Today is a very special day in Britain. It’s Remembrance Sunday.
Remembrance Day is a memorial observed in the commonwealth countries since the end of world war one to remember the members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty. I, along with others, honour their sacrifice. And reflect upon the tragic loss of life.
The armistice which signalled the end of WW1 started on 11 November (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month).
Why not at 12:01 am I hear you ask? Possibly to give the chance to a few more unfortunate souls to be shot before this great adventure was over.
Being a stranger you observe things that the natives are accustomed to. While visiting various picturesque villages all over Britain I have seen the memorials dedicated to the fallen of WW1. Every village has such a stele. With long lists of names. The exceptions are a handful of “Thankful Villages”. These are the villages that didn’t have any men killed in the war and were thankful for it.
How come it so often happened that many men died from the same village? In the beginning of the war in 1914 joining the army was voluntary. Young men rushed to volunteer to what they thought was a great adventure that would be over by Christmas. Or they were given incentives to join by the lords they rented their land and cottages from. These men were all put in battalions manned by people coming from the same villages or areas. When ordered to go over the top of the trenches to face machine gun fire or when shelled by artillery, it was more than likely that the battalion was wiped out, and with it a whole generation of young men from the same village were lost. Whole villages lost their fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers.
The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded made it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.
The horrors of WW1 did not stop at getting a letter telling you that your loved one was dead. Many men who managed to return from the war were never again the same. The physical damage was evident, men with missing limbs or blind from gas attacks. The psychological damage was hidden. Help was not available, indeed it was unheard of. Men had to keep a stiff upper lip.
Troops suffering from what we now know as battle burn out or post traumatic stress disorder were court-marshaled and shot as cowards or deserters. Women belonging to “The order of the white feather” roamed the streets giving out white feathers symbolizing cowardice to any man they encountered who they thought should be fighting at the front (They themselves, of course, didn’t go anywhere near the fighting). This last phenomenon became such a problem that special badges were given to men who were performing home front duties.
How did this war begin? In the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was a complex web of alliances that hung in precarious balance. The shooting of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ignited a powder keg.
When the dust settled, four empires had been swept away. The Austro-Hungarian empire, the Russian empire, the Ottoman and the German empire. The peace terms were so harsh on defeated Germany that it sowed the seeds for WW2.
It is most interesting that people sort themselves into belonging to groups. They defend and support these groups. In sports when national teams are playing, people support their national team over the “opposite” team. Apart from betting, there is no personal gain in this victory. What is it that makes us choose one group over another? Why is it that, because we were born in one country, we have to support the policies of this country? Fight the wars that the politicians who run the country decided to inflict on us?
Does it go back to when we were apes? When we clung together in little clans that helped us stay safe with the strength of numbers? This instinct of survival stayed strong as it seemed to work. The little clans grew larger, turned into tribes and eventually into nations.
People still support their nation over others without actually thinking if the things they are supporting are actually morally right and, in certain cases in the 20th centaury, even remotely sane.
During the first Christmas of WW1, there was the Christmas Truce. A football match was played between the two sides. Instead of killing each other, the opponents were playing a game. At the end they shook hands and returned to the trenches. One can only wonder what would have happened if after that they refused to go back to war. The soldiers decided to pack it in and go back home to their families. The generals would be furious. They would order court martials and firing squads. But what if no one arrested anybody. If they all refused to follow the insane orders of going over trenches to be immediately blown to pieces? Power only comes if people are prepared to obey. What if no one obeyed any more? The only ones who gained from this war were the “Empire makers”, the generals and the industrialists who sold the weapons. What the soldiers were fighting for was who would run colonies, and exploit the natives in far away lands. How about letting the natives run their own countries and buying their products at fair prices? Oh the shock and horror at that!
In the Illiad, the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, each side chose a champion to fight. Whoever won would win the war. There’s a thought the next time two nations want to go to war. Instead of sending their armies to kill each other, the two head of states fight it out in a duel. I wonder how many wars would start then.