1918: Goodbye to All That?

Like many of you today, I will wear a poppy. But it will be worn more with a sense of sadness than pride.

WW1 15Due to the influence of my father and uncles, I have read obsessively about WWI since I was a child. As a consequence, I have read dozens of memoirs written by officers and other ranks, and have found little trace of pride in any of them: the writers are proud of individual acts of self-sacrifice, but rarely is there any sense of pride in the actual undertaking and purposes of the war in which they fought and suffered so bravely.

In fact, these memoirs are united in decrying the utter insanity of the entire conflict, and often express sympathy rather than hatred for the German troops who endured the same conditions of filth and horror in the trenches opposite them. As Ernest Hemingway later said, ‘They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war . . . you will die like a dog for no good reason.’

Historians still argue over the precise causes of a conflict which claimed more than 10 million lives, but there is more consensus as to the aftereffects of the war.

20140630-WWILENS-slide-OV88-superJumboThe Allied victory broke the power of the militaristic Prussian autocrats in Germany, but cleared the way for the horrific reign of the Nazis, who plunged the world into another, far more destructive, war. Elsewhere in Europe, the upheavals of WWI gave rise to both communist and fascist dictatorships which gladly took to slaughtering and imprisoning their fellow countrymen in the name of ideology.

The war’s giant military camps and field hospitals also contributed to the rapid spread of the 1918 influenza pandemic, in which another 50 million died – a bitterly ironic coda to the conflict.

So, as we don our poppies today, it is important to remember that many of the men we honour died in utterly pointless battles – and were resentfully aware of the fact, referring to themselves not as heroes but as the PBI (the Poor Bloody Infantry).

And it is even more important to remember that the small scrap of comfort the men took away from their experience – that they had fought the “War to End All Wars” – has proven to be a heart-breaking fallacy . . .

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