Lest We Forget by Trevor Plumbly
The 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I is currently being commemorated throughout the Commonwealth and looking back, I’m pretty pleased that I wasn’t of a fighting age at that time. Given my adult line of thought, I would probably have been a conscientious objector or, as others would have it, a coward. I’d like to say that it would have been an entirely high moral stance, though, in truth, the prospect of dying or being wounded would have played a fairly big part in the decision. But then I’ve got the benefit of hindsight and I can’t help wondering whether, if those that went had truly known what they were going to face, they might have questioned the wisdom of bowing to the pressure of the jingoism and propaganda. A great many of the young men from around the Empire rallied to the call of ‘The Mother Country’, some obviously out of a sense of British inherited patriotism; to others, it seems, it was a sort of adventure that would all be over in a few months. History is built and relayed on perception as well as fact, and it labelled WWI as ‘The Great War’ and somewhat cynically ‘The War to End All Wars’.
Muck, Bullets & Music Hall
It was probably better described as ‘The War to Start All Wars’. For the first time in English history the entire nation was involved; up to that point, the average man and woman would have known or cared little for empire building in foreign parts, but this was the big one and it was right on the country’s doorstep and the previously slightly socially outcast soldiers and sailors became ‘our boys’. Recorded music was available to pump up the clarion call: Dame Clara Butt reminded the upper class that they lived in the ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’, while lower down the social scale Vesta Tilley wished ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl that Loves a Soldier’. It must have been a choice hard to resist: admiration or shame? There were other notable ‘firsts’: aeroplanes and submarines providing the means to kill at an even greater distance, the first use of chemical warfare in the form of mustard gas and of course the modern world’s first experience of mass killing – some countries, including New Zealand, virtually losing a generation of young men in a war being fought thousands of miles from their own country for a land they and their forebears had chosen to leave.
Home is the Hunter
Some had ‘a good war’ (whatever that meant), some were wounded physically, some emotionally scarred for life, some with their sanity shredded, institutionalised and politely labelled ‘shell shocked’, but all returned to a hero’s welcome. Even when the horrendous costs were counted there was little in the way of criticism or protest at what any reasoned thinker would rightly call senseless slaughter. Quite the opposite really, books were written and films were made sanitising the events by inventing gung-ho heroes spending the entire war performing incredible feats of derring-do without suffering a scratch. Memorials were built and anniversaries commemorated to remind us of the sacrifices made by the fallen, but with little or no reference to those having to cope with their own loss. Sadly, the ‘War to End All Wars’ was just the prelude for WWII, Korea, Vietnam and so on right up to the present. But at least now we’re sufficiently enlightened to question beyond the drumbeat and, whilst not diminishing the cost that those who fought paid, I welcome the fact that fewer would respond if the 1914 call was ever repeated.