Britain as Idyllic Before WW1? Far From It!

From Michael Gove to Michael Morpurgo, everybody seems to be commenting on the Great War of 1914-1918, as the press begins its countdown to the first day of the centenary of this world event – 28th July 2014. Gove’s most recent claim that the media, the government, the education system and the public’s opinion of WWI as a ridiculous and futile war is an opinion that has been tirelessly shaped by left-wingers is hot news on the press at this time, with Tony Robinson aka Baldrick in Blackadder hitting back.

Blackadder_Tony Robinson

I studied First World War literature, and inevitably the war, during my A-Levels, and at 27 have already twice visited the trenches and battle sites of Belgium and France in my life. I’m guessing Gove has also studied the same literature to some degree. Whatever your opinion is of pig-headed generals, men being used as machine gun fodder, court martials etc, it can’t be denied that it’s not just post-war media, like Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War that has built this impression of the war, but the first-hand literature and accounts that came directly from the days of the war itself – on which these iconic titles have been based. And which Gove himself probably studied at some point during his education.

Oh What a Lovely War

Still, I’m open to alternative interpretations about the war, and aim to read some books on this subject in the future, such as Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield, though I find it hard to see how the statistics can prove anything but futility; with 60,000 British casualties, 20,000 of whom died, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the British army obviously appreciates its soldiers more today, with what seems like every individual British death from modern wars reported in the British news.

But there’s something else I’ve noticed that seems to be cropping up in the press and that’s the apparent, idyllic ignorance of Britain before 1914.

Yes, this time 100 years ago, Britain was unaware of the atrocities that war could and would bring in the very near future, having been accustomed only to guerilla warfare in the Boer and Crimean Wars – way before the birth of Weapons of Mass Destruction during WWI. Yes. Britain was ignorant – but it definitely wasn’t idyllic. In 1913, it seems that 25% of Britons were living in poverty, which would explain why so many men initially rushed to sign up for the army when war broke out – they’d get an income, clothing and a regular meal. And it wasn’t just these men who were excited about war, nor just the rest of the country: in fact, it seemed as though the whole of Europe was ready for a war and a revolution, which may be a reason why many countries jumped on the bandwagon. Though the Suffrage Movement was put on hold until the end of the war to the dismay of many, most of Britain welcomed this apparent path to a political revolution in their country which a war would surely bring about.

Whilst the Russians got theirs in 1917, and bailed out of the war, the end of the war for Germany – 11th November 1918 – was a little less like the overhaul they’d had in mind. The impossible terms of the Treaty of Versailles signed on that day would continue to haunt Germany for the remainder of the 20th century – along with the rest of the world.

Hitler Propaganda

The Last Post

From the first post to the last. By this I mean the Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial.

This is the street in Ypres that leads up to the Menin Gate from the town square. Sorry about the quality but we were in a hurry – we being me, my sister and my friend. We were the youngest, by at least 15 years, on a coach trip of World War One enthusiasts that had taken four days out of their lives to travel around preserved mossy trenches, bleak cemeteries, and churned up fields visiting memorials and landmarks on a Guided Battlefield Tour. It may sound boring. It probably is to most under-25s, and probably to many over that.

So why were we in a hurry? Because it was five to eight and we were rushing to see the military men perform the Last Post, which takes place at 8pm every night beneath the Menin Gate. It’s occurred at that time every day since July 1928, apart from during the Second World War when the Nazis stopped it. B-loody Nazis. During this time, it took place at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. Yet, although it does occur every night, we were only there for one.

We’d had trouble getting served in the restaurant, as had most of the other people. It was rammo, as everyone was trying to down their food and Belgian beer to get to the ceremony. This was the second time I’d been. The first time I’d been was on a school trip when I was 17 in June 2004. It was sunny daylight that time. This time was at the end of October 2009. Welly weather.

The Menin Gate is a memorial to the missing – the many men who died in the Ypres Salient during the First World War. If you don’t know much about the war,  and are confused by this, then you should know there are many memorials to the missing throughout France and Belgium and loads of cemeteries for that matter, because literally there were so many men that died. They’re everywhere in Belgium. You couldn’t keep count. Due to the nature of the war, many men were buried in mass graves, or simply lost in the mud – bodies covered up by the ground constantly being tossed around by explosions, trench digging etc. The war ran from July 1914 to November 1918 and so many people died.

Picture this: on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the so-called “Big Push”, where the British and French began a massive offensive against the Germans, the British suffered roughly 57,000 casualties – just on the first day, with more than 19,000 men killed, not to mention the French and the German. It was meant to be a sort of team building exercise, uniting the British and French against the enemy at the point on the Somme river where the British and French troops met each other on the battlefront. It was also meant to bring about the end of the war. The Battle eventually ended on the 18th November. You can imagine how many more died after that first day.

The Battle of the Somme, however, was in France, and we were in Belgium at this point of the tour.

When we got there, we saw this:

If you look closely, you can see engravings in the wall. These are the names of more than 54,896 missing dead. To the right seemed to be a band of some sort. They came into action later.

It went quiet. Then a row of buglers marched up. They blew out the Last Post.

This time was different to the last time I’d been in 2004, when only the buglers had played.

This time, the band on the right played one of those traditional, old British pieces that you automatically associate with wars, but I can’t remember what it was now. Then finally a Scottish Highlander played a tune on the bagpipes. It got pretty emotional really, as I couldn’t help but think of those Scottish Highlanders during WWI, who played the bagpipes to boost the morale of their comrades as they fought, and themselves marched defenceless into enemy fire, playing the bagpipes until they fell.

You stand there and you think about pretty much everything at this point of the ceremony. Of course I thought about the war and everything I’d read, watched and studied concerning it, and then my brain galloped on through the twenties, thirties, WWII, fifties, sixties, seventies and onwards, through invasions and recessions and women’s liberation marches, and coal miner’s strikes, and everything else that happened in the 20th century. Through all the people who’d stood where I was standing. All the ghosts. And I looked around and I could have been surrounded by men and women in uniform, missing limbs and jaws and eyes, holding bandages, leaning on crutches, with twitches and tics. And they all turned to look at me. Lost people. And I thought, the funny thing is, you’d all be dead by now if you had survived the war. Funny thing, that.

And then the music stopped and the buglers and Highlanders walked away. And I blinked, and I thought Keep it together, keep it together. Nobody else appears to be taking it as seriously as you. Nobody else got lost then. Other people here are only here for the novelty of seeing this traditional ceremony. You’re too over-emotional. You weren’t there. Nobody else is getting teary, blink it away. Blink it away.

And then my sister turned around, and I looked at her face, and I knew I wasn’t the only one.