AS Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove crawls from the wreckage of his incoherent and indefensible ramblings of how World War 1 was indeed a Great War, why are we using £50 million of public money to commemorate a catastrophe, from which, in 2014, there are no survivors?
And if we honour the fallen Allied soldiers of the 1914-18 conflict, will we do the same for the German soldiers or indeed the dead of the Crimean War, Waterloo, the Boer War, the battles of Bannockburn and Culloden or the dead from the English Civil War, Agincourt, Crecy or even the Battle of Hastings?
Where does logic and reality stop and politics and propaganda begin?
And does Gove really know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme?
The reasons given for this year’s World War 1 commemoration is that we must remember our dead. “They died for us and our freedom. The cost of sacrifice. Remember Passchendaele. Never forget.”
As a child I remember sitting on my Great Uncle Jack’s knee as he told me tales of the Somme and the mud, horror and death. He showed me the 11 inch scar on his back where a German sniper had almost taken his life as he crawled back to his trench from no man’s land. And he also told me of his older brother Bernet who died from typhus fever in the trenches at the Somme, like many thousands of his compatriots.
I have my Uncle Jack’s pencil written letters from the front – and from hospital – at my side as I write this blog.
There was no glory, no heroism, just the mechanised slaughter of millions of young working class men.
As World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen wrote: ‘the poetry is in the pity’.
One example of the mindless killings occurred on the 24 and 25 September 1915 when the 4th Black Watch was decimated at Loos.
“Haig had ample warning that an unprepared attack by two untrained divisions was unlikely to succeed. And so the stage was set for a repetition of the charge at Balaclava. For the set-piece attack of the 11th Corps was as futile and foredoomed as that of the Light Brigade. There had been 12 battalions making the attack, a strength of just under ten thousand, and in the three and a half hours of the actual battle their casualties were 385 officers and 7,861 men. The Germans suffered no casualties at all.”
Little wonder the Germans called the battlefield “Leichenfeld (field of corpses) von Loos”.
Perhaps in war, it’s the names that count. Dead soldiers had no gravestones before the Great War, unless they were generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment in Saint Paul’s Cathedral or Les Invalides. The soldiers were simply dumped into mass graves.
At Waterloo, the remains of the dead were shipped back to England to be used as manure on the fields of Lincolnshire – sometimes tilled by their unsuspecting farmer sons. No posthumous glory for them.
It is perhaps easier to believe that the names will “live for evermore” even though hundreds of thousands of World War 1 British and French and Germans and Austrians and Irishmen in British uniform and Hungarians and Indians and Russians and Americans and Turks and even Portuguese have no graves at all.
The last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, shot in Brussels by the Germans for rescuing Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, are inscribed on her monument beside the National Gallery: “Patriotism is not enough.”
In the four years of World War 1, Britain endured 658,700 fatalities, 2,032,150 wounded and 359,150 men missing in action. This adds up to total of over three million casualties from one side alone.
Add to this the four million fatalities from the German side and other civilian deaths, the total death toll was in excess of 16 million. About two million deaths were from disease and infection.
No glory, just death and suffering.
Historian Phillip Knightley wrote that during the war: “More deliberate lies were told than in any other period of history, and the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth”.
When war broke out in 1914, it did so to flag waving and patriotism. Men were promised honour, glory and a conflict over by Christmas.
This was the Great War, to end all wars!
These were times of great social inequality and disenfranchised boys from the poorest communities could, for the first time, be useful. The army offered food, clothing, camaraderie and the respect of the nation.
Enlistment was a collective endeavour – many battalions were made up of men from the same villages. They joined together and died together.
There was no way out. Not to join was cowardice – a treacherous act which would bring shame upon their family and nation.
And they would be fighting against an identifiable evil.
The British propaganda painted German Kaiser Wilhelm as the devil incarnate. The Daily Mail of 22 September 1914 portrayed him in separate reports as a “lunatic”, “madman”, “barbarian”, “monster”, and “modern Judas”.
The German soldier raped, mutilated and tortured. Stories of Hun atrocities in Belgium were front page news despite there being little proof of their occurrence.
The Times of 8 January, 1915, stated: “The stories of rape are so horrible in detail that their publication would seem almost impossible were it not for the necessity of showing to the fullest extent the nature of the wild beasts fighting under the German Flag.”
This was the absolute necessity of conflict; ironically the same necessity that Michael Gove now points to as he rewrites the history of the war and instills his own propaganda.
Cambridge history Professor Richard Evans accuses Mr Gove of gross oversimplification: “How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-1906.”
Unlike Germany – where male suffrage was universal – 40 per cent of those British troops fighting in the war did not have the vote until 1918.
“The Kaiser was not like Hitler, he was not a dictator… this was not Nazi Germany,” he added.
So when we read about the heroism of all those dead men, when we pause to consider their sacrifice we should remember also a propaganda system which romanticised and demonised, misled and obfuscated.
As Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1916, said: “If the people really knew the truth the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”
And what they don’t know, can’t hurt, can it, Mr Gove?
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!
An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And floundering 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.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
October 1917 – March 1918