My father volunteered for the First World War: he was 15 years old and rejected as too young. When it came to the Second World War, he tried to enlist again. This time he was relatively old to fight and involved in important war work back home. He missed both wars. His family were glad, of course, but he always had a lingering regret at not being there with his contemporaries, going through what they went through, however terrible. He felt he had somehow missed out on some crucial proof of masculinity, putting himself to the ultimate test.
What makes people feel like that? Patriotism, peer pressure, the euphoria of crowd emotions, an expectation that it will be a short, sharp and victorious campaign. What country, going to war, has not promised it will be all over by Christmas? And when has it ever been?
Three hundred and six British volunteers who went to war with all the blind energy of youth and found they could not measure up to its appalling reality, are to receive an official pardon from the Ministry of Defence. These are the soldiers found guilty of cowardice and shot at dawn after often the most hasty court martial behind the trenches of northern France.
Another young man who volunteered for the second of these terrible wars has recently owned up to being recruited, at the age of 17, into the Waffen-SS, the military wing of Hitler's deadly elite corps.
The confession of Günter Grass, not only Germany's most celebrated novelist but seen for decades as its moral conscience, has caused cries of unforgiving outrage, and calls by Jewish organisations for him to be stripped of his Nobel prize for literature, and from Lech Walesa for him to lose his honorary citizenship of the city where they were both born, Danzig/ Gdansk. Forgiveness will not easily be forthcoming for the man who has proved to be the greater coward.
The two stories are so dissimilar and yet both spring from the extraordinary pressures put on young men when they respond to the call to arms. They can have no idea what they are in for, no concept of what being called on to kill does to the human mind and identity. In the First World War the numbers involved still leave us gasping at the scale of the slaughter. Just to evince the horror once more, 630,000 British and French troops died or were maimed at the Battle of the Somme.
Memoirs, poems, novels, and histories have immortalised these terrible events as among the worst the human race can have inflicted on itself. Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen leave us in no doubt as to the sheer relentless pointlessness of it all. Yet, Sassoon, having risked court martial be issuing his polemic against the war - A Soldier's Declaration - nonetheless went back to the front drawn by his sense of overwhelming loyalty to the men who served under him. War does strange things to men.
It also breaks them. There is no doubt that a great many of the young men currently receiving their official pardons were suffering from shell shock. Television has shown us ancient footage of such suffering, the hospitalised individuals unable to control violent shaking that convulses the entire body. Today such conditions are recognised early and post-traumatic stress disorder has its place in medical diagnosis.
Private Harry Farr, whose family campaign has persisted in keeping the issue alive, was suffered terribly. Between 1915 and 1916 he reported sick "with nerves" four times. In May 1915, after the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, he stayed in hospital five months, he shook so violently the nurse had to write his letters home.
He was back in the line by October, but the following April he was sick again and spent two weeks at a dressing station. Three months later and again the same symptoms.
By September he reached the end of endurance, again trembling uncontrollably. He found no sympathy from his sergeant major, whose response was "I give fuck all for my life, and I give fuck all for yours; and I'll get you fucking well shot." His court martial was on 17 October 1916. He was shot the next day. He refused a blindfold. It was over at last.
But wars draw men to them. It drew the young 15-year-old German boy, Günter Grass, who volunteered for the submarine service and was turned down as too young. Two years later and he was conscripted, reported for duty and assigned to the 10th SS Panzer Division. Surrounded by Nazi propaganda he saw this as an elite corps in which he was proud to serve. Wounded and taken prisoner by the American forces, it was, he claims, only in the prisoner of war camp that he first began to discover the truth about the Nazi regime.
Since then, throughout his writing career he has urged his German readers to confront the truth of their past and face up to its consequences. Yet something within his heart kept his own story secret.
Not surprisingly many who have admired his integrity and probity for so long, now feel betrayed that he accepted their admiration without demur. Had he had the courage to tell his own truth in earlier years he would not now be the subject of such vilification. Wars carry their strange consequences down the years.Reuse content