The anniversary of the Somme was again recognised this week and rightly so. It cost almost 20,000 British soldiers’ lives on its first day and, by its conclusion in November 1916, almost 150,000 Allied lives had been lost with even more German dead – all for 12 miles of ground. No wonder attitudes towards the war changed in Britain and elsewhere.
A “home by Christmas” confidence had long since sapped away in the Flanders trenches and it was never going to be just that bit of fun as some had naively thought, but the Somme showed the war in its full atrocity. By the following June when Lloyd George, the new Prime Minister, came to receive an accolade in Glasgow, he required not just police protection but a military escort in what was then the second city of the British Empire, such was the antagonism towards him.
I’ve always supported the recognition of the First World War and indeed a veneration of the sacrifice made by so many in a conflict that had such a cataclysmic effect upon the world. But, as the centenary of the armistice that saw the guns fall silent approaches, I’m angered that the commemorations rightly planned haven’t been matched by any analysis let alone criticism of what it was fought for or those who instigated it.
Likewise, the heroism of so many whether in Flanders or Gallipoli is recalled but there has been little recognition of those who bravely opposed the war or faced retribution for being conscientious objectors. Their sacrifices weren’t the ultimate one and their privations were different and arguably less, but they still deserve to be recalled.
More worrying has been the fact that the celebrations have seen us go from one battle to another, not just the Somme but Ypres and Passchendaele without any substantial criticism of just what a gargantuan waste of human life it was. Whilst there’s been rightful veneration of the dead, there’s not even been a reproach of the leaders that caused it or the circumstances that brought it about.
This wasn’t to be ‘the war to end all wars’, let alone fought for plucky little Belgium or individual freedoms. After all, not only had women not been given the vote but many of the working class who fought and died were disenfranchised. When officers mutinied over Irish Home Rule, it was tacitly accepted as was the formation of the UVF, later to fall at the Somme but formed to deny Ireland her statehood.
Instead, as with most conflicts, it was pursued for mercantile interests and the benefit of a few. Trade and empires were the cause and poor folk paid the price. Maybe before the 11th day of the 11th month, we’ll see that criticism of the “donkeys” that led the “lions” or a recognition of those who faced not just punishment but almost universal contempt for speaking out against it or refusing to join the slaughter, but I won’t hold my breath.
For whilst it’s right to commemorate the First World War, there’s also been a growing cult in recent years of outright veneration of a military, and that’s far more insidious. It is, I believe, right and proper that those who sacrifice both past and present should be respected and honoured. That’s why I buy a poppy and support other such organisations that care for those who have been affected by combat more recently.
But – despite the fact that the number of people who served in the two world wars is dwindling, the number serving in the military is now at an all-time low and wars have been far more restricted, horrendous though they have been – military parades seem to be increasing.
My grandfather and father served in those respective world wars and they were proud of their service, as I am. However, they considered themselves nothing unusual though they knew of heroes who served with them. They simply did their duty in a citizens’ army – in the hope, forlorn for my grandfather, that future generations wouldn’t have to. They had their moments of quiet reflection but rarely mentioned it beyond that. Likewise, armistice day was celebrated but few other events took place.
Some of the change may be the move to a professional rather than citizens’ army but I also fear it’s part of an attempt to restrict questioning, let alone criticism of recent conflicts. The situation is far worse in the USA as they have been constantly at war somewhere or other for years, but it seems to be creeping in here.
Across the Atlantic, no one can argue what the point of the war in Iraq was, let alone its legality, without Fox News or some alt-right outlet berating them for questioning the heroism of the troops. A mere enquiry as to the point of the conflict in Afghanistan is seen as an insult to those who died or have suffered. That hasn’t come about by accident but by design.
However, the service or sacrifice isn’t the issue. The bravery of young men in war is accepted whatever side they fight on, it’s the pointlessness of it that needs raised or sometimes its very legitimacy.
Earlier this week, the Westminster Intelligence and Security Committee was enquiring into prisoner rendition to the USA from the Middle East. Information has been limited yet fundamental issues and questions remain. It wasn’t war as such but assistance in low-level conflicts being pursued by the USA. Rendition was a breach of human rights and involved overt, not just tacit support, for torture. Yet names have been hidden and prosecutions there have been none.
Again, it is as if ‘it’s my country right or wrong’ and ‘all’s fair in love and war’. No, it’s not. The military is not above democracy and our society’s values need protected.
So, let’s remember those that serve and suffer, but let’s also never stop questioning why or holding those who cause wars to account.