As we move towards the Great War’s centenary, it’s time to recognise the reality of its horror

Beneath the headstones, there are sometimes just bits of human beings

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Why do we want to commemorate the centenary of the Great War? Because it marked the destruction of the “flower of English manhood”? An odd thought, since it also marked the crushing of the “flower” of French and German manhood. The war’s ultimate tragedy, of course, is that it led – quite directly – to the even more terrible Second World War. In other words, the 1914-1918 war was to no purpose. Its unparalleled suffering led the British and French to believe that they could never fight again; but for the Germans, their very failure to win convinced them they must have another war to prove that the Great War was not fought in vain.

Max Hastings has already told us that we were right to go to war in 1914. But that’s not the point. We wanted to go to war, much as we wanted to invade Afghanistan in 2001. Indeed, next year’s appearance of even greater numbers of that grotesque poppy on the lapels of MPs and television presenters – inspired by the equally pro-war poem by John McCrae – will be rather like supporting George Bush in his invasion of Iraq. “If ye break faith with us who died,” McCrae’s fallen soldiers tell the reader, “we shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.” That was exactly Bush’s argument for continuing his war in Baghdad: if Americans withdrew from Iraq, he said, they would dishonour those who had already died.

The Great War was a strange war, in almost every way. Though it is now called the First World War, it was primarily a European and Middle-Eastern war. More than half of the Earth remained untouched, though far from unaffected. Australia and Canada and the US (a latecomer, as usual) remained safe, though their soldiers – like India’s – died in their tens of thousands in Mesopotamia (Iraq), Gallipoli and in France. Indian battalions were among the first to fight in Flanders and one of the first major naval engagements was fought off the Falklands, now of Thatcher fame. Who now remembers that long before Saddam, Allenby used gas in the Middle East, in a Sinai-Gaza battle against the Turks? Or that the Brits brought almost 100,000 Chinese workers to service the armies of the Western Front?

I fear we will concentrate on the Somme and Passchendaele next year, forgetting the millions from other lands who died. Many a camera will pan across the Great War cemeteries and on the headstones of British soldiers “known unto God”. In their neat lines with their fresh roses, it’s easy to believe that beneath these graves lay the perfect skeletons of those “glorious dead” whose identities were, somehow, mislaid. Alas, beneath these particular headstones, there are sometimes just bits of human beings, torsos without heads, legs and heads without bodies, mere scraps of bones.

It’s worth reading the two-volume history of the Canadian army in the Great War by Ottawa historian Tim Cook, who describes the horrific circumstances in which soldiers crouching under fire were often hit by pieces of their own dead, long decomposed friends. One soldier of the time told how he was wounded in the back of the head by the teeth of the comrade decapitated just behind him. After that, beware any comforting cenotaph solemnity.

Strangely, while our poets and painters became masterly artists of this war after 1916 (Owen, Sassoon, Nash), our novelists never caught up. The best novels came from French soldiers: Henri Barbusse, for example, or Georges Duhamel, who so impressed Sassoon. As that wonderful observer of war-time English-language literature Samuel Hynes was to observe, no novel by Galsworthy or Conrad or James was published in 1916. In fact, Galsworthy spent much of his time declaring war on the avant garde. Masefield and Hardy were silent. Yet in the Second World War, the poets – save for Keith Douglas and a few others – did not capture a world at war. Auden bravely wrote from neutral New York.

There were photographers, of course, in the American Civil War and in South Africa, but pictures – and especially film – turned the Great War into “our war”. The soldiers look like us and – more to the point – they relate us to the Second World War whose survivors are among our dads. The invention of the steel helmet for British troops on the Western Front turned the helmet itself into an art form. Minus their puttees, the soldiers we see at Ypres look almost identical to the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force on the beaches of Dunkirk. The familiar rimmed helmet, which saved so many tens of thousands of lives, made them men of the same generation, which they sometimes truly were.

And then there were the veterans. Among those who shaped our own destiny just before our birth, many had also fought in the Great War: Churchill and Hitler, Eden and Montgomery and Rommel and de Gaulle and Attlee, who introduced the health system which is still so much a part of Britain’s political iconography.

And I think there is another reason why the Great War seems so close to us; because when it broke out, Britain and the rest of Europe had already reached that stage of industrialisation which was to make the landscape so long-lasting in shape and recognition. The dead of the Great War – if they could come morbidly back to life – would still recognise and be able to find their way around London or Paris. They would have little difficulty in identifying Victoria station, from which so many of them left on their final journey to Folkestone and France. The very hotel in which some of them stayed on the night before their departure still stands. Our villages and our railway lines would be familiar to them. And so we still walk and travel in their same land.

Why did it start? AJP Taylor remains my favourite. A meticulous complex of peace treaties that appealed to historians as much as politicians ensured that a balance of competing alliances would lock Europe into peace. But Gavrilo Princip’s infamous shot in Sarajevo caused the Austro-Hungarians to declare war on Serbia, and thus Russia had to mobilise and then Germany had to declare war on Russia and…

Like our own carefully nurtured security pacts, all was well until an individual – say bin Laden instead of Princip – took things into their own hands. A giant, magnificently constructed electrical system that lit up all of Europe, it suddenly short-circuited.

Next year, I think, we should find a new way of understanding what happened between 1914 and 1918. That would be our memorial to grandfathers and great grandfathers and in a few cases – including mine – fathers.

I will dig a trench of my own to avoid seeing all over again those tired, familiar Imperial War Museum photographs (some fake) of the Somme, of Brits in the mud at Passchendaele, of the battleships of Jutland, of the nincompoop Kitchener telling us that our country needs us. Abandon clichés along with the poppies. Maybe the British helmet – which saved lives rather than imitated the blood of Flanders – should be the new logo of Our Great War.

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