“We've had ... years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"
As part of a writing project, I have been immersing myself recently in documentaries and books and on-line research about the First World War. It's a dark place to go at the best of times. I have been especially moved and frankly disturbed by the testimony of survivors of the trenches who in their final years tried to voice the terrible experiences of their youth. 'LastPost', edited by Max Arthur, brought together interviews with 21 of the last British veterans back in 2005. By now, only their words remain. A good third of these veterans were BoySoldiers, amongst the 250,000 recruited during Kitchener's campaign. In film footage from the Somme and other front-line coverage, these child faces were all too recognisable. And last night I was watching the same generation on TV recounting how they came to be caught up in the 'Pals Regiments' of that war. Raw, heart-breaking accounts of the friends they lost, of the wounded, of the 'wall of bullets whizzing by' as they stumbled over the top.
I am still trying to take in my feelings about all of this as today our WW1 commemorations reach one of those milestones with an evening of broadcasts and the 'LightsOut' campaign. This symbolic appeal to get the nation to switch off at exactly 11pm tonight is an echo of Sir Edward Grey's famous comment: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." Grey, as Liberal Foreign Secretary from 1905-16, was part of the Cabinet that unanimously signed the British Declaration of War – so he knew all about that earlier 'switch-off'.
A hundred years ago then, our politicians and generals declared war, along with their counterparts in Europe. As summer waned, they marshalled music-hall acts and sportsmen, viscounts and ministers, editors and poster-makers, to bang the war drums. They handed out white feathers. They promised 'see the world' and 'home by Christmas'. They said they'd 'make a man out of you.' They shamed and applauded and corralled a generation of youngsters into the Recruitment Office. 'You're just the Boys we wanted', said the Sergeant as they arrived. They openly signed up children who 'lied' about their age. (The youngest in this country was twelve.) 'I thought I was a big man,' said William Roberts who joined up at 17, 'but I got a shock.'
They sent Our Boys to the Front often on cattle trains 'with a little straw on the floor'. They shovelled them into trenches to crouch and sleep where they could. Up to their knees in water, under shell-fire, often with little to eat, for days or weeks at a time. The war broke men into pieces but the Army patched them up in military hospitals and sent them back. They didn't only shoot the enemy. They shot men, and children too, at dawn when they fell apart. 'Age no excuse'. 'Shell-shock' something that only happened to officers. Cecil Withers, one of those Boy Soldiers who enlisted at 17, said: 'Our people treated us like dogs. They were cruel bastards compared with the Germans.'
|A memorial modelled on 17 year old victim, Private Herbert Burden|
The undoubted bravery of those who enlisted and their comradeship and lifelong friendships were smothered under horror. Men left crying for help in all languages in No Man's Land. Veterans' descriptions of those scenes will stay with me a long time. And the living too eaten by rats and cockroaches and the inescapable lice. Harry Patch describes how the men clung together and depended on each other:
'I mean, these boys were with you night and day … we belonged to each other. We were a little team together and those men … carrying the ammunition got blown to pieces. It was like losing part of my life. It upset me more than anything.'
The Armies of this 'Great War' invented new weapons and these boys and men on both sides were guinea-pigs for a new technology of killing. Green poison gas. Aerial bombardment. Tanks. The modern age speeded-up even as the war trapped combatants in holes in the ground. Another survivor, Albert Finnegan, decided after the war never to have children, 'I was not prepared to produce cannon fodder for the army, not fodder for industry.'
And the warmongers put off and avoided every opportunity for diplomacy. Until starvation at home and mutiny in the ranks and social revolution across Europe and the collapse of the German Army brought them to a railway carriage. At 5am on 11th November they signed the Armistice. And with the Truce agreed, for another six hours, they still threw men into the line of gun-fire; as many as 11,000 across all Fronts that finalday, just to make the German defeat a little more crushing.
This year David Cameron's call for a "commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people" sparked a NoGlory in War campaign from many of our leading cultural figures. Even Jeremy Paxman, who dismissed 'conchies' as 'cranks' in his own documentary, commented 'Only a moron would 'celebrate' the war." Cameron recently published a Letterto the Unknown Soldier in Paddington Station which says:
'… our world would have been far darker if you had declined the call to act. Without your service, our security, our values, our very way of life would have been lost.'
Darker than this? 16 million dead in 4 years? And who was it who switched off the lights across Europe? This war was planned in gentlemen's clubs, in cabinet rooms, in palaces. They may not have understood what it would unleash but the slaughter was obvious long before Christmas. And still they prosecuted this war for four long years. Today their inheritors stand at Cenotaphs and in Cathedrals and pay their respects. And tomorrow they'll will go back to the business of making war. A part of the 'very way of life' they have never given up. I believe they would do it again. I really do. If We Forget.