With Remembrance Day happening this Sunday, commemorating 100 years since the end of World War 1, we would like to take the time to show our support for an organisation that is doing a great job supporting children who are often the forgotten victims of war. War Child is a charity that reaches children in war torn countries, providing them with the protection and education that all children should be allowed to take for granted. In 2016, the charity reached well over 100 thousand children who have suffered as a result of war. If you want to know more, please visit their site here where you can discover what the charity does and how you can best support the good work that they do here: https://www.warchild.org.uk/what-we-do
The Day the Guns Fell Silent
This Sunday will make it a century since World War One ended and the guns finally fell silent across Europe. 4 years after the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand the first “Great War” ended, leaving millions dead, a world in ruin and old empires on their knees. Western Europe was already fully industrialised, which meant that war was about to enter a terrifying new era. Death and suffering had been upgraded with factory-line efficiency, man’s inhumanity to man was mechanised into repetitive perfection and murder had become a global enterprise.
The legacy of the First World War would be fulfilled in 1938 when everything we swore never to repeat was forgotten and the mistakes that we made were reanimated into further unimaginable horror. We thought that 1918 would be end of the suffering, but some would argue that the first “Great War” never really ended, that it slept, a brooding monster with one eye open waiting to resurface in 1938 and tear open the loose stitches that had been holding the belly of the world in place.
We come together this Sunday, not just to remember the millions of men, women and children who died for whatever cause they were sold, but to try and remember, or perhaps even just understand, why. Why we allowed this to happen. Not once, but twice. Why we continue to fail to put our differences behind us. Why we forget that our DNA is 99.9% to the next person’s.
The 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month is our time to think about events that took place 100 years ago. No one who served in First World War is still around to speak about what they witnessed. Within 20 years it is likey there will be no one left who served in the 2nd World War. The greatest self-inflicted horrors of human history are now mostly memories of other memories, which like a video tape that has been used too many times becomes little more than a murmur passed down a line in a game of Chinese whispers. The fear is that we do forget. That we allow all of this to happen again.
One minute in twelve months to put down our 21st century technology. One minute in twelve months to turn our phones off. To forget about Facebook and Twitter. To acknowledge the growing polarisation in our times: Those who have, and those who don’t.
In 1914 the world was sold a war on the death of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, shot dead on the streets of Sarajevo by a Serbian terrorist organisation known as the Black Hand. Retaliation had to come, but like big brothers protecting their smaller siblings in the playground, Germany and Russia could not sit back and let Austria and Serbia slug it out mano-a-mano. As each weighed in at their respective corners more and more joined the fracas until who said what to whom and when was no longer clear.
Whilst the death of Franz Ferdinand might have been the spark that lit the fuse of World War One, the barrels of gunpower waiting to ignite had been lying there for some time. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was fast becoming a relic of previous centuries and needed an opportunity to flex its muscle one more time. Serbia, was a problem. The issue of Bosnia, one that would re-surface 80 years on, could not left alone. The great Austro-Hungarian Empire needed a reason, any reason to mobilise and it did so with the Germans egging them on over their shoulder.
What defined early 20th century European geo-politics were the new alliances that had formed. On one side you had the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the other side was the Triple Entente of Britain, Ireland, France and Russia. As soon as the Germans backed their buddies, the Russians, who bore Slavic affinities with the Serbians, back theirs. What had started as a series of alliances to help protect Europe from the sort of advance that Napoleon had managed in the 19th century became the ingredients needed for whole scale world war.
As the Germans waded through Belgium and blocked off their ports the British were dragged in. Britain relied on Belgian neutrality to allow them an access point into central Europe. The German invasion left the British with little choice but to follow the Russians into battle and begin a retaliation in the west and subsequently drag the weight of the British Empire in with them.
Europe had never seen such all-consuming conflict. The empire building that had gone on for centuries prior to the 20th century and the new alliances that had been formed ensured that an estimated 65 million soldiers took part in the war. When combined with the efficiency of industrialised warfare it is thought that roughly 17 million people died during World War 1. As terrifying as this number is, the advancements made between 1918 and 1938 would ensure that this number would dwarfed by the end of the Second World War. A war that even eclipsed the devastation of European imperialism in conquest of the Americas and the rolling might of the Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries, doing so in a mere 7 years.
Historians point out that there was more killing prior to this war and that the horror in which we hold those 4 years could be eclipsed by other conflicts. You only have to look at China and some of the wars that have taken place there over the last thousand years to know that sheer weight of population means any statistic involving numbers of people is going to be over-shadowed. If you were a British solider fighting in the Crimea you had less chance of coming home than you did during the First World War. So what is it about this war in particular that has given it its place at the high alter in the Pantheon of terror?
WW1 was the first war to harness chemical weapons, mechanised artillery, tanks and aircraft. It was a faceless war, one where you didn’t always need to get up close and personal to kill. Whilst there were photos taken during other wars, this was the first war when the true extent of the horror was made explicitly clear to the population at home. Increased levels of literacy meant more soldiers could write about their own experiences, none more so effectively than the great British poet, Wilfred Owen. These first-person accounts, void of jingoism and propaganda re-evaluated what war was. The ordinary man and woman on the street could see that they were being lied to. That war was not some noble endeavour and that their husbands, fathers and sons were being used to fight someone else’s battles. Owen’s iconic description of a gas attack is still, 100 years on, studied today in schools to teach young people lessons about the reality of war:
“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
War had never been described like this before. There is no glorious victory, no nobility, no ticker-tape parade or symbolic unfurling of a flag. Men either died or watched their friends die in the most horrific ways imaginable and then they did the same to those in the next trench. Owen wanted us to know that our husbands, fathers, sons and brothers had died like animals in a laboratory, writhing in agony, drowning in their own bodily fluids. And for what? For political revenge. Unlike the 2nd World War, where evil had to be stopped in its tracks, there are few who took up arms in WW1 who really knew what they were fighting for.
And then there is the Somme. By the time it was over 1.2 million soldiers had died for a strip of land roughly 20 miles long. The battle lasted 141 days and on the first day alone there were over 60 thousand casualties. It was the bloodiest day British military history, with nearly 20,000 fresh graves needing dug, as the Allies claimed 3 miles of territory. A film depicting the soldiers going over the top was shown to British audiences and viewed by 20 million people who saw first-hand the devastation that industrialised warfare was having during the Battle of the Somme. This was for most the first moving pictures or war that they would ever see. The Battle of the Somme was brought into British Cinemas and it changed everything. That battle, that film and Owen’s words transformed perceptions of war forever.
This Sunday, we remember not just British lives but every life that was lost, directly or indirectly. We remember those who returned from the war changed for ever and families who had to learn to cope with that change. We remember the before and the after. We remember lost innocence, a society forced to grow up more quickly than it wanted to. We remember the
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