On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent. Signalling the end of “The War To End All Wars” . The generals went home to their medals and memoirs, the mothers to mourning their lost sons and husbands, the soldiers to their memories and their homes. The dead were collected and laid out with military precision in vast cemeteries dotted across the world, but mainly in Europe. Those who could not be identified or whose bodies could not be found became names on memorials, or figured in wartime stories told by their comrades. Politicians gloated and preened as they recalled how they almost won the war single handed. And children found out that their uncle or father or brother would no longer be coming home.
We are so far removed from World War One today that any archive footage does not seem real. Those images of uniformed troops crossing barbed wire and disappearing into barbed wire have a surreal feel about them. We cannot picture the sun shining or birds singing in trees, while below men were fighting it out in vast armies of canon fodder. 10 000 casualties does not seem like a lot until you see how much space 10 000 graves take up. We cannot begin to fathom the amount of lives destroyed because somebody had a treaty with somebody else, or because some person with a gun shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Why did we actually go out there and throw lives away the way the we did?
What drove men to enlist for a war thousands of miles away from their homes? Yes, it was supposed to be over by Christmas, but nobody said Christmas 1918. Why did my Grandfather fight in France? did he even know where Delville Wood was?
What about the soldiers that came home wounded? or those who were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? And how did those who handed out white feathers feel when the casualty lists grew longer and longer?
Today the survivors of World War One are no longer with us. They are faded names on memorials and photographs, silent rows of graves, or maybe a handwritten letter that survived over the years. They could be a tarnished medal in a second hand shop, or the strange military terms on a military record.
For me the ultimate World War one relic is at the National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold. It is a candle, inside a lantern, that was found at Delville Wood. It reminds me that amongst all the horror of that battle there was still light.
The “War To End All Wars” was merely an introduction to what was to come just over 20 years later when once again we took up the call. The generals, veterans of the previous slaughter, were wiser and knew the consequences of prolonged trench warfare so tried their best to avoid it. However, the lesson of war had not been learnt by those who dragged the world into it once again.
As Remembrance Day comes to a close, let us remember those who went away to war, and those who were affected by its horror. Sadly though, we cannot stop those people who are hell-bent on dragging us into a global conflict because they are the ones who have never realised what war is all about.
DRW © 2011-2019. Images recreated 20/03/2016