28th June 1914 a young Bosnian-Serb, Gavrilo Princip,
shot dead archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That
fatal shot, fired in the cause of Serbian nationalism,
set in train a series of events that led to four and
a half years of bloody conflict in Europe, and beyond.
Within months the major European powers were mobilising
their armies in preparation for war.
5.00am on 11th November 1918 an Armistice was signed
in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne.
Six hours later, at 11.00am, the guns fell silent
across Western Europe thus bringing to a close one
of the worst bloody conflicts that the peoples of
Europe had thus far endured.
George said that the Great War was the cruellest
and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind.
His statement must, of course, be read within the
context of the nature and extent of the Great War.
Unlike previous European wars the 1914-1918 conflict
involved not just standing armies comprised of professional
soldiers; it involved the mobilisation of whole nations.
It was, to quote Vernon Bogdamor, the first
vary, but it is said that some nine million combatants
and five million civilians lost their lives between
August 1914 and November 1918 - fourteen million people
slaughtered in a war that should never have happened.
When we remember - as we seldom do - that the killing
continued in Eastern Europe for another four years,
the list of dead and injured increases dramatically.
There were more casualties between 1918 and 1922 than
there were between 1914 and 1918 - some twelve million
in Russia alone.
was supposed to be a war to end all wars
- sadly it did not. Since 1918 it appears that we
have known nothing but war. Eighty-two years later
we still reach for the gun in the fond belief that
when politics fail, might is right. The
philosophy that might is right has, since
Armistice Day 1918, done nothing but add to the gruesome
casualty list of that terrible conflict. Even within
recent weeks at home we have seen the sad and sorrowful
outcome of that philosophy.
me, neither the Somme Commemoration nor Remembrance
Day are about war. They are, to use the words of the
poet, Wilfred Owen, about the pity of war.
It is a time to reflect on the tragedy of war and
to remember those, from whatever side, who lost their
lives in war. Notwithstanding W.B. Yeats churlish
dismissal of war poetry, I believe that poets, especially
those who have served in war and who have experienced
its horrors at first hand, help us to approach the
Somme Commemoration with a sensitive attitude.
Johnston once said that the task of the poet was to
reach through to the senses of his/her reader. When
we turn to remember the tragedy of war we ought to
do so with our senses rather than with our intellect.
We ought to adopt the sensitive approach of the poet
rather than the cold intellectual approach of the
political analyst or historian.
we approach the subject of war through the intellect
it soon becomes clear that those who see conflict
through their own particular set of political lenses
will differ greatly from others. With the intellect
we approach war from our own political philosophy.
Thus, politically, we attempt to justify the actions
of our side while condemning the actions
of the other side. Very often it is a
case of our killings good, your killings bad.
long as we approach the Somme Commemorations through
our own political lenses there can be no shared memory.
It is only when we remember with our senses
that we can approach some sort of shared memory. Friend
and foe alike share common emotions and it is the
poet rather than the politician or military historian
who is able to tap into those emotions and help us
all to find a shared approach to war.
we read Wilfred Owen or Alfred Liechtenstein; Isaac
Rosenberg or Guillaume Apollinaire we cannot fail
to grasp the lessons they are trying to teach us about
war. We find the same lessons about the pity
of war in Erich Maria Remarques All
Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoons
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. Both have
become classics and ought to be recommended reading
for every student of war and peace.
power, cynicism and realism that characterises the
poetry of Owen, Rosenberg, and Sassoon speak volumes
to the heart and to the senses. As Owen himself acknowledged,
they were not so much interested in writing poetry
as they were in writing about war. My subject
is War, wrote Owen, And the Pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity. The war poets felt
that their duty was to warn future generations about
the tragedy of war. It is our duty to listen.
we are not all that good at it.
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