Sombre TV moments filled a day when we were reminded of how war’s lessons are never learnt

There was so much dignity in the generation that endured this horror


During a busy day of TV scheduling devoted to remembering The Great War, the irony was that no one was left who truly remembered.

The bullets, the bloodshed, this futile massacre of life could only be pieced together second-hand via veterans’ children, love-letters from the front, or Chelsea Pensioners recounting the supper-time anecdotes of long dead friends.

Here was a conflict that had killed millions, destroyed the global economy and altered the world for ever, but we had little left to grip in 2014 except some grainy footage, some sad notes from young lads to their mothers, and some nice royals and dignitaries holding flowers.

READ MORE: A century after WW1, there is little danger of history repeating itself

London Live, the capital’s digital channel, began tributes at 6am with Tom Mullaney, resplendent in his scarlet frock coat and tricorn hat, speaking of friends in the pensioners’ pub who would “sometimes reminisce” about their time “waiting to die” in the trenches, fearing the whistle that would send them into German fire.

Yet one got the feeling, as another outside broadcast unit in another corner of the Commonwealth picked the brains of another proud son or daughter, that this had been a war fought by tight-lipped, dignified blokes who’d not wanted to talk much about their battle if they were lucky enough to survive.

It’s an unfathomable notion nowadays, when one of our most popular Saturday night TV shows The X Factor displays grown men weeping when they’re not allowed a second go at nailing “Living La Vida Loca”.

On Good Morning Britain, Ben Shephard was knee-deep in a Who Do You Think You Are?-style history quest, uncovering the work of his great grandfather Levi with the Royal Army Medical Corps. “It was still a dangerous role. There were many deaths. I mean, they were dodging chunks of shell like this,” the historian stressed, lugging a large jagged artifact, as big as a football, into shot. Suddenly I understood the actual horror or “shelling”.


Sombre moments like this were scattered throughout the day, Prince Harry in Folkestone, attending the playing of the Last Post, unveiling a memorial arch to symbolise all the lads who marched to the harbour, boarded boats and never returned. There was the mesmerising sea of ceramic poppies that make up the “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” installation by Paul Cummins; and or Robert Hall’s BBC News report on 17-year-old Private John Parr, the first British soldier to lose his life.

READ MORE: Ed Miliband First World War Centenary wreath branded ‘pathetic’ as Labour leader ‘fails to even write his own name’

Parr was sent off on a mission, on his bike, into rural Belgium and was found dead soon after. One-hundred years later it was still unclear why as the Germans were at least 11 miles away. All we had now were desperate notes from his mother. Oh these awful, heart-wrenching personal notes, as seen in BBC1’s Great War Diaries.

On Sky News no solemn dignitary, or bow-headed royal representative went unmonitored. This was the day we got our full money’s worth out of our royalty. In Glasgow, the Prince of Wales, dressed in the uniform of a British Admiral of the Fleet, attended the Glasgow Service of Remembrance at Glasgow Cathedral featuring 1,400 invited guests that included representatives of Commonwealth countries, senior military figures and charities.

At the Cointe Inter-allied Memorial in Liege, the Duke of Cambridge spoke of the great debt of gratitude we owe Belgium – one which had churlishly somewhat eluded me of late – and drew attention to the current woes in Ukraine. He spoke of the importance of reconciliation across Europe. William’s words were some of the most interesting spoken all day because they touched on the true value of “rememberence”.

What, I found myself thinking, is the exact point of this grand fuss acknowledging the First World War’s horror when the remaining news headlines proved that not one iota about the unspeakable pointless carnage of war had been learned. Statistics of 1914’s fatalities, financial expenditure and subsequent escalation merged with modern-day news of an Israeli “humanitarian window” ending, having merely “slowed violence” over a seven-hour period.

Then the screen filled with David Cameron saying: “A hundred years ago today, Britain entered the First World War and we are marking that centenary to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learned live with us for ever”. The specific lessons any human beings had learned were not expounded on, but one thing was for sure, a lot of lights were going to be turned out between 10pm and 11pm, aside from a single yellow flame, to prove that we were jolly well thinking about it.

As the day wore on I began pondering how many house fires would be caused as Britain ambled about in the dark lighting candles. More pressingly I thought of how at one time we were a nation of stiff-upper-lipped Trojans and yet now, I was worried about the health and safety aspect of encouraging the public to handle a naked flame. Some might say a good war would sort us all out.

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