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gertrude

September 2018

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gertrude

Ninety Years On



This is my Grandad as a Tommy in the First World War. He was a lovely man and I remember him very well, although he died when I was young. Baldrick in Blackadder Goes Forth always reminds me of him; not because Grandad was stupid but because he was a little Cockney.



This is Vera Brittain, an educated, upper middle class woman and the subject of last Sunday’s BBC TV programme A Woman in Love and War.


The programme was based on Vera Brittain’s book Testament of Youth. I think there is a danger of this book gaining the status of sacred text, which it doesn’t really deserve. I first read it many years ago while researching the First World War, then read it again as a ‘women’s history’ book. Sad though it is, there is something in the tone of the book which I have never liked. I don’t think her sufferings were as great as those of the men who fought in the war or of my Grandad, who returned not to a land fit for heroes but to a struggle to find a job. In spite of this he was not bitter but got on with supporting a wife and four children on almost no money.

The experiences of a young girl, however poignant, do not provide a philosophical basis for pacifism and atheism, any more than the poetry of Wilfred Owen gives a balanced history of the war. This Vera Brittain/war poetry/Oh, What A Lovely War! attitude to the First World War seems to have become not merely a view of the war but the only acceptable one, so that for many people the war can be summed up merely as ‘mud and blood’ or, in the immortal words of Baldrick,
“Hear the words I sing,
War’s a horrid thing.”

Of course war is a horrid thing which nobody wants. Nevertheless it seems to me quite wrong to see the First World War as some sinister conspiracy to slaughter as many people as possible. This disregards the fact that the war was caused by German military aggression and territorial ambitions and that without British intervention, Belgium and France would have been conquered. Ultimately, we won and freedoms were preserved which might otherwise have been lost. The cost was enormous; horrendous. But when you remember the fallen today, don’t insult them by suggesting that they died for nothing.

Comments

I agree. War is always horrible, but sometimes the horror is a price worth paying.

Today I am remembering my grandfather, too. He fought in the Second World War and though he survived without major injury, his experiences affected him for the rest of his life. He died earlier this year and after his death, his brother sent us a copy of a letter that Grampa had written during the war, telling about the time he was torpedoed and left on a life raft without water for two days. He saved at least one person's life during that time but he never spoke about it at all. I'm glad to know now what a hero he was.
'Not telling' is common to many ex-soldiers. My stepfather was one of the few survivors of the Lancastria disaster. He never spoke of it, or joined the association.
I think my family was odd - my granddad loved to talk about it, and at his funeral my great-uncle told me about serving alongside my great uncle Bunny in Burma (Bunny was killed in action at Sittang). My granddad even had his photo album...
He looks absolutely lovely!

I wasn't able to catch the Vera Brittain programme but I'm hoping it will be on iPlayer. I know she is rather looked down on for whinging so much about her suffering, but Testament of Youth moved me greatly when I read it at about the age she was when she went through it all.
He was.

There have been howls of outrage because the BBC changed the scheduling of the Vera Brittain programme. It was only because I planned to record it and the digibox had the right time that I wasn't one of thousands of disappointed people who sat down to watch it, only to find it was over.

I didn't dare use the word 'whingeing', although it's what I think! I didn't realise many people agreed.

Your age when you read the book: very relevant, I think.
This disregards the fact that the war was caused by German military aggression and territorial ambitions and that without British intervention, Belgium and France would have been conquered.

That's just as simplistic a view of WW1 as the 'futile mud and blood' one. The war was primarily and immediately caused by Austrian stupidity, not German aggression. Had things gone otherwise on the Marne France and Belgium would have been defeated, not conquered. (Just as France had been in 1871). Germany had no territorial ambitions against either of them; in 1914, they didn't really have any territorial ambitions against anyone (although they developed some as the war went on). German militarism wasn't pretty; their methods were often brutal and unpleasant; but Nazis they were not. Many in the German military hierarchy wanted a 'showdown' war; so did many in the French and British military hierarchies. But there was no programme of conquest in Berlin any more than there was in Westminster. Had Germany won ... well, who knows. Occupation for a time, reparations paid, resentment and revanchism among the defeated (and even among the victorious) ... and a second war twenty years later.

Britain went to war ostensibly to protect the independence of Belgium, but in truth they were far more committed to France than either the public or Parliament (even some of the Cabinet) knew, and had the Germans scrupulously avoided breaching neutrality some other excuse would have been found. The Causes Of The First World War are a famously controversial topic, but if you boil it down, it happened because too many people on all sides wanted it to happen. And I'm not sure any of it was worth my Nana being a widow most of her life.
'but Nazis they were not.'
True, and you can't argue that the Kaiser 'had to be defeated', like Hitler. Nevertheless, the Germans were intransigent on certain issues and even, in 1916, extended their demands to include the annexation of Luxembourg and economic dominance over Belgium and Poland. You also ignore their wish for 'a place in the sun'.

War aims are more talked about after a war than before it, often as a post bellum justification. Belgium in the first war, Poland in the second; what mattered was British interests. Where I disagree with you is in thinking that these did and do matter. As for people wanting it to happen, all sides expected a short war, not the horror which ensued. Don't forget the enormous popular support for the war here.
'but Nazis they were not.'
True, and you can't argue that the Kaiser 'had to be defeated', like Hitler. Nevertheless, the Germans were intransigent on certain issues and even, in 1916, extended their demands to include the annexation of Luxembourg and economic dominance over Belgium and Poland.

By 1916 Germany was effectively a military dictatorship, and any semblance of reason had long flown the coop. If the Germans had had the sense to talk peace after Plan A had failed, in November 1914, things might have been very different.

You also ignore their wish for 'a place in the sun'.

The wish had already been granted. They had acquired a colonial empire in the 1880s and 90s, and discovered it wasn't worth the bother. If, in 1914, they had demanded (say) Kenya as the price for going back over the border peaceable like, they could have had it and a pound of tea for me. Not that it was exactly ours to give away.

War aims are more talked about after a war than before it, often as a post bellum justification. Belgium in the first war, Poland in the second; what mattered was British interests. Where I disagree with you is in thinking that these did and do matter.

British interests would have been best served by keeping well away from the whole sorry business. But, by then, that was impossible. By the end, what did we got out of it? (Apart from Iraq, that is).

As for people wanting it to happen, all sides expected a short war, not the horror which ensued.

Kitchener, for one, expected a long, hard war. This hardly matters. Whatever kind of war was wanted, they got one. Be careful what you wish for. And, if at all possible, don't wish for wars.

Don't forget the enormous popular support for the war here.

And everywhere. Even Mahatma Gandhi supported it. They knew not what they did.

The Germans, it seems to me, were chiefly guilty of criminal stupidity. Stupidity for building a home seas High Sea Fleet as a counter to a Britain who wouldn't have been their enemy if they hadn't built the fleet.

Stupidity for giving the Austrians (who were in a whole other league of stupid) a blank cheque for their assault on Serbia.

Stupidity for surrendering their entire state to the Army on the outbreak of war.

Stupidity for not realising Britain would intervene if they invaded Belgium.

Stupidity for sending Lenin to St Petersburg, and that telegram to Mexico City.

Stupidity for carrying on the war long past the point when it was clear they couldn't win it.

Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.

40 million died. Was it worth it? No, it bloody well wasn't.
*sighs* Sorry, I don't have time to answer all these points.
I'll look forward to your photos. Extremely moving ceremony at the Cenotaph today with the three ancient survivors of the war laying wreaths from their wheelchairs. When they appeared, the crowd started clapping.

legionseagle has posted a rather wonderful Kipling poem which I hadn't read before.
I was thinking of relatives on the Canadian side of the family as well as local Parkstone Great Uncles (one of whom died in the first proper engagement of the war and is on the plaque in St James') today. It was interesting to see the Land Girls' exhibition in Lymington and see their involvement too. I must reread Rilla of Ingleside one year. I remember the Great War looms in that, and there are a few bits that reduce me to sobs every time! Lovely photo there of your cockney Grandad!
There can't be anyone not affected in some way.

I didn't know about the Lymington exhibition; sounds really interesting.

I find Rilla a bit much, myself. The dog is the saddest part!