Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ninety years ago

On 1st July 1916 British and French forces launched the offensive that became the Battle of the Somme. After five months and over one million casualties on both sides (one million, just dwell on that for a minute) they had advanced less than ten miles.

The First World War strikes a chord with me, in some ways more than the Second. The Great War. The War to End all Wars (if only!). There is a particular pathos to the First World War. It marked the end of a world - the self-confident world of the Victorians and Edwardians, where it was possible to believe that history was a story of steady progress. After the slaughter of the Somme and Ypres and Paschendaele and all those other terrible battlefields in Belgium and France, after trench warfare and poison gas and shellshock and an entire lost generation of young men the world could never be the same again. And unlike the Second World War which was fought against a truly evil regime, the First War was political, fought largely because the nation states of Europe were jockeying for position.

The thought of all those men who signed up to fight "for King and country" out of patriotism only to be lost in the Flanders mud, the courage and sacrifice made by so many for so little gain, is a tragedy that still has the power to make me weep. I remember as a teen being gripped by the BBC serialisation of Testament of Youth, a young woman's autobiographical account of the First World War, punctuated by the heart-rending losses of her beloved brother and his three closest friends, one of whom was the author's fiance. All in their teens at the outbreak of the war. A lost generation. Every town and village in England has a war memorial engraved with the names of the dead of the two World Wars, the lists from the First War dwarfing those of the Second. Losses on this scale would be simply inconceivable to us now. Most poignant of all were the "Pals" battalions, where groups of men from the same town (or factory or football team) joined up together, fought together, and died together ... many at the Battle of the Somme.

Pause a minute and remember ... and say a prayer for the fallen.Eternal rest grant to them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.

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