I recommend the film “Waterloo.” Released in 1970 there is no CGI that makes you feel disconnected from the men fighting. The tens of thousands of extras used produce a spectacle worthy of the term epic. Not least when from above you see the red coats formed into squares as French Calvary run around and into them. After the battle there is no victory to savour, as Wellington (Christopher Plummer) trots slowly through the thousands upon thousands fallen. The hills are alive with the dead, one of them crying out why were we killing each other?
The modern day narrative is “for whom?”
Those questions echo still, where at my school the final double history lesson was watching “Blackadder Goes Fourth” and the English Literature exam was on Great War poetry. There is a hatred not just of conflict, but of those that led the carnage.
The First World War is seen as a senseless war, caused by diplomatic miscommunication (“37 days”) and railway timetables (AJP Taylor). Let alone Industrial Age mass butchering of people, done by all sides in the name of advancing imperialism and capitalism. With the patriotism of the working class masses manipulated, their blood oiling mass production of war.
Beware history used to fuel such a political philosophical narrative. Historian Dan Snow wrote debunking myths around the Great War 100 years ago.
By late September 1918 the German emperor and his military mastermind Erich Ludendorff admitted that there was no hope and Germany must beg for peace. The 11 November Armistice was essentially a German surrender.
Unlike Hitler in 1945, the German government did not insist on a hopeless, pointless struggle until the allies were in Berlin – a decision that saved countless lives, but was seized upon later to claim Germany never really lost.
The English Civil war had a greater proportion of the population killed than WW1, and the death toll proportion of those serving was higher in the Crimea War. 200 generals were killed or wounded, the posh officer class were more likely to be killed than the serving working class soldier, and technological warfare changed rapidly in those four years.
Fifty years before WW1 broke out, southern China was torn apart by an even bloodier conflict. Conservative estimates of the dead in the 14-year Taiping rebellion start at between 20 million and 30 million. Around 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed during WW1.
This Remembrance Sunday we remember the fallen in the UK’s bloodiest conflict that started 100 years ago. It is honouring those that served to end German imperialist aggression in Europe, and those that served to destroy fascism in Europe in the Second World War. Let alone all who served their country.
The idea that they should have been wars to end all wars is regrettably a hope which previous wars should have indicated was unlikely. War will be a part of the human experience as long as there is a humanity. That is summed up in this familiar quote on WW4:
“Unless the free people of the earth unite to avert World War III,” he said, “it is probable—as some sage recently prophesied—that World War IV will be fought with bows and arrows.”
Or even rocks, as Einstein suggested. Warfare has been part of our history. The carnage and horror has never been enough to prevent it.
(Who originally said a version of this quote is investigated here).
The British Empire, achieved by military conflict, is rightly no more. The achievements of colonialism built on oppression and the foul stench of long since rotted corpses. The legacy for generations that were not alive when these offences were given, is something we have to come to terms with now.
Some cannot. The poppy for them is accepting the loss and carnage of war, therefore allowing it never to stop. Assed Baig made those sentiments clear when mentioning why he never wears a poppy:
Most of all, I don’t wear a poppy, hoping that people will move away from jingoism and realise that it is not a symbol of respect and honour for the dead, but by wearing it and accepting the current narrative, it does the opposite – it glorifies and promotes war.
Regrettably neither ISIS nor Russia see a problem in going to war to carve out territory for themselves – four thousand have died in the Ukrainian conflict while now an uneasy ceasefire holds. With ISIS the need to fight clerical fascism is pressing, however there is a hesitancy with Russia as a new Cold War looks likely to be firmly in place this coming winter. The appeasement of Putin as he annexed other territory formerly in the Soviet Union should have made it clear a showdown of some sort would eventually come.
This month we also commemorate the 25th anniversary when the Berlin Wall fell. Obama has talked about remembering the lessons of Berlin with regard to Russia and Ukraine (see above). We will never know how many lives were saved by avoiding a direct confrontation, let alone mutually assured destruction, during the first Cold War. Too many died in the proxy wars that took place in their stead.
Sometimes wars have to be fought to end conflict. There is nothing just about the means of war, which require hot metal at high velocity enter another’s body. There is, just like death, an inevitability that wars will happen throughout human history. We can dream otherwise, but somewhere in the world people are waking up to bombs. Or forever sleeping because of them.
It calls to mind Alan Seeger’s poem “I have a rendezvous with Death” with which I close. An American fighting in the French foreign legion, he died July 4th 1916 during an attack on Belloy-en-Santerre, like the warrior poet he was.
“I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air —
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
“It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath —
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
“God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear . . .
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.”
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog