The bravery of the First World War lives on
The lessons of the Great War are about being grateful for each other and for the freedoms we enjoy
Stopping once a year to remember the sacrifice of previous generations reminds us how lucky we are
War memorials are so commonplace that it can be easy to see straight through them. Cities and towns have grown up around them; what was once the most imposing structure is now dwarfed by shops and flats. Out in the countryside, however, in village after village, they remain a forceful presence, never more than now. They demand attention and interpretation. The First World War will not – must not – be forgotten.
Today is the centenary of the Armistice, and the event will be marked in countless ceremonies across the country. Why do we pay such particular attention to the First World War? How has it become the focal point for national remembrance? One answer is that it was so particularly tragic. Britain lost 700,000 soldiers; nearly 60,000 fell on the first day of the Somme. The slaughter touched every part of the country, every class, every occupation. The Telegraph has its own roll-call. Among our employees who fought and died in the Great War, we pay tribute to WE Barnard, A Chandler, D Harris, CE Hopkins, HH Hughes, L Hughes, ATR Jones, GF Jones, HA Kimber, JM Matheson, PW Mayes, H Mahew, F Miles, JC Miller, WA Myatt, H Nix, J Pinnock, FJ Reed, ES Sarl, EG Simmons, J Smith, AP Stone, HC Watson, H Woodley and T Woodley. Reporting on the conflict was difficult and full of moral challenge. At the beginning, journalists were banned and had to smuggle their dispatches home from France. Those that were eventually invited to the frontlines were censored and not always accurate. Philip Gibbs, writing for the Daily Chronicle, described the opening of the horrific Somme offensive as “a good day for England and France... a day of promise in this war”. Gibbs later explained that he wanted to “spare the feelings of men and women who have sons and husbands fighting in France”. When reporters go to war they have to be as objective as possible, but no one can entirely separate themselves from their own humanity. They are not impersonal witnesses, flying above the battlefield, but right in the fog of it – among the dead and the dying.
Remembrance reminds us of what really matters; it encourages us to make the most of the present. The names written on Britain’s war memorials are husbands, fathers and sons – they typically signed up together and when whole battalions were lost in one push, it is said that almost every curtain on the street was closed. The lessons of the Great War aren’t just about political shortsightedness or strategic error, they are about being grateful for each other and for the freedoms we enjoy. Those rights did not appear from the ether but were hard won, contested, defended and the cause of several just wars. When the memorials were laid, there was grief, terrible grief, but also pride that Britain had given its best to keep Europe free from dictatorship.
A universal theme of the memorials was sacrifice. It sometimes feels as if the word has lost its true meaning, that it has become unfashionable to talk in such clear, unabashed terms of dying for one’s country. This was explicitly understood in 1918 as not only a patriotic duty but a religious one – and the British forces, drawn from all over the world, were permeated with faiths that encourage sacrifice on behalf of others. Jesus died, according to Christian teaching, in order to defeat death; many men walked towards the gunfire in the promise and hope of resurrection. An almost cryptic inscription that appears on some memorials in the north east of England reads: “Sleep Lightly, Lad/ Thou Art King’s Guard At Daybreak.” It means: “When Christ returns, you shall be his honour guard.”
A society that forgets its past risks forgetting itself altogether. It might seem as if Britain has changed enormously in 100 years – but whatever progress it has made has been achieved in the shadow, or light, of its violent history. The world wars compelled Britain to build a country fit for heroes, to expand rights, generate wealth and give each individual a better stake in society. Stopping once a year to remember the sacrifice of previous generations reminds us how lucky we are but also challenges us here in the present: would we be ready to do it all again?
The great task of modern statesmanship is to ensure we don’t have to, by diplomacy and, crucially, maintaining a strong defence. Our military are the best of us: they prove that the values of the First World War live on. In that sense, we really are the same country we were in 1918 – a Britain still capable of producing courageous, selfless men and women.