from silent. In many places, when the traf­fic and the fac­to­ries stopped, the sound of un­con­trol­lable weep­ing could be heard in many towns.

Nearly three quar­ters of a mil­lion young men had died far away. In an age when death was still marked by elab­o­rate ri­tu­als of mourn­ing, they’d had no fu­ner­als. For the first time, the be­reaved had an op­por­tu­nity to grieve prop­erly.

This com­mem­o­ra­tion is above all about the First World War, which has just ceased to be a warm, liv­ing

‘War swept away our quiet, re­strained world’

mem­ory and be­come the cold un­touch­able past. As a child I knew and talked to peo­ple who had lived through it, who had seen Zep­pelins caught in the search­lights. In my teenage years, the Great War was as close to us as the 1960s are now.

I knew, when I first learned about it, that the 1914 war was a chasm be­tween us and an­other world.

I rather liked the look of the world that had been lost – calmer, slower, more solid than ours. I had a feel­ing we were now a smaller peo­ple than we had been, scut­tling about in the ru­ins of a lost civil­i­sa­tion.

It has also struck me, since I am so of­ten told that those who fought in 1914 did so for our free­dom, that we are far less free as a peo­ple, from all kinds of gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence, than we were be­fore that war. It was 1914 that be­gan the era of heavy tax­a­tion, sur­veil­lance, reg­u­la­tion and gen­eral snoop­ing and bu­reau­cracy which now sti­fle us.

It was also 1914 that swept away the re­strained and quiet world of yes­ter­day, and the great, stuffy cum­ber­some em­pires of Aus­tria, Ger­many and Rus­sia, re­plac­ing them with the slick mur­der­ous mod­ern em­pires of the Nazis and the Bol­she­viks. Was this progress? Give me the Kaiser and the Tsar, any day, rather than Hitler and Stalin. I used to think the 1914 war was ter­ri­ble but nec­es­sary, and now I know too much his­tory to be­lieve this any more. If we were try­ing to pre­vent Ger­man dom­i­na­tion of Eu­rope, we failed, for here they still are, dom­i­nat­ing away, through the medium of the EU.

As for the squan­der­ing of young men, the best we had in ev­ery class, how much have we suf­fered the ab­sence, be­fore they could make their mark, of all those lost fathers, sci­en­tists, teach­ers, in­ven­tors, poets, par­sons, busi­ness­men, com­posers, ge­niuses, or just plain good kind hon­est cit­i­zens?

I’m not against war, as a ne­ces­sity. At­tack me, and I will de­fend my­self. Threaten me, and I will stand up to you. And I be­lieve in be­ing ready for war, to main­tain peace. Re­spect your own army, or you will one day have to re­spect some­one else’s.

I hap­pen to think that mod­ern Bri­tain has fool­ishly al­lowed its de­fences to grow far too weak, and I would strengthen them.

But af­ter a cen­tury of si­lences, as we re­mem­ber the in­tol­er­a­ble num­bers of the beloved dead, as the bu­gles call once again from the sad shires, I beg all those with any in­flu­ence over our na­tional pol­icy to be a lit­tle less en­thu­si­as­tic about war than they seem to be.

In the past 100 years, war has not made us greater, but di­min­ished and ended our great­ness.

And when we re­mem­ber the dead we should, above all, re­mem­ber and re­gret what they might have been, had they lived.

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