No soldier can hear The Last Post without emotion; no civilian should. Every evening, the local fire brigade plays it at the Menin Gate, in memory of the First World War dead, and especially of the tens of thousands of allied soldiers who have no known grave. Soon, those serene and sweetly melancholy bugle-notes will sound for the final time for Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier who fought in the trenches.
The men may fade into history, but theirs is an unquiet grave. The controversies will not fade away. Like a strong poison in the bloodstream, the First World War is an event which cannot be assimilated. In view of the evil, the destruction and the poisoned legacy, it could be seen as a second fall of man.
If we were able to choose our date of birth, there is a good case for 1820. One would need to have been a child of the comfortable classes and to have possessed a constitution robust enough to require no serious encounters with Victorian medicine. But subject to those conditions, the advantages are obvious. The Nineteenth Century was a period of remarkable improvement in almost every area. By 1900, the world had been transformed. Though problems remained, it seemed that the West could look forward to steadily increasing prosperity, stability and freedom, while the rest of the world would benefit, albeit at a slower pace, from the West's influences and the West's trade.
If he were fortunate, our infant of 1820 would have enjoyed good health until the early summer of 1914 and then a rapid decline, sparing him from the knowledge that a few hundred miles from his peaceful deathbed, a deathbed was being prepared for millions of sufferers, plus the hopes of a hundred years. 1914-45 was the worst epoch in history since the Dark Ages, and there is a hideous paradox . We only recovered, avoiding a third world war which would have finished off most of European civilisation, because of the threat of nuclear war, leading to a dark age from which there could be no recovery. That threat is still with us – and to think that in the Nineteenth Century, men believed in moral progress.
They achieved material progress, and then all the arts of peace became weapons of war. Instead of liberating the world from scarcity, technological progress reached its climax in total war.
Yet it was all so unnecessary. There was no need for the issues which divided the great powers to lead to conflict. If only one-hundredth of the unavailing diplomatic efforts of the 1930s had been deployed before 1914, the tragedy could have been averted. Instead, in five capitals, the monarchs and politicians took their place in the Totentanz. If only they had known what they and their successors were shortly to discover.
Given that war was declared, a basic question remains. Should Britain have ignored its treaty obligations and stayed out? We could probably have exacted a payment for our neutrality. The Germans might have agreed to limit their construction or acquisition of Dreadnoughts. They might even have handed over Tanganyika and German South-West Africa, expecting compensation at France's expense. If we had decided to abandon our allies, we might as well have snaffled Angola and Mozambique from Portugal, plus, perhaps, the Belgian Congo, which would have been of little use to a Belgium left to the Hun's mercies.
So: no war, no sacrifice of a generation, an even greater African Empire with Britain in control from the Cape to Cairo: those seem strong arguments for peace. But consider the state of Europe after a German victory. France, shattered, bankrupt and demilitarised, unable to decide whom she hated more: the Germans who had ravaged her or the British who had betrayed her. Russia would have been convulsed by revolution and territorial loss. A victorious Germany might have intervened against the Bolsheviks, perhaps with success. Whatever the outcome, Russia would not have looked towards Britain. We would have had no prospect of finding any allies in mainland Europe, while the US, which would not have joined the War, would still have been a wide ocean away from European affairs.
The absence of allies could have been a problem. Germany would have dominated Central Europe, further strengthened by control of the Ukrainian puppet state which she had seized from the Bolsheviks. Britain had always believed in a balance of power in Europe and had fought wars to preserve it. Now, there would have been no hope of any balance. Britain would have been left alone, a menaced island confronted by a hostile Continent. Asquith and his Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, were not warmongers. They should both have done much more to try to prevent the catastrophe. But once war became inevitable, one can understand why neither of them believed it possible to stand aside.
Within a couple of years, they were both out of office. As the casualties mounted, the devious and the ruthless prospered, notably Lloyd George and Kitchener. David Gilmour's Curzon contains the best character-study of Kitchener: a consummate four-letter man. But in 1914, he was as indispensable as he was dislikeable. Kitchener never entertained any fantasies about Berlin by Christmas. He predicted a five-year war and planned accordingly. Only one army served all the way through the War without breaking: the British one which Kitchener created.
At what a price. All those volunteers: young men from the same streets and neighbourhoods, joining up together to form Pals' battalions, marching off singing as the crowds cheered and the bands played. In all too many cases, the Pals were marching to their final parade, under little white headstones in Flanders. What a heart-rending price.
The most powerful history of the First World War is in Wilfred Owen's poems. His verse has become the definitive work, shaping perceptions since the 1920s. But this has one unfortunate consequence. It omits the heroism. If that war had to be fought and won, we should not think of the men who earned the victory as human cattle herded towards a human sacrifice. Cheerfully and gallantly, they responded to their country's call. We should not only mourn them as victims. We should salute them as soldiers.
There will shortly be an opportunity to do that. The Prime Minister has announced that there is to be a final service of commemoration for those who fought in the First World War. It is to be hoped that the service will include that powerful hymn, 'O Valiant Hearts'. We can be certain that if the military are in charge, it will be a magnificent and moving spectacle.
But it would be easier to take pride in such an event if we could also feel proud of the treatment of today's volunteers, who have earned the right to be numbered with the men of the trenches, in the long British muster-roll of glory and heroism. As Minister of War, Kitchener drove himself – and everyone else – to ensure that his men were properly equipped. If only we had a similar Defence Secretary today. No doubt our fighting men will be inspired by the bands in Westminster Abbey. They also deserve to hear the sound of helicopter rotor blades in the skies of Afghanistan.