Of all the modern wars that have claimed millions of lives, the First World War was the most tragic as its origins were in futility, its outcomes were universally negative and its veterans experienced a perfect storm of modern weaponry combined with comparatively primitive medical care. Thus, those who died often experienced painful deaths while those who lived often lived with deep physical and psychological wounds for the rest of their lives – the likes of which those who are not veterans could scarcely imagine.
The new political maps of Europe, western Eurasia and the Arab that were carelessly drawn during and after the First World War were not only the proximate cause of the Second World War but remain the underlying cause of multiple contemporary conflicts including those in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Israel-Palestine conflict and even the war in Yemen. As the root causes of all of these conflicts were the artificial divides of the Arab world among the imperialists of Britain and France, the victory of the Anglo-French Entente is hardly a cause for celebration – certainly no more than the rise of Hitler or the present bloodbaths on Russia’s historic western frontier which equally were and remain a direct result of how the First World War was ended.
And yet speaking personally, when First World War veterans from any side of the War were still alive, the end of the First World War was a cause for reflection and an incredibly sombre and important occasion. The 11th of November was once a day to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of futility, having done so without being offered a say in the matter. The fault of the First World War lies not among the soldiers but among poor leadership on all sides that sent a generation to an early grave while haunting those who survived.
After the war, Turkish Republican founding father Atatürk captured the spirit of circumspection that ought to have been universal after the war. Speaking about the British Empire’s failed Gallipoli campaign, the Turkish Republican leader said,
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well”.
Today, the veterans of the First World War are all dead. Not a single one lived to witness the centenary of the war that was supposed to end all wars. Because of this, a solemn tribute to the memory of veterans who died as early as 1914 and as late as 2012 should have permeated the spirit of November 2018. Instead, the progeny of both the winners and losers from 2018 are gathering in Paris to slap one another on the back in what has thus far been a kind of pseudo-G20 style summit maliciously masquerading as a memorial event.
Furthermore, because the last surviving veterans are no longer with us, the indefatigable anti-war spirit of many of these brave men has regrettably been lost to history. Instead, individuals with no sense of history beyond their own lives like Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May are glorifying militarism at a time when peace ought to have been the only rational conclusion to be discovered by anyone who knows anything about any aspect of the First World War.
During the protests against the war in Vietnam held over a number of years in the United States, a common refrain was “we are not against the soldiers – we are against the war”. Long after the guns of the First World War fell silent, this statement remains as apposite regarding the events which transpired between 1914 and 1918 as they do in respect of more recent wars.
Instead, the war is considered a victory for some and an historical footnote of some interest to others while the meaning of the war and the lessons derived from this meaning seem to have been buried along with the bodies of the veterans. In his play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare penned the following as part of Marc Antony’s eulogy to Julius Caesar:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones”.
And so it is with the veterans whose great spirit lives after them while in life, the ruling classes of the victorious nations of the First World War act as assassins far less noble than Brutus ever did when he plunged a dagger into a man he once thought of as a comrade.
In his script for Lawrence of Arabia, the greatest film ever made about any aspect of the First World War Robert Bolt wrote the following:
“Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men – courage and hope for the future. Then the old men make the peace and the vices of peace are the vices of old men – mistrust and caution”.
How tragic that these words are as true in 2018 as they were about the events of 1918!
May the veterans rest in eternal peace.