The Centenary of the end of the Great War has elicited a lot of reflection, not just on the war, but on Remembrance Day itself. Was the Great War worth it? What will Remembrance Day become as time increases the distance between us and those who sacrificed their lives for a cause we increasingly fail to comprehend?
The overall impression has been that the generation who must be relied upon to continue the tradition of remembering is one that, for the most part, has spent a lifetime marinating in negativity. According to this perspective, increasingly widespread, the Great War was a pointless waste of life. It was about lions led by donkeys; unwilling cannon fodder ground up in the machinery of modern warfare.
But as Gavin Mortimer so aptly wrote earlier this week in The Spectator, the idea of the war dead as “hapless victims of a cold-hearted empire” jars with the words of the “Tommies” themselves. Their chirpy optimism, sense of bloody-minded purpose and camaraderie in hell, was also evident in Peter Jackson’s marvellous BBC documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old”.
Influenced by poets like Wilfred Owen whose images of the hell of war inevitably haunt our collective memory, it is possible that the nihilism of modern thought distorts the truth of the Great War and strips their sacrifice of meaning.
Let’s not allow this to become an annual exercise in self-indulgent navel gazing and disrespectful virtue signalling of our modern opinions on war. Let’s not turn it into a circus for the obscenely ungrateful – like the woman seen with a sign reading “no country for old white men” near the Cenotaph, nor an empty commercialised ritual.
As has become clear from recordings, letters and poetry, many believed in what they were fighting for, and so should we.
On Sunday’s Remembrance Service at Westminster Abbey, actor Simon Russell Beale read an extract of Winston Churchill’s reflections on the Great War: “Penalty of defeat is ruin. The reward for victory is responsibility […] They [the allies] can no more divest themselves of this responsibility than they could in the first instance have stood out of the war”.
The reasons the statesmen of 1914 went to war are complicated and considerable. While Germany was not of itself the leading aggressor, its power gave it the ability to sweep over Europe, crushing all resistance before it. Britain was forced to intervene to prevent Germany from emerging supreme from the war. That may not make sense to many today – many who would otherwise prefer to keep their hands cleaner than their consciences – but it made sense to most people in 1914.
Sir Winston Churchill said that not to take responsibility following victory “would be to sacrifice at a stroke all the fruits which have been gained by an infinitude of sufferings and achievement”. Our failure was just that: we did not finish the task. We won the war, but lost the peace.
Counterfactual history is always mired with “ifs” and “buts”. Yet we have evidence for what might have been. 70 years ago this year, the Western allies – victorious over an even more insidious regime that that of Wilhelm II – charted a new path: aside from the fact that they “finished the job” by marching on Berlin, they put in place the pieces of a lasting peace.
They did this through two mechanisms: firstly, by forwardly deploying their armed forces on the European mainland after the Second World War; secondly, by establishing a permanent military alliance, eventually to include the defeated, to “institutionalise” the new reality. This was initially called the Western Union Defence Organisation, which mutated a year later into NATO.
Imagine had we done the same in 1918: rather than ending the war prematurely, would it not have been better to have taken the war to its logical conclusion? To smash the German army and push it back to Berlin? And then put in place the architecture of peace? We will never know, but we do know it worked after 1945. And NATO – underpinned by British and American power – has been keeping Europe stable ever since.
And what does this tell us about today? Modern European countries appear once again to be falling into the erroneous thinking of the past. They are forgetting that peace is not the natural state, that it is a construct, generated through unbearing dissuasion. The Royal Navy’s old motto “If you want peace, prepare for war” may be too severe for modern sensibilities, but absolving ourselves of our responsibilities is worse.
A major lesson of the Great War should be this: freedom is not free. Sometimes it is necessary to “lay upon the altar the dearest and the best” to secure it. Better still is to dissuade and prevent aggressors from thinking they might deploy war as a policy option. The personal and national sacrifice can be significant, but often that is the cost of peace – the task is to ensure that the peace is secured and not lost.
For all their bravery and courage, although our military men won a bloody but necessary war in 1918, our political leaders lost the peace. If anyone should bear disappointment, it should be focused on them. Then glance forward to contemporary times. You might not like what you see in the mirror.