Thursday, 24 July 2014

THE GREAT WAR

Next week marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and this Sunday I will be attending a memorial service in Redruth to recognise the sacrifices made by all those who came from the town. There will be many other commemorative events during the course of this year and Remembrance Sunday will have particular poignancy.

The period during the First World War was the bleakest period in European history. The scale of killing was horrific. Technology had advanced to make this perhaps the first "industrial war" with the use of chemical weapons, machine guns and powerful artillery but battleground tactics had not evolved to deal with the new realities that modern warfare had brought and there was perhaps a different attitude to human life.

Britain's Generals are often singled out for criticism although, to be fair, they did try to find new approaches to end the war earlier, from the ill-fated landings at Gallipoli to the invention of a primitive tank. Nevertheless, the scale of sacrifice is apparent through the names listed on memorial stones up and down the land and the war touched every community and virtually every family. I take one of my Christian names from Charles Botterell, my Great Grandfather who fought in the war and suffered ill health as a result of his shrapnel wounds.

It was hoped in the immediate aftermath that it would be the war to end all wars so that at least the huge sacrifice would have achieved something lasting. We know now that it wasn't. However, so traumatic was the war that it changed society forever. Huge social changes followed. The anachronistic class structure started to fall apart, women got the vote and society became more equal. The pain of the war drove political changes too with the advent of communism and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia while at home the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the main opposition party.

I have always argued that after any painful conflict, we are in danger of learning the wrong lessons so that the agony of one conflict leads us to make different mistakes which cause a new conflict. That was as true then as it is now. After the Great War there was an entirely understandable resistance to war or spending on military hardware. As a result, Britain was ill prepared to deal with Hitler and he interpreted the strong reluctance for war among Britain's political class as weakness.

But next week, we should quietly remember the extraordinary bravery and the tremendous burden carried by a generation of young men a hundred years ago and the loved ones who grieved their loss.