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.