It’s not every year that Remembrance Day falls on a Sunday, so 2018 is a special year. The heads of state of Russia, the United States, Germany and France remembered the fallen of the Great War, which ended 100 years ago today, in a celebration in Paris.
Except that the war did not end 100 years ago today. Russia, France the United States and Britain continued to fight long after 11 November 1918.
My grandfather, Jack Milne, fought in the Great War. He joined up, aged 15, at the start of the war, along with millions of other Scotsmen, Englishmen and Germans. They volunteered knowing that they might have to kill foreigners. Unlike the French, they volunteered willingly, seduced by the marketing of the war, and the actions of their women, mothers, sisters and daughters, who sold themselves for a uniform or the king’s shilling.
Although my great-grandmother complained at the Army’s kidnapping of a boy, the Army kept him until they could legally send him to the front aged 17, just in time for third Ypres: Passchendaele. In the Royal Signals attached to the 51st Highland Division, he somehow survived the German Offensive of 1918 which saw entire battalions of his Aberdonian friends wiped out. He did suffer horses shot out from under him, saw his comrades blown up, and experienced life in the trenches for a year and a half, as well as the joy of victory at Cambrai and the Allied Offensive later that year.
When he was finally granted a medal for his participation, it stated simply “The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919”.
1919, not 1918. How quickly we forget. There was no mistake on the medal, nor in the war. .
The Great War did not end with the Armistice between England and Germany, between France and Germany in 1918. Whatever minor disagreement had led to the carnage on the Western Front, the twenty million dead, the German, British and Russian heads of state were cousins; along with the republican French and American, their economic and social systems were closely aligned. While the war threatened only the death of millions of civilians and cannon-fodder, the leaders were happy for it to continue, but not all civilians and cannon-fodder were happy with the war.
Throughout the Great War for Civilisation, organisations in Britain, Germany, Russia and elsewhere refused to accept the general conviction that the war was a good thing, that fighting each other was the best way to resolve political problems, or that “the other guys” were the baddies. They attacked the media, the press barons, the politicians, and the industrialists, especially the merchants of death, the financiers, the steel barons, the nickel barons, the shipbuilders and the ammunition manufacturers, the gun salesmen and the generals.
Only in Russia did these complainers manage to achieve anything solid, with the democratisation of the Russian state and, eventually, the overthrow of the ruling class. When a similar revolution after the Armistice caused the downfall of the German monarchy, it seemed as if the European civilisation itself was threatened. In fact, only the aristocratic ruling class and its minions were threatened. In Germany, the short-lived revolution brought about a middle-class government, heavily in debt to the Allied powers. In Russia, the middle-class democracy disappeared under a wave of proletarian dictatorship.
The aristocracy and businessmen in western Europe and America saw communist Russia as more of a threat to their existence than the commercial challenge of imperial Germany. They invaded Siberia, north-west Russia from the White Sea and the Baltic, and the Crimea. For another year, the British remained in Russia. Over five hundred British troops were killed, along with a couple of thousand Russians, by this pointless intervention. Britain and America finally pulled out in 1919.
If our leaders can ignore history so blatantly, those who volunteered in 1914 and those who remember them but cannot be bothered to read their medals, should not. The only reasons that twenty million men, women and children died in the Great War was that millions of young men volunteered to fight; millions of young women encouraged them to do so; millions of tax-payers funded their fighting; millions of workers built them guns and bullets; and thousands of politicians and military officers led them to the front. The war achieved nothing, apart from these deaths, except the vast impoverishment of Europe, and of its bankers in the United States.
Instead of remembering the dead of the Great War, perhaps we could remember instead the thousands who are dying today, who we could save by simply refusing to fight, by refusing to fund the violence, by refusing to vote for our politicians, by refusing to support the armed action by countries that are our allies. In the last twenty years, British soldiers, funded by British tax-payers, have helped to kill a million men, women and children in Islamic countries, all in actions that are illegal under the Atlantic Charter, the founding document of the United Nations. These actions are also economically wasteful, ethnically divisive and politically charged, as they are primarily responsible for the current migration of Muslims into Europe.
A hundred years is long enough for most of the actors of the Great War to have died. We can build our own memories, false though they may be, in a sort of Hollywood fantasy. But it’s a shame we don’t remember the truth of those times, as we ignore the shame of today.