The brav­ery of the First World War lives on

The Sunday Telegraph - - Letters To The Editor -

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.

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