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Lest we Forget

September 3, 2013

During my cycle tour of Belgium last week I visited the Tyne Cot cemetery on Passchendaele Ridge outside Ypres.  Early on a Saturday morning I had the place to myself.  Or more accurately I shared the place with nearly 12,000 brave young men who nearly 100 years ago had laid down their lives in defence of Little Belgium with the thought that such a fate might befall their own homes and loved ones.  Some of them had names and ages, others in that chilling phrase were “soldiers of the Great War known to God.”  

It is a most moving place.  As well as the memorial to so many brave lives lost it provides telling evidence of the futility of the battle.  From the cemetery the spires of Ypres and the plain across which the battle was fought were fully visible.  They were in 1917 when the ridge was occupied by the German guns which were able to rain down a deadly fire on the Allied troops trying to make their advance across the rain soaked and muddy plain.  One such shell badly injured my Great Uncle and invalided him out of the fighting.  Many were not as lucky as the lines of gravestones at Tyne Cot and all across the battlefield tell so eloquently.  Some while not injured physically, suffered enormous mental distress as a result of “shell shock”.

We are about to enter a period of commemoration of the events of the Great War as we approach the hundredth anniversary of its commencement.  I am both pleased and concerned about what that will mean.  As a student of history I am pleased that there will be a special focus on one of the most significant events of modern western history.  A cataclysm which not only impacted directly on millions but also profoundly shaped the world we live in now.  At the same time I have some anxiety of the danger that in commemorating the War we will either trivialise its complexity or blithely use it to boost our national ego.

The First World War or Great War was not a simple event.  From the perspective of hindsight it appears a monumental waste of life which almost inevitably had to be repeated 20 years later.  Yet at the time it was fought by men doing the things which would be judged right and proper by the values of the time.  As the poet Edward Thomas said eloquently as an expression of his own dilemmas about the war “This is no case of petty right or wrong”.   While some were motivated, at least initially by a sense of adventure, many enlisted out of profound desire to protect their native land and the values it represented.  That was true of Germans as it was of those on the allied side.

What strikes me most is that this was a war being planned with 19th century approaches but delivered with the destructive technology of the 20th century.  It was a phenomenon which, once unleashed, became virtually impossible for politicians or generals to control.  While the Great War is an extreme example, this is in the nature of war and it should serve as a warning to all those who have to decide today whether the use of force is a legitimate and appropriate approach to solving international problems.

So as we approach the hundredth anniversary of the First World War there is an opportunity to reflect with humility on what the experience of the generation which fought in Flanders Fields has to tell us.  There is much to inspire us in terms individual acts of bravery and heroism.  There is much to warn us both about the horrors of warfare but also the dangers of unleashing forces which we cannot control.  Although none now are left who took part in those events we must not forget.

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