This was a war started virtually by mistake, a war that no-one really wanted. There followed four years and three months of slaughter on an unimaginable scale. A rough estimate of 8 million civilians and 10 million soldiers killed, many in the ghastly trench warfare that even the generals admitted was achieving virtually nothing. As Winston Churchill noted, "The war will be ended by the exhaustion of nations rather than the victories of armies." Up to 23 million retired from the front lines wounded, many gassed with chemical weapons and whose lives thereafter were indelibly altered.
I expect forefathers of some readers took part in that war, some paying the ultimate price. An accident of the times of their births and their professions meant that none of my family were involved. In the Second War that followed, though, my father and my mother’s brother were captured in the surrender to General Rommel at St. Valery. Had their unit been based a little further east at Dunkirk, perhaps they would instead have been part of that great escape. But they then spent five years in prisoner of war camps before being repatriated by Soviet troops.
It often seems that the world has learned little of the lessons of those two wars despite their appalling carnage and the collapse of empires. At least we can remember. At least we can consider what our lives might have been like without the sacrifice of so many.
Many poems were written about World War 1. A. E Houseman’s is one of the least known, the simplest and I think one of the most poignant.
Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
As the world thinks back, one country has seen fit to offer an unqualified apology to those whom, through its non-action, it condemned to death in May 1939. Justin Trudeau’s words to the Canadian parliament a few days ago are an utterly moving and heartfelt long apology to the worldwide Jewish community for the turning back of the MS St. Louis which had left and ultimately had to return to Germany with 907 German Jews.
On this day, it would be wrong to use these sentiments to describe present events as they are re-developing in too many countries. I hope the world’s power brokers reflect on them as time goes on.