1960s >> 1963 >> no-711-november-1963

Memories of a Lovely War

In A few month’s time we are going to be submerged in an orgiastic flood of journalism to mark the fiftieth anniversary of one of the formative experiences of modern history. Already, hardly a week goes by without some promise of the coming deluge of words. This, in itself, is an indication of the enormous effect which the First World War has had upon the world.

Without wishing to anticipate any of the articles which are going to pour out of Fleet Street we can see, looking back, that 1914 marked a stage in the growing up of modern war. It was a terrifyingly new, different war, which gathered the strands of the wars of the previous fifty years and plaited them into a rope which noosed in millions of people. It flattened and mangled beyond recognition an immense area of the Franco/German frontier. It terrorised civilian populations who, behind the firing lines, had previously thought themselves safe from danger. It subjected its combatants, in the liquid trenches of the Western Front, to agonies of fear and endurance such as they had never conceived of in their worst nightmares.

We can see evidence of the massive death roll of that war, in the poignantly long list of names on the memorials of the tiniest English villages. We can stand before these memorials and picture what life was like there before 1914. And we can imagine what life was like, after the war had purged the world of its dream that its forty-year-old tranquility was to go on forever. The First World War was, as we have said, one of the formative experiences of modern history. When its bloodshed and horror had stopped rolling backwards and forwards across Europe, those who had eyes to see knew that life could never be the same again.

And what did all this achieve? The soldiers of both sides were promised that they were suffering and sacrificing in a great enterprise to build a better, safer world. But the events which followed 1918 justified those people who, for one reason or another, had maintained that war was futile. 1914-18 solved no problems—it only lined up the world for the next great conflict, which in its turn created the problems over which another world war has so often threatened to break out. What war does, very effectively, is to debase and to brutalise human beings, to encourage the worst aspects of human behaviour, to turn the world into a charnel house in which worthwhile human values are battered down and overridden in the general glorification of violence, lies and prejudice.

These reflections have been provoked by one of the more fatuous of the ceremonies connected with the fiftieth anniversary of 1914. Last September, the Green Howards’ Old Comrades Association decided that this year their annual reunion should be something special. They were expecting to get about a hundred of their 1914-18 veterans along and for them, instead of a beer-up and a sing-song in the barracks gym, they wanted a little touch of authentic nostalgia. So they dug out a trench on a piece of waste land in Yorkshire. They lit a brazier fire there. They provided beer and sausages and they put up signs, just like those in the old trenches, which said “ Blighty 300 miles, Paris 79.” And in that trench, on a Saturday afternoon in late September, the old soldiers of the Green Howards remembered their experiences of fifty years ago.

They made a touching picture, although perhaps not in the way they intended. They all wore their best suits, one or two with watch chains. They drank their beer, of course, out of bottles—after all, this was the trenches. One of them sat on the parapet and, his leg cocked on the sandbags, played the old favourites on a mouth organ. They sang. Some of thorn even wore tin hats, to make it more like the real thing. They seemed to enjoy it, if a little self-consciously.

In its way, this was an interesting event. Those old soldiers cannot have forgotten what happened in the real trenches. They cannot have forgotten the mud, the shellfire, the fear and the sudden death. They cannot, either, have been amused by their memories. So why the clowning about? Perhaps their powers of endurance have been working overtime, perhaps that old human ability to make light of the most crushing burdens, to pass off a paralysing experience with a joke, was blanketing the events which are unpleasant to recall. Perhaps they were remembering only the feeling of comradeship, of being in a mess together and helping each other through it.

Or were they remembering their war as a job well done, and taking the credit for their part in it? Was their fun really so harmless?

They were, after all, members of an Old Comrades Association and the object of their exercise, as the military types like to put it, was to open a big campaign to recruit old solders of the Green Howards. To the working class at large this is probably unobjectionable enough—perhaps even laudable. Nobody summons up sympathy like an ex-serviceman who is in difficulties; apparently the working class swallowed all that wartime propaganda about a grateful country. That is why they look with such an indulgent, kindly eye upon the Old Comrades. But like most of the popular attitudes which do their bit to keep capitalist society in being, this one is based on a number of glaring fallacies.

Old Comrades’ Associations, it is true, do a certain amount to help their members who are in difficulties. An ex-serviceman whose body has been smashed up in a war will often turn to them in desperation for help in putting his case for a pension or some other equally paltry benefit. The fallacy behind this soft of charitable activity is that it is quite useless to support capitalism on one hand while trying to patch up its victims on the other. The Old Comrades’ Associations who weep over the hardships of old soldiers at the same time do their best to perpetuate the militaristic attitudes which are so essential to a country’s war effort. Is there not a contradiction here? To put it mildly, it is a little too late after a war to feel sorry for the pain and suffering and the wrecked lives which the war inevitably produces.

Patriotism is another of the Old Comrades’ pet themes. See them in the parades, proudly wearing their medals, loyally saluting whoever happens to be representing the British ruling class at the march past. Yet patriotism is another enormous fallacy. Apart from the fact that nobody has any right to be proud of something — like nationality — over which he has no control, it is also true that patriotism denies the essential interests of the working class. It splits the British workers from those abroad and in other countries it works in the same way. It ignores the fact that all workers everywhere have the common interest of abolishing capitalism and all its wars and other conflicts. There is indeed little hope for human society as long as it is divided into disputing nations, whose ruling classes are sustained by the fallacious patriotism of their respective working people.

The Old Comrades are recruiting people for the wrong reasons and they are bringing them together to remember the wrong things. They are part, in fact, of the machinery of war and they do their bit in fostering the illusion that there is something clean and manly in being a soldier and exposing yourself to danger in the protection of your master’s interests. (One of the Green Howards Old Comrades knows a lot about exposing himself to danger — he is the most decorated private soldier in the British Army). They are part of the Big Lie that war is glorious and useful.

But war is neither of these things. There is nothing glorious in quick, violent death nor in the reactions of the people who witness it. (Ask any old sweat of 1914-18 how the youngsters fresh into the trenches took their first bombardment.) Nor is there anything glorious in the unhappiness of those who suffer from the absence and the death of those they love. This is how Siegfried Sassoon, in his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, saw it in 1916:

 

   . . .  at Waterloo Station I was visibly reminded that going back for the Push was rather rough on one’s relations, however incapable they might be of sharing the experience. There were two leave trains and I watched the people coming away after the first one had gone out. Some sauntered away with assumed unconcern; they chatted and smiled. Others hurried past me with a crucified look; I noticed a well-dressed woman biting her gloved fingers; her eyes stared fixedly; she was returning alone to a silent house on a tine Sunday afternoon.

 

There was nothing glorious about that woman; grief is one of the most distressing and therefore one of the ugliest of human emotions. And war is grief. Yet of all the tragedies of war, perhaps the greatest is that it need never happen. Although it is true that modern war is a product of capitalist society, it does not follow that war is unavoidable. War can only be carried on—and capitalism can only continue—as long as the working class support it. The people who fight and suffer in wartime—and in peacetime, in a different way—are the very people, the only people, who can do something about it. The supreme irony, the supreme tragedy, is that at present they choose to do nothing. They prefer to dress up in their medals, to look affectionately upon the ex-serviceman and to teach their children to serve their masters as they have done.

 

The future of human society rests with the world working class. If they want to, they can make a world of peace and happiness, in which men can live in freedom. This is more than a dream; it could so easily become reality. But at present even our dreams are dull, especially if we dream them from the bottom of a mock trench in Yorkshire on a chilly afternoon in late September.

 

Ivan