Letters: Time to challenge Great War myths

These letters appear in the print edition of The Independent, 12 June, 2013


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s article (10 June) ends: “The historical truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth matters.” She precedes this with three canards about the conduct of the First World War which cry out to be answered now, in the hope that they will not be repeated as the juggernaut of the Great War centenary looms into view.

First: “After 1916, soldiers were conscripted from the poorest of families.” There is no evidence for this, but there is evidence that the vast majority of the volunteers (pre-1916) came from the working classes. Enlistment meant regular wages and an escape from drudgery and a weak economy. In fact conscription was introduced in 1916 partly because the Government previously had no method of controlling the flow of working-class volunteers from vital industries.

Second: “The officer classes saw them as fodder.” Over the decades since the Great War, this view that the troops were treated with contempt has swollen to include not only the General Staff, secure behind the lines, but the officers in the trenches. Neither the generals nor the subalterns deserve this. There are numerous instances of senior officers’ concern to ensure that their battalions were not uselessly sacrificed, and of junior officers (who could expect to be casualties within six weeks) caring tirelessly for their men.

Third: “Traumatised soldiers ... were shot.” In all, 3,080 British soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion, cowardice, and mutiny, but only 346 were shot (266 for desertion). The reality was that more and more traumatised men would be diagnosed as suffering from shellshock (neurasthenia) as the war continued. Special Neurasthenic Centres were set up and, as late as 1938, disability war pensions were being paid out to 25,000 men suffering from nervous disorders.

Ms Alibhai-Brown is right – nothing but the truth matters. We owe that to the 1.8 million casualties of the Great War.

Liz Wade, Oxford

Should we not remember the First World War as the ultimate dreadful warning against over-reaction to an act of terrorism?

Richard Humble, Exeter

Speak out about depression

Thank you to Stephen Fry for highlighting, yet again, mental health issues (6 June). We so need to educate the whole population so that those around us can help. I now feel well enough to share this publicly.

I had prepared what I needed to commit suicide, and faltered. I told my husband, who gave me a brief hug and said he would talk to me later about it. He never did (he walked out for another woman six months later) and it was another instance of him not coping with what I now know was a long depression which started after the birth of my third child. It needs to become common knowledge that this is an illness, not a state of mind, and being told to get over it, or to stop crying, is not a remedy; nor a help. Those symptoms are signs that the sufferer needs some medical attention. There is also no shame in being ill.

I am now fully recovered – I went into therapy once my husband left, and was on anti-depressants for some years. I keep in touch with my mood swings carefully, and return to counselling irregularly, but as often as I need it to keep on an even keel. Speaking about it can only be of benefit to our communities.

Sue Stewart, Horley, Surrey

Thank you to Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell (8 June) for giving us an insight into their lives with depression. I read the articles with a pounding heart, as I discovered many familiar situations. 

My husband suffered from a very severe episode that started last October. He did get professional help and just as we thought that he was over the worst he took his own life four weeks ago. Depression killed him and even our two children aged 19 and 13 couldn’t prevent that.

Depression affects many people; we need to talk about it more frequently in an open and informed way. Alastair Campbell’s last sentence was the exact words my husband had said to me only recently.

Dorothea Seibold, York

Targets of  the snoopers

William Hague claims people can “have confidence in the work of UK security agencies and their adherence to the law and democratic values” and that “law abiding citizens have nothing to fear” from invasions of our privacy by US and British Security Services on the grounds that it “had saved many lives”. In the words of Mandy Rice-Davies, “He would say that wouldn’t he?” There are two reasons why ordinary citizens need to fear these abuses by Britain’s security services.

First, there is no guarantee these powers will not be used against anyone opposing government policies, or anything security chiefs think is against the interests of the country – even if they are not involved in any terrorism or violence. This could apply to protesters against new roads, HS2, wind farms, or nuclear power-stations; trade unionists, or even political parties – but probably not employers’ organisations such as the Consulting Association.

Second and more important is that abuses by the security services undermine the legitimacy of Britain’s criticism of other governments’ abuses of human rights, from African and Middle Eastern dictators to Russia and China. This abandoning of the “moral high ground” drives a small number of people, even some in this country, into the arms of terrorist extremists, and this increases the threat to our security.

Julius Marstrand, Cheltenham

It’s all very well being assured by William Hague and David Cameron that any surveillance is perfectly legal, and law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear. We don’t have to go very far back in history to remind ourselves that information is power, and can be misused.

The question is not whether we citizens are law-abiding, but whether the Government and its intentions are  – and can be trusted to remain – benevolent.

Christine Lehman, High Ellington, North Yorkshire

Just imagine that it had been a European security agency spying on the communications of British citizens. The howls from Ukip would have been deafening and Nigel Farage would have been on every possible news programme. So can we presume from his silence that UK independence stops at Europe? We can be subservient to and ruled by the US without any qualms. 

This is obviously far less important to Ukip than the shape and size of our bananas.

Peter Berman, Wiveliscombe, Somerset

Worried drivers in the middle lane

Perry Rowe and Ray Chandler (Letters, 10 June) use the same argument to defend their proprietorial use of the middle lane. Mr Rowe cites the “risk”  of “moving from lane to lane” and Mr Chandler’s states: “Staying on the middle lane is good because  it avoids constantly moving in and out of the slower-moving inside lane” which “road safety experts tell us ... is hazardous”. 

By such curious logic Messrs Rowe and Chandler should drive in the outside (overtaking) lane for their entire journey, where they wouldn’t have to manoeuvre to overtake anything at all. If they find overtaking so worrying they can avoid it by driving in the inside lane at a lower speed and by taking  lessons in motorway driving. There’s no shame in either course and everyone would be happier.

Jan Cook, South Nutfield, Surrey

I wonder if the traffic police are going to be able to cope with the proposed reforms. Yesterday evening around 4.45pm I drove from junction 26 to junction 25 on the M5. It seemed to me that a huge number of drivers were offending. People driving at outrageous and illegal speeds on the outside lane, people hogging the middle lane, people tailgating and lorries passing each other taking up two lanes. I was quite relieved to arrive in Taunton.

Have we enough police to correct these misdemeanours?

Nick Thompson, Cullompton, Devon

Will those readers who advocate driving in the middle lane please include their number plate rather than their address?

Hugh Burchard, Bristol

Can I hog the outside lane?

John Naylor, Sunningdale, Slough

Mothers who work

The very question, do children whose mothers work suffer academically (report, 11 June), is based on a profound misunderstanding. Mothers have worked ever since we came out of trees – very, very hard.

The salient feature of human parenting is that it is a team activity; in the village, human babies attach to multiple adults. The idea that mothers alone are responsible is a product of the industrial revolution, which created a highly anomalous situation of small family units and labour separated from the domestic domain. That is now history.

Children do suffer if they don’t get enough care from any adult, but if the care is shared around, the child is fine – and how much mothers provide is simply not the key question.

Also, to get right through your article without a single reference to all the fathers (like me) who have changed their whole lives to care for their children and support their partners’ careers is an insult.

Duncan Fisher, Crickhowell, Powys

In an article on 11 June about the departure of creative director Emma Hill from Mulberry you helpfully described her as “42-year-old mother of one”. Yet on the preceding page, when writing about the pay rise of Thames Water’s Chief Executive Martin Baggs, you completely failed to tell us either how old he is or how many children he has.   

Prue Bray, Wokingham

Trust in politics

The lobbying scandal reminds me of a conversation I had at the time of the expenses scandal. As a lay preacher, I was visiting a church in a community which had just voted in a BNP county councillor. I discovered that my godly and devout friends had voted for this person. Very surprised, I asked why they had voted this way. They told me – quite sincerely, I think – that it was out of disgust for the goings on at Westminster. I don’t suppose these further revelations of bad behaviour by the elite will change my friends’ voting behaviour.

Andrew McLuskey, Staines, Middlesex

Pippa pipped

Is Pippa Middleton a front? What really went on concerning Deborah Ross, The Independent and Howard Jacobson’s wry Jewishness? Please let us know and end the speculation. Could be the scoop of the week.

Joy Helman, London W8

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