A cynic could play cliché bingo in Britain today. “Ultimate sacrifice”, “pals’ battalion”, “over the top”, “the mud”, “No Man’s Land”, “over by Christmas”, “lions led by donkeys”, “four years of trench warfare.” We are treating 100 years’ tick tock like a sentimentalist Victorian treated the deserving poor. It’s like one of those signs as you drive into Hardy’s Wessex or Bronte’s Yorkshire… “Welcome to Great War Country!” Not looking forward to Christmas when they will trot out the ‘…we clambered out of our trenches to play football with the Germans, right there in No Man’s Land’ cliché on every channel and in every newspaper.
As armies had a policy of shooting at dawn those who signed on but changed their minds, there was not really much conspicuous heroism around — despite the garbage that will be spouted on radio, TV and from pulpits today in that special timbre of voice set aside for public grief. I bet, for the soldiers of World War One, it was mostly just a fond wish that the other bloke got his, not you.
There is a trend in asymmetric warfare. You count your dead in valuable tens and theirs in meaningless thousands. It was true against the Zulus in 1879 as it was last month in Gaza. So when our tens turn out to be remembered but unknowable millions of ‘our brave boys’ (or scared men more like), over a long four years, then we do not know how to ratchet up our mawkish faux grief. Only the old have personal recollection of a soldier granddad who survived the war. For them and only them can there be genuine sadness still. For the rest of us this war should just join all the other wars. Maybe this is the day to remember that not only was World War One not the war to end all wars, it was not shockingly or outrageously different from those that came before.
Here’s a running total of the dead and wounded in battles – that’s battle, not wars – since Bannockburn, but this list only goes up to 1904.
And finally just to show how fluid were the alliances in Western and middle Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, this little squib exploded into view from from the Western Daily Press dated Nov 3 1871. Oh, the irony!:-