Today we mourn the many dead in two world wars, and other conflicts. We admire their bravery. We thank them for their sacrifice. We remember they died to keep us free.
Today we mourn without members who fought in the 1st World War to tell us of its horrors. We have memorable poetry from the trenches, many moving memoirs and accounts, and blood stained histories of a war that turned into a mass slaughter. It was the war of the machine age, the war when defensive weaponry was usually too powerful for attacking forces. It was a war of years of stalemate in grim trenches.
From my boyhood onwards I have read and watched accounts of those murderous WW1 battles. Each time I have come to share the common conclusion that it was lions led by donkeys. I have tried hard to understand how it could have been allowed to happen. I realise that some intelligence was applied, as senior officers and strategists wrestled with how to overcome the mighty power of the machine gun, artillery and shells, mines and barbed wire. I see they tried heavy bombardments to make a dash across No man’s land safer. The tried undermining and blowing up opposing lines. They developed tanks, which helped. They resorted to gas and flame weapons to try to break the deadlock of the western front. I still cannot accept the way the politicians and generals accepted death on such a huge scale. They often asked their juniors to run into the guns as if their lives did not matter, or as if the result would be different from when the last waves of young men had tried it. It was not how Wellington would have handled it, always keen to keep his force together and to minimise causualties.
I developed more of a dislike of the politicians who thought this was a necessary and worthwhile war. The first war lacked the cause that a hated ideology and the fanatical treatment of non Germans by Hitler gave to the second. It lacked the sense that the UK had to stand alone and fight to preserve her independence from tyranny that the nation shared in 1940. In 1914 the Uk went to war over the Balkans and ended up fighting shoulder to shoulder with France in what was yet another Franco-German dispute. The Uk could have stayed out of it, safe in the knowledge that her mighty navy shielded the homeland from threat and her Empire offered her trade and commercial interests.
If there was a strand of common policy that provided some justification in the twentieth century it was the wish to avoid any single power dominating the continent. How ironic that today the UK’s foreign policy seems based on encouraging France and Germany to unite, when the twentieth century saw us fight two huge wars to prevent just such an outcome. We can be proud of and grateful to our armed forces. We should pause to ask if the politicians spent too many lives and too much treasure in European interventions.