11:53, November 09 42 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-09 11:53:07
Reflections on the first world war and Armistice Day

The poppy is now a matter of controversy. Some claim it is a symbol of militarism and a glorification of war. In the parlance of today’s zero-sum dialogue, the poppy is tied to war, war is bad and should be ended, ergo sum the poppy is bad and should be eradicated. In a time when facts matter far less than feeling, this sounds like a convincing argument.

So let’s look at some facts. The poppy as a symbol of remembrance was promoted by an American educator named Moina Michael. She taught at the Lucy Cobb Institute, built in the 19th century to ameliorate the condition of women’s education. She was inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields written by the Canadian battlefield surgeon John McCrae. While treating the wounded at the second battle of Ypres in 1915, which led to the obscene butchery and death of 123,000 people, he learned that his good friend Alexis Helmer was among the slaughtered. McCrea wrote his famous poem while still in the heat of battle. Michael was moved, as generations since have been, by McCrae’s plaintive words. While teaching disabled servicemen in 1918, she began to agitate for silk poppies to be sold to pay for the basic needs of veterans abandoned by their nation after the guns fell silent, as is the case to this day.

I am a veteran and the son of a veteran of the second world war. My father came home an empty shell of a man. Everyone who had known him said he was a different man. To this day, I relive the killing fields of the Yugoslavian slaughter in my dreams. The effects of my service caused me years of pain, homelessness and substance abuse. My son is three years old. I will use all the strength in me to ensure that he never knows the horror of war. I will do this by explaining its stark reality to him. I will bear witness. And that is where we, the veterans of Canada, are absolutely failing in executing our final duty. To bear witness, to speak with power and conviction against the scourge of war, and to act in our communities and societies to make this a reality. We need to stand up and share our pain as a warning.

For those who don’t wish to wear a poppy, I have a proposition. Some seem to think that soldiers don’t understand the role of nation states, corporations and arms manufacturers in war. We always have. I ask you to bear in mind that the people who gave their lives did so in the belief that somehow their sacrifice could move humanity forward, would advance the causes of peace and universal rights, and move us to a day when we would live together in peaceful community. That, I would submit, is a noble goal even if you think that they were misled and mistaken in holding it.

I propose that all of us live together in peaceful community, and every time we approach someone with whom we disagree, we treat them with empathy, humanity and respect and commit the only true act of remembrance that matters. When we do whatever small thing is in our power to advance the condition of those in our communities and build bridges of understanding and tolerance, we make their sacrifice a little more meaningful. And that is an act of remembrance that each of us can and should do every day.

William Ray

Nova Scotia, Canada

While we should certainly remember the soldiers who had their lives taken away (not “given”) in the first world war (Honour for last British soldier killed in first world war, 3 November), we should also remember the generals and politicians who caused their deaths.

The first world war was a wholly unnecessary conflict that could not conceivably have brought any benefit to those fighting on either side. The utterly ineffective tactics used resulted in the inevitable deaths of millions, who were seen as entirely expendable.

There is no doubt that those in charge were guilty of crimes against humanity and should have been tried for these instead of crying crocodile tears about how dreadful it was that so many were killed or injured. The fact that it is the Earl Haig Fund that sells the poppies is why I refuse to wear one. I’ll remember those murdered in the trenches in my own way.

Mike Scott

Nottingham

In September 1914 Laurence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, a poem in which one line stands out from the routine patriotism of the rest. It reads: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” These words occur on war memorials up and down the land, and are often misquoted as “They shall not grow old” (They Shall Not Grow Old review – Peter Jackson’s electrifying journey into the first world war trenches, theguardian.com, 16 October).

The misquotation is now given extra currency by the film of that title. It is of course obvious that the fallen will not grow old. How could they? But Binyon says they shall “grow not old” (my italics) and he continues: “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” The implication is that they will grow in our collective and individual memories. It is a far more subtle and more moving thought than the misquotation.

It is a pity that in this centenary year of the armistice, the IWM and 14-18 NOW (the WWI centenary art commissioners), who jointly commissioned the film in association with the BBC, could not understand these famous words and get them right.

Chris Hall

Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

Reflections on the pacifist movement

Natalie Nougayrède (For millions of Europeans, the war did not end in 1918, 7 November), should also remind us of the mostly unmentioned pacifist movement that became seriously motivated in the first world war. It was largely due to anti-war activists such as Fenner Brockway and his No Conscription Fellowship, and leading Quakers such as my grandfather, John Henry Barlow, that the 1916 Military Service Act, which made conscription mandatory, also included the so-called “conscience clause”, which for the first time enshrined in law the right of people to abstain from fighting on grounds of conscience. Then Philip Noel-Baker, again with Quaker support, organised the fledgling Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) in line with the society’s historical peace testament. Altogether the FAU sent more than 1,000 men to France and Belgium, where they worked on ambulance convoys alongside the French and British armies.

Before 1916 many conscientious objectors went to prison for their refusal to fight, but gradually after the act was signed, pacifism took on greater respectability and by 1939, when the FAU was reestablished by Paul Cadbury, hundreds of people of all faiths and none served with the unit in Europe, the Middle East, China and India, providing mobile medical units, helping house Polish refugees in Tehran, and caring for the sick and wounded in Kolkata. Wherever there is war, there are always the wounded and the FAU, often alongside the Red Cross, were there to care for them. As we remember the fallen, let us not forget those who helped the sick and wounded.

Antony Barlow

Sutton, Surrey

Natalie Nougayrède states that Hungary lost “more than half of its population” under the terms of the treaty of Trianon. Most estimates indicate that less than a third of Hungarians found themselves in the new or enlarged postwar nation states of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania. The passing of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire was not mourned by previously subject nationalities. But it was a traumatic change of circumstances and self-image for the previously dominant Austrians and Hungarians. By now, Austria seems to have got over it; Hungary, less so.

Anne Summers

Honorary research fellow, Birkbeck, University of London

The war did not end for eastern Europeans in 1918. Part of the reason for this is that it did not end for those in the west either. Military interventions by the British into Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, by the French into Ukraine, and by the Canadians and Americans into Russia all continued well into 1919-20.

Nigel Harvey

St Albans, Hertfordshire

Natalie Nougayrède’s article makes the point that ‘For millions of Europeans, the war did not end in 1918’ but, among all the elements she lists contributing to the continuing destruction in eastern Europe (and beyond), she does not mention the invasions of the former USSR-to-be by the victorious empires seeking to feast on the remains of the Russian empire that, while losing in its theatres of the Great War, had prevented most of its allies from collapsing in theirs.

Bryn Hughes

Wrexham, Wales

Natalie Nougayrède is undoubtedly right, but why does she make no reference to the Versailles treaty, and no mention of the continued allied occupation of the Rhineland into the early 1920s? Punitive war reparations were to prove useful for Hitler’s interpretation of the Versailles diktat.

Brian Stokoe

York

War was fatal even after battle ended

George Edwin Ellison (Report, 3 November) may have been the last British soldier killed in the first world war. Sadly for my family, he was not the last fatality of that war. My grandfather, William Henry Garrett, served in the Royal Engineers on the western front from 1914-19, before returning home to his wife and three young children (one of whom was my father).

William came back traumatised by his experiences in France and was diagnosed with shell shock. For the next 17 years my grandmother, Alice, cared for William as best she could and to her eternal credit succeeded in keeping him out of a feared lunatic asylum. Sadly, in 1936, William took his own life. He was 51 years old.

William Garrett was only one of the many tens of thousands of men who survived the first world war but, damaged and often forgotten, went on to take their own lives.

Jon Garrett

London

My grandfather, George Kerswell, wouldn’t have claimed to be a hero, but he was a sporting hero. He was part of the British expeditionary force interned by the Greek government in Salonika during the first world war – the so-called Gardeners of Salonika. Apart from gardening, the troops played football in their considerable spare time, and my grandfather was the only non-league player (he played amateur football in goal for Green Waves FC near his home town of Plymouth) to appear in an England v Scotland international in the camp. England won 2-1. It was the only thing he ever told me about the war.

John Beresford

Cambridge

The article Rail workers war memorial unveiled at London St Pancras (8 November) features the variety of occupations involved in railway service in years gone by. This can be seen to even better effect in a historic commemoration in Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The 1920 memorial opposite platform seven consists of 10 steel wall panels listing the names of 860 dead, approximately one in six of those employees of the North British Railway who volunteered before the concept of reserved occupations was imposed halfway through the first world war. Nearly all the 860 served in the army and only 10 were officers. Their names are linked with their specialities, underlining the St Pancras artist’s fascination with the occupations of working people – the NBR memorial records the sacrifice, not just of railwaymen, but engine drivers, canal banksmen, boiler washers and (curiously) strikers (wheeltappers perhaps?).

AJ Mullay

Author, Blighty’s Railways

On a recent visit to Lancing College war memorial, it was good to see that the names of the non-teaching staff who died in the first world war have, albeit belatedly, been added. All credit to Lancing, as apparently this is not the case in every residential educational establishment and the commemoration in such communities of all the members who were killed is very patchy. The correction of this oversight is long overdue. What a valuable and enriching project it would be for students and staff to undertake the necessary research, which would lead to all those who lost their lives at last receiving proper recognition on these institutions’ memorials.

Nicola Brooker

London

With 11 November marking the armistice centenary and in light of the controversy about wearing poppies, it is worth recalling the speech of James Connolly, the Irish socialist, which he made in the square in Tralee, Ireland, in October 1915. The occasion was a rally organised by Tralee Trades Council to mark the establishment of the first branch of the ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union) in Kerry. More than 3,000 people attended the rally, and when Connolly addressed the crowd he made the following argument against Ireland’s involvement in the war in Europe:

“I know that we in Ireland had never suffered one particular iota from any European power, but one … this war was not for Ireland, it was not for them no matter who wanted it. They stood for that section of the community who had fought the battles of the world and who had remained at the bottom no matter who was at the top. They would no longer accept the position of inferiority. They say not only are they part of the nation but they are the most useful part of it. No matter who sold Ireland in the past, the Irish working class never sold it, they always fought for it.”

It should also be noted that Connolly’s anti-war argument was supported by the local branches of British-based unions affiliated to Tralee Trades Council, including the National Union of Railwaymen and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen.

Kieran McNulty

Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland

A century on, lessons have not been learned

As the nation prepares to acknowledge the fallen in military conflicts, the British government is threatening the survival of disabled war pensioners.

A war pension is not a benefit, it is a military pension, awarded until 2008 to profoundly disabled members of British military forces for their sacrifice and service to the nation. Until 2008 any application for a pension review was acknowledged by the Veterans Agency with a medical examination, conducted by a former military doctor, who provided a detailed medical report on the deteriorating health of the disabled veteran. Any identified increase in failing health or disability saw an increase in the war pension.

In October 2008 the fatally flawed work capability assessment (WCA) was introduced to assess all claimants of disability benefit, and to resist providing funding to as many as possible as the WCA disregards diagnosis and prognosis. As a consequence, war pensioners applying for a reassessment are confronted by a staff member from a corporate giant, who has no comprehension of military service. Most pensioners are refused any increase in their war pensions, and are warned not to apply again for future reassessment, which will not be considered regardless of failing health.

As the nation’s leaders lay their wreaths at the Cenotaph, war pensioners will be wondering why their generation of disabled veterans are treated with such disregard and total contempt.

Mo Stewart

War pensioner, former (W)RAF medical service, Wisbech

The defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, attended the burial of three unidentified soldiers found near Tyne Cot, and made some appropriate remarks. He also said that “… there is a higher purpose for us to act as a force for good on the world stage”. How does he reconcile this view with the support that the UK through his department is giving to Saudi Arabia in its merciless bombing of civilians in Yemen, including attacks on schools and hospitals, and the blockade that is contributing to starvation? We are providing manpower to assist with targeting and achieving record sales of guided bombs; so much for “force for good”. If his comments are sincere can we look forward to a new moral and ethical defence and foreign policy?

Douglas Simpson

Todmorden, West Yorkshire

For British soldiers, the postwar period became a question of winning the peace as they returned to find no work and poor living standards. On 31 January 1919 in St George Square, Glasgow, the Clyde Workers’ Committee organised a protest for a 40-hour week and jobs for returning soldiers. It was attacked by police, and the secretary of state for Scotland called it a “Bolshevist uprising”. Some peace.

Keith Flett

London

Apologists for the slaughter of over a million British and Commonwealth soldiers in the first world war ignore the facts. The “war to end all wars” did quite the opposite. It spawned European fascism and communism, precipitating the continent into the considerably more brutal and calamitous second world war, which in turn led to a 44-year-long cold war. The previous century of peace, 1815-1914, was swapped for a century of war, one that impoverished Britain, in the process destroying its superpower status. If Britain’s intention in the first world war was to retain its power and contain Germany’s, then simply look at the facts. Which nation now dominates Europe, which has the strongest economy and the greatest exports? Which nation is slinking out of Europe, tail between its legs, crying it has been bullied? If Remembrance Day means anything, it means we should stay in Europe.

David Hughes

Cheltenham

Millions of lives could have been saved

In all the remembrance of war dead some thought might be given to the rejection, led by France and David Lloyd George, of the German armistice proposals of late 1916. If the politicians had swallowed pride and properly negotiated this on the basis of the situation antebellum it would have saved millions of lives and maybe the disasters of Versailles and another world war. There are lessons here that have still not been acknowledged or learned.

Peter Langworth

London

Martin Kettle’s argument is even stronger if one corrects his mistake dating reliance on US influence and support to the aftermath of the first world war. On the contrary, it was the US Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and, more importantly, the prospect of an Anglo-US security guarantee to France (and Lloyd George’s duplicity in withdrawing the British guarantee), that in part undermined the halting start of a system of multilateral international institutions. We have been here before.

Patrick Wallace

London

I feel so saddened that we still fail to fully appreciate the 70 years of peace we have enjoyed between the European nations that were instrumental in the first and second world wars. There is no God-given right for us to continue living in peace with our closest neighbours and deal with the major problems that face us. The EU came into being as the successor to organisations formed to promote this cooperation. When concentrating on the rational arguments about trade and the economy it is far too easy to overlook the benefit that relative peace in Europe has brought.

Stephen Hawkins

Edinburgh

On my travels around the country in the last few years I have taken a moment to look more carefully than before at first world war memorials, which even the smallest village seems to possess. What intrigues me are the dates. It always begins in 1914 but ends sometimes in 1918, 1919 or even 1920. When did the war end – or are we still waiting?

Nick Matthews

Rugby, Warwickshire

There has been widespread commemoration of the centenary of the end of the first world war. I am wondering if in 1915, in the middle of war, the 100th anniversary of the end of the Napoleonic wars was remembered.

Janette Smith

Birmingham

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