The old men are dying, and before they go we want to catch what they have to say about the history to which they have been witness. The last handful of survivors of the First World War are with us still, and now over 100 years of age. Each night this week BBC News has a poignant report by the matchless Charles Wheeler about the Final Few. It is not an edifying story. A 109-year-old tells that "it was either you go over the top ahead of you, or get shot for cowardice behind you. You had six seconds to decide."
These men sit in their wheelchairs with dignity and gnarled hands and try to convey the horror of it all. When they go, so too will our sense of the horror at the heart of wars, and make it a whole lot more likely we will have more of them. Those who decide today's wars – Bush and Blair among them – never served on any front line, and draft-dodger Bush even had the effrontery to challenge John Kerry's service in Vietnam. And when America gave us the term "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", it might have recalled what exactly happened on French soil between 1914 and 1918, and feel humility.
I was rightly taken to task recently for referring to the Second World War as the "last" war. David Bond, of Witney, a soldier for much of his life, reminds me that British troops have since 1945 served and died in Korea, Northern Ireland, two Gulf wars and Afghanistan. And he might have added more. The military authorities are currently putting pressure on the Ministry of Defence, pleading the case that they have never been so overstretched, and asking for a big increase in their funding. They clearly don't feel that wars are going away. Even the so-called peacekeeping activities bring with them a heavy load of casualties. That means squaddies, who if they survive and live to be over 100, will have their own tales to tell and will touch millions with their sadness and regret.
Another word calls for correction, too: the word "great" as applied to war. Certainly the scale of both the First and Second World Wars was stupendous. No definitive numbers can be established for deaths and casualties in either conflict. But at a rough estimate – give or take the odd half million! – deaths and injuries totalled some 59 million in the First World War, and deaths alone numbered around 56 million in the Second World War. (Incidentally, the current Iraq war has now lasted longer than the First World War.) So "great" in the sense of size is rightly appropriate. It might also be the case that in terms of physical damage – to buildings and infrastructure – Europe has never seen the like before or since. "Great" in that sense, yes.
But "great" as applied to war also risks trailing clouds of glory, all the more so as the events become hearsay rather than flesh and blood. It is at this point that we have to tread carefully around the whole issue of remembrance. For different reasons, I have been dwelling on remembering myself recently: researching the Battle of the Atlantic, taking grandchildren to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at both the Arc de Triomphe and Westminster Abbey. On each occasion, I felt not only awed by the scale of terrible deaths, but by the mystical regard of the living for such loss, a regard that reaches its climax each year on Remembrance Sunday.
It is of the essence of true confession and remorse that the crime will not be perpetrated again. "Go thou and sin no more" was Christ's injunction to a sinner. And it was always the tiresome litany from my teachers that "what's the point of your regrets and apologies, if you merely go off and do the same thing again" (this for the mild offence of talking in class). So, presumably, when silence falls on Remembrance Sunday it is not simply a matter of being sad at such historic slaughter. There must be more going on than that.
First, there is the view this was a tremendous waste of human life – what we might call the Blackadder position. Then there are the thanks that lives were sacrificed for the country – the patriotic position. And then there is the pride that we fought and won – the triumphalist position. That the last is still very much in evidence is shown by the fact that, while prayers for those who died are suitably vague as to nationality, there is no formal sharing of the event with Germany. There was even a programme not long ago on BBC 4 that demonstrated that, in strategic terms, the Battle of the Somme was not simply a hideous massacre, but also an allied victory, and therefore, it was implied, had some justification.
As the remembrance ritual unfolds each year, we should know that mankind is not likely to give up war. We seem to be a war-making species. Across the globe, the arms trade is booming, military scientists are inventing ever more effective ways for us to kill one another, and torture is back on the agenda of supposedly civilised nations. One day of devout sadness won't change that. Plenty to think about in those two minutes.Reuse content