The echoing voices of a land where folly and courage lie side by side

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The Independent Online
BY THE Menin Gate in the crisp, cold sunshine, a Welsh male voice choir sang, in chorus after sweeping chorus: "Remember me. Remember me. Remember me. Remember me."

It seemed that the words floated down from the memorial itself, from the 55,000 names inscribed in careful, military ranks; the names of British soldiers killed in the monstrous battles which ended here 80 years ago yesterday, but whose bodies were never found.

How do you remember a war like the Great War? Will we continue to remember when the century turns and the last veterans join their comrades? How should we remember?

The ceremonials at Ypres yesterday, attended by the Queen, and by an extraordinary number of British people from schoolchildren to centenarian survivors ("Age shall not weary them"), were deeply moving. How could they not be moving?

To my taste, there was too much militarism about the occasion: too many dress uniforms; too many berets with feathers; too many jolly, marching tunes. I am not sure how else you can commemorate a war. But I am not sure that marching tunes tell us anything useful about a conflict in which 12 million people died, including more than one million soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth.

That is just one person's view. To the taste of others, including the Ypres citizens who faithfully play the "Last Post" by the Menin Gate every evening at 8pm, the new Flanders Fields museum here (briefly viewed by the Queen last night), gives an equally misleading view of the 1914-18 war. The Last Post Committee says the exhibition is imbued too much with the spirit of hindsight and pacifism; it places too much emphasis on the futility of war and insufficient stress on the courage and sacrifice of those who died.

Oddly, I found that I agreed with that too.

Is the Menin Gate, the focal point of yesterday's ceremonies, a monument to human courage or a monument to human stupidity? Eighty years on, it should be possible to see it as both. The memory of the Great War is too important to be left to either the militarists or the pacifists. It should be faced as the immense tragedy that it was: avoidable but somehow inevitable.

The First World War created, for good or ill, the modern world. Before the Great War, only 8 per cent of British national income went on taxes - never again so low. Non-stick surfaces, soft paper tissue and windscreen wipers were invented (as well as tanks, chemical weapons and warplanes). Women worked outside the home in large numbers for the first time.

The war broke up the Ottoman empire, the German empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire but also the United Kingdom. Britons went to war to fight for the survival of "little Belgium"; they little thought the conflict would provide the birth of Ireland as a separate state. The moving service of reconciliation at the Irish "peace tower" at Messines near Ypres yesterday, attended by both the Queen and the Irish President, Mary McAleese, brought history full circle.

Earlier, the Queen placed a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier in Paris and unveiled a statue of Winston Churchill, just off the Champs Elysees, making connections throughout the history of the century.

Accompanied by the King and Queen of Belgium, the Queen placed a wreath on the Menin Gate memorial. She met a dozen veterans, one of whom, Arthur Halestrap, 100, read the dedication. "They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old ...". In the Ypres cloth hall, she met other veterans including Albert Alexandre, 97, in Chelsea Pensioner's uniform. Mr Alexandre, who lied about his age to join up at 15 and fought at Cambrai in 1917, stood ram-rod straight and gave the Queen a smart salute. Complimented on his salute afterwards, he said: "Oh, I'm fairly fit you know. It wasn't a problem."

Before the ceremonies, I visited the Tyne Cot cemetery on the edge of the village of Passendale - better known to us as Passchendaele. This is the largest British war cemetery in the world. The 17,500 men who lie here were mostly killed in the fourth battle of Ypres in August to November 1917, one of the most murderous and futile of battles: 324,000 British casualties to gain a few miles of strategically useless ground which was later lost. The four battles fought around Ypres made it the most disputed and blood-soaked territory in the war (marginally ousting the Somme and Verdun).

Strolling through the lines of graves yesterday morning, I stopped mostly before those inscribed with a wrenching, personal message. "Loved forever. Mother, brother and sisters." In truth, most graves carry proud, loyal, rather wooden messages, chosen by relatives who refused to surrender to individual grief. "He did his duty", or "God helped him to bring us to victory", or simply "Pro patria".

The Great War was not an unpopular war. Most British people - most French people, most German people - were convinced they were fighting for a great cause. The war poets and others have distorted the history of the war, in their own way, as much as the official history which insisted that the battle of the Somme in 1916 was a success because it "dealt the German army a blow from which it never recovered".

It is easy to understand, at 50 years' remove, why the Second World War had to be fought. It is harder to make a simple case for the First. Would a Europe - a world - dominated by Kaiserist Germany have been such a terrible place? Maybe. But what of the Nazi and Stalinist tyrannies which flowed from the war?

By the early years of this century, the forging of mass, nationalist identities through the mass media, education and popular literacy coincided with the creation of weapons of mass destruction. Both coincided with the capacity to equip and deploy armies for prolonged war. If the collision had not come in 1914, it would surely have come later. Avoidable, but inevitable.

To recognise the insanity of the war is not to deny the courage or the sincerity of the men who fought and died. Eight decades on, we can believe both: accepting, and remembering, the war as a tragedy in the fullest and truest sense.

The last, best words should go to the South Wales Male Voice Choir, speaking for the names on the Menin Gate: "Remember me. Remember me."

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