Saturday, 8 November 2008

Personal Reflections on the Great War

The three-month commemoration of the Great War on this site has taken longer to research and compile. It has additionally been something of a personal journey. As the series draws to a close I thought that I would share some personal reflections on the First World War.

Anyone who attends a quiz night will know that one of the most frequently asked history questions surrounds the event that sparked the Great War: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo, in Bosnia, on 28 June 1914. A diplomatic incident ensued: Austria declared war on Serbia; Russia mobilized; Germany declared war on Russia; Germany declared war on France, invading Belgium in an attempt to knock out France; Britain declared war on Germany, because she had broken a guarantee made in 1839 to respect Belgian neutrality.

The event was the straw that broke the camel’s back. British politicians, over the previous twenty years, had become increasingly concerned about Germany’s rising commercial and maritime activity. Britain had been rearming. Like other nations Britain went to war “for honour” which seems madness now – but these were different times.

The war which the parties engaged was to be long and drawn out: bogged down, quite literally in the trenches of the Western Front. It ended relatively quickly when the Germans realised huge losses and sought an armistice. One commentator suggests that the enemy suffered more from the effects of Spanish ‘flu which hastened the end of the stalemate. But was the Armistice, in effect, a ceasefire only to recommence in 1939? Conversations gathered by Revd. Reeve of Stondon Massey record a very appropriate sound-byte that the war which seemed “a draw” in 1917, according to sportsman Capt. Fred Fane then the hope of an invalid at Blake Hall (recorded as late as 10th September 1918) that the Americans would bring the war to a close by 1920.

At the outset, was there fervour of patriotism that led men to sign up for ‘King and Country’? When Albert enlisted on 7th February 1916 he was one month short of his seventeenth birthday. That same day Revd. Reeve records:

“Feb. 10th has been appointed as the day on which the new Military Service Act will come into operation and on March 1st all but those specially exempted between the ages of 18 and 41 years will be held to have been enrolled.” [ERO T/P 188/3]

Albert knew that sooner or later he would be called up, but not until after March 1917, the month of his own eighteen birthday. Whether his friends were enlisting and he decided to go along too can only be surmised. But he must have lied convincingly about his age on enrolment.

What seems clear is that men enlisted because they did not want to miss out on this great adventure: to go abroad was exciting. There was also an expectation of serving Britain because individuals formed part of an imperialistic British Empire. “Rule Britannia”! This is not to criticise but to observe that these were different times to our own.

There are countless examples of young men enlisting early. William Roberts enlisted probably to avenge for the killing of his father, and ‘Smiler’ having admitted to being aged 17, returns to the recruiting office to give a year of birth as 1896 implying that he was already eighteen years of age.

Perhaps in common with other civilian volunteers Albert received six months’ training before being sent to the Front. By August 1916 the allies were engaged in the Somme offensive. As a Gunner, Albert would have formed part of a team of six. It was noisy work. Both Revd. Reeve (of Stondon Massey) and Revd. Andrew Clark (of Great Leighs) record in their diaries at their respective homes the noise of gunfire heard on that first day.

“1st July 1916

“As I write, the reverberation of the great guns and explosion of mines are shaking the windows of the Rectory and of all the other houses, I suppose, in the southern and south-eastern counties of England. There is evidently a very heavy bombardment in progress. The munition-making of many months is beginning, we may hope, to have its effect upon the position.”

Harry Patch is Britain’s last surviving Tommy. At the age of 108 he wrote an autobiographical account of his survival in the Trenches at Passendaele (1917). He speaks of shell shock: “a nervous soldier was as much danger to the rest as he was to himself” [Patch, p73]. In May 1917 Albert was discharged with shell shock, returning later in the War only to be taken prisoner.

Very few who served spoke about their war experiences. Information relating to Albert has only recently come to light through research.

William Dawes (my great uncle) was killed in Gallipoli. The fact that he is remembered some fourteen years later on his brother’s grave in his native North Weald is indicative of the memory held of him by his family. During the course of research I have found other examples: William Scudder of Blackmore is another. Jacob Wiltshire, also of Blackmore, has a headstone bearing reference to his brother who died some years before, lying next to him in an unmarked grave.

War Memorials are also the symbols and epitaphs to men who are buried in a foreign field, that place the poet says is ‘Forever England’.

In ‘Last Post’, subtitled ‘the final word from our First World War soldiers’, the auto-biographers recall a common theme of fellow men being blown up or fatally wounded by shell-fire, hit by snipers bullets etc. It makes graphic reading, detached from those events, yet alone to experience first-hand the hell of trench warfare and the unsaid words that it could have been them. Life and death seemed a random event. With millions of men going through the same experience it is small wonder that no one spoke about these events. Perhaps these were events best to erase from memory if possible and not to talk about over Sunday tea with the family.

In my work over recent months I tried to detach the battlefield events of the Western Front from the local happenings at home in Essex, but it is impossible. “Only those who were there can tell what really happened. Tell of the suffering and misery” (Cecil Withers)[Arthur, p88].

A few years ago I used to be indifferent to the remembrance of those who served two generations before me. Whether that is because no one spoke of the events and the importance of remembrance, I do not know. Indifference probably changes with age, an interest in family history perhaps and a reappraisal on television of the events of World War One. ‘Not Forgotten’ was a landmark Channel 4 television series presented about the First World War by Ian Hislop, and was Sunday teatime viewing. Quite rightly, it is difficult now to avoid the commemoration on television. If we fail to remember we also fail to learn. I believe that history does repeat itself: only many think it does not.

The other recurrent theme in the book ‘Last Post’ is the futility of war: “getting nowhere”, reference to the progress of trench warfare (Albert ‘Smiler’ Marshall)[Arthur, p35]; “we fought because we were told to” (Harry Patch)[Arthur, p136]; “it was such a complete waste of lives” (George Charles)[Arthur, p191]; “for all the suffering and death I saw in the trenches, I never lost my faith. I still pray and I believe” (Cecil Withers)[Arthur, p87]. Some held a belief in God whilst others did not.

When we pause and think we realise that there was not a single person during that time who had not lost a family member, neighbour or friend. When you learn that one in five men who served from Blackmore died (or “made the supreme sacrifice”) you realise the huge loss of life which both allies and foe suffered.

In our modern age the closest we can perhaps come to understand the nation’s sense of loss was the feelings surrounding that week in 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales, was tragically killed in a car crash. Prior to the funeral the nation seemed in shock and collective mourning. Human vulnerability, deep sadness, sometimes anger, but an overriding need to remember a life with gratitude. We might live in a different time but human suffering is timeless.

The experience of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who lied about his age to become a stretcher bearer (he was too old, RVW said he was 39 when in fact he was 41), is depicted musically in his ‘Pastoral Symphony’. Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto is a more stiff-upper-lipped regret about a lost age. The Pastoral Symphony though is RVW’s ‘War Requiem’.

All this oral and musical history provides a vital link with the past. It’s a past that we hope never to return to, but it must serve as a reminder.

‘In the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them’.


Arthur, Max. Last Post. The Final Word from our First World War Soldiers (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2005)
Patch, Harry, with Emden, Richard. The Last Fighting Tommy (Bloombury, 2008)
Reeve, Rev. EHL. Chronicler of the Great War (published by Andrew Smith, 2008)

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