“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”
“War is politics by other means”
“We will remember them”
I am writing this not long after attending the Battle of the Somme vigil at the Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle. I will blog post it tomorrow minutes before 7.30 at which time I will make my way to pay my respects at the Haymarket Memorial to those from Edinburgh who fell in the ‘Great’ War.
One hundred years ago men all along the Somme front line woke to the summer sun and prepared letters and last thoughts before going into battle. Many were confident and assured although, despite artillery bombardments on German lines and huge mines exploded under them giving weight to commanders assurance, many waited in trepidation at “going over the top.” Their trepidation was well placed as the darkest day of British military history dawned in contrast to the bright glow on French farmlands. Beyond a nation’s grief it was a symbolic catastrophe of civilisation
The Royal British Legion has called on the public to attend their local Commonwealth War Graves and blow a whistle (three short blasts) in remembrance at 7.30am. What should follow from that national rallying call is a thunderous noise of whistles followed by lull and quiet peace of the morning in respectful and reverent silence.
What will follow is more likely to be isolated but deeply respectful acts of remembrance. The limited numbers attending the Beating the Retreat, the Service tonight and associated commemoration events reflects that the world has moved on.
As the quote says, “People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf.”
Much of the world will sleep blissfully unaware, indeed unbothered by the major commemoration taking place. And why should they bother? They owe nothing to the generation slain in 1916…. Or, do they?!
The truth is, that generation were not rough men. They were a cross societal representation of European and international society. They were not war mongers. And yet they laid down their lives in war whose sequence of events forged the world we know today (to say they saved our world would be an over representation). They are however a lost generation.
And yet the cross societal representation tonight, as it will be tomorrow, is and was limited. Twenty thousand died on the first day of the Somme, forty thousand were injured, many in the first hour of battle. We will be lucky if the nation musters that number at 7.30 in remembrance.
International casualty lists from the battle are likewise horrific. Who remembers that more Germans fell in this pivotal clash?
And so, have the lessons be learned? If “war is politics by other means” then, the calm of peace should be a reflective educator by direct means. Sadly, conflict and the peace that followed have not educated. Not only do we see apathy towards remembrance, but a lack of collegiality counteracting conflict. The events of the last few weeks have seen harsh words exchanged, attacks happen and cooperation break down. The entity we are about to leave provided stability and prevented world war. Whilst it can be argued as to whether it’s extended power corrupted, the words exchanged since democratic voting are a indictment of the society democracy aims to achieve. Lest we forget? First, let’s start to remember.
In 1916, 141 days of battle on the Somme region continued. It’s death toll averaged over 890 a day. Two and a half years of war endured beyond this pockmark in the landscape of bloody war. All to be repeated again almost twenty years later. Have we broken the chain? Will history repeat itself? If you haven’t blown a whistle, do a bit by your every day actions. Cooperation over conflict is the key. Cooperation after all is civilisation by other means.
Neil McLennan is a former history teacher, Past President of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History and chairs the Wilfred Owen 1917-2017 Committee.