On the day on which, one hundred years ago, Great Britain entered a war against the empires of Germany and
Austria-Hungary in support of the alliance between the bourgeois republic of France and the Russian Czarist empire, there are many comemmorations.
Church services….ceramic poppies tumbling from the Tower of London…lights replaced by a solitary candle in public and private buildings all over the country…radio and television programmes following the course of that war – to become known as the Great War before succeeding madness relegated it to being merely the First World War.
I do not doubt for an instant the sincerity of people comemmorating the start of that war….surprising how close it is in terms of family lost – people we never knew, but who were known and loved by those we knew and loved.
I do doubt the nature of the comemmoration itself.
The latest brand of the royal family in Belgium…French President Hollande embracing his German counterpart; choreographed public remembrance.
What has that to do with the men who entered that hell?
Men who went willingly, on a tide of nationalism..patriotism as they saw it.
Men who went reluctantly….threatened with the loss of their job and the inevitable eviction of their families from the tied cottage if they did not join up…in the later years shaken out from ‘reserved occupations’ as the war of attrition threatened to turn Germany’s way.
Not every man was an angel – a veteran of those years described to me the line of men waiting outside the other ranks’ brothels in Amiens, trousers doffed and folded over the arm to save time once admitted.
Not every man was a hero….old sweats would advise new boys to abandon the underpants soiled under the first experience of bombardments. Quartermaster sergeants became plump in the pocket…but nothing to compare with the industrialists safe at home.
Those who survived remembered their mates, both the living and the dead….because government certainly did not.
The land they returned to was not, in any sense, a land fit for heroes…a Victoria Cross might get you a job as a commissionaire – if you kept your mouth shut, your nose clean and your hand ever ready to touch the brim of your hat.
We hear a great deal of ‘sacrifice’. A weasel word which covers the nastier one …….
I worry that we are comemmorating by gesture, not by action.
These men went forward against terrible odds….fell…rescued each other under fire…assaulted and took positions that were deemed impregnable….because they were in it together.
A true comemmoration of this war would be a revival of solidarity and decency….decency which recognises that governments who deliver ‘suspects’ to torture under ‘extraordinary rendition’; governments which abandon translators for their armies to the vengeance of their enemies; governments which send their young men to war on behalf of commercial interests have to be brought to book..and only solidarity will achieve this.
That generation faced bullets and bombs from an external force: our generation faces police ‘kettling’ and false charges leading to imprisonment from a force within our society….our own government.
Blinded by gesture…by the formalities of respect…by elevating these very ordinary men to the status of demi gods – we betray them.
We have forgotten that we are in it together, as they were…
Revive that memory…..remember them, but not just their fate.