That means Remembrance day leaves me in a quandary. I study war in my off hours, though I rarely write about it. I ‘ve always felt that somehow writing about it would perpetuate it. And when I say I study war, I specialize, if there is such a thing, in World War One. In particular the Battle of the Frontiers, 1st Marne and Verdun.
Why World War One? These two pictures illustrate the reason for me. This is the war memorial in Galashiels in Scotland, but it could be any War Memorial in the commonwealth. The two dark panels to the left and right of the central panel are the names of those lost in World War Two. The central panel are the names of those lost in World War One.
Take a closer look
It’s because of World War One that we have a Remembrance Day. But it’s not because governments and politicians wanted to have it. The story told best in Neil Hanson’s book “Unknown Soldiers“.
King George, for example, thought the display of emotion would not be proper or dignified. There were no plans for any permanent war memorials. The Cenotaph at Whitehall, erected for the memorial day in 1919, was made of wood and plaster and was never intended to be permanent. It was public sentiment that forced the Government to erect a permanent monument in 1920. Public sentiment that made the government honour the millions who never had a grave by the burial of one of their anonymous brethren in a place of honour.
The powers that be were dead set against the idea that there be any official reminder of the war. The war that they had precipitated through incompetent bureaucracy and diplomacy. The war that they perpetuated with a propaganda machine that inspired the Nazi’s a generation later. They feared that the memory would lead to a public accounting for their incompetence.
And it did. Think of all that changed after World War 1. Women got the vote, the first attempt at an international body for the resolution of disputes among nations, radical labour activism leading to just labour laws and increased unionization, the creation of the the whole middle east mess as empires redrew borders and created countries , the Russian revolution and the rise of communism. We live with the effects of World War One every day, even though 100 years have passed since its beginning.
We’ll never know how many people died in World War 1, not definitively. Between the best high and low estimates of military deaths there’s a variance of about 2 million. Think about that. The margin of error is 2 million men. Low estimate about 9 million, high estimate, 11 million. That’s the deaths. For casualties you can triple that number. That’s the soldiers. Civilian deaths, mostly through disease and privation and the Armenian genocide, about 4 million.
I posted an article to my facebook page a few days ago by Harry Smith about why he, as a veteran, will not wear the poppy again. There was quite a lot of commentary on the page, mostly conducted with respect by the participants, but it obviously stirred emotions. Frankly I don’t know what to think about wearing the poppy anymore, but I do know that I want to go rip it off the lapels of certain Canadian politicians- our foul Minister of Veterans Affairs who insults veterans to their face- veterans whose boots he is not fit to clean- politicians who want to use the military to stir patriotism and jingoism and then beggar the soldiers that serve. ( update…Julian Fantino was indeed turfed from his riding in the election of October 2015)
For me the most poignant image of World War 1 is Rudyard Kipling, wandering through the killing fields of France trying to find some piece of his son Jack. His son bought into Kipling’s jingoistic paeans to blood and glory and his father pulled strings to get him into a regiment, even though Jack had been rejected because of shortsightedness. Kipling worked hard to get his son, 17, into the Irish Guards. He saw it as his patriotic duty to offer up his only child for the cause. Jack died in the Battle of Loos, his face torn away by a shell and a body was never identified. It emotionally destroyed Kipling.
The most common sentiment I have heard from soldiers who have been in battle, and I have talked to quite a few, is ” Not my child”.
It’s right and proper that we remember those that died in war. It is just as proper that we should remember that to honour them we should strive tirelessly to make war an anachronism.