Wednesday, 11 November 2009


The BBC has, properly, made much of the fact that this is the first Armistice day where Great Britain no longer has a living veteran of the Great War to observe the silence, no living link to the conflict itself.

But we've been here before.

In the early eighties, the last two veterans of the battle of Spion Kop died, at a Cheshire Home in Hitchin. Medawar remembers there being a small handful of such men, then just those two, both in bath-chairs having suffered traumatic amputations in the battle, who would attend remembrance day services for the fallen of the Great War, even though this tended, always, to eclipse any memory of their own war. For the rest of the year, while they were still able, they would come into town and bath chairs would be propelled, by hand-cranks, across Market Place to Merrick's sweetshop and tobacconists by the entrance to West's Arcade, to purchase the necessary comforts for that week.

Their regiment, the Middlesex, went on to fight in many more wars, being commanded in both Burma and Kenya by Colonel Rilely Workman. He fell, not in battle, but at the door of his retirement cottage in East Herts, shot by a murderer who remains officially unknown. The gulf between the soldier and the murderer is vast -and murder stains the Earth after the scars of battle have healed.

Medawar remembers, too, a small handful of Great War veterans who'd queue outside W.E Waylett's little barber shop. One of them was permanently blue as a result of his experiences -and gas- and this is a disturbing sight that almost no-one younger than Medawar will have seen, and hopefully those who do not understand that a man can turn blue and stay that way for over fifty years, won't ever be faced with a practical demonstration.

Medawar remembers how many men died at Bluff Cove, because of a ten minute gap in their fighter cover. Which the defence correspondent of the Daily Mail evidently does not bloody remember, even though he was on the Falklands at the time, as he simpers away that cutting RAF fighters and Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers will fund more equipment for the "boots on the ground".

Modern, industrial, warfare did not start in 1914, because most of the painful lessons learned then had already been painfully obvious at Spion Kop -and at Gettysburg. It did not end in 1982, either.

We are not into a new phase of history where all wars are about terrorism and counter-insurgency: that was precisely what the US Marine Corps had been trained for, up to 1917-1918 and their eye-watering losses taking Melville Woods from the Germans, who were not Filipino insurgents or terrorists, but an organised and disciplined army with a huge industrial machine behind them. We still live in the same age, in fact, where "terrorism" and insurgencies fill the gaps between major conflicts between industrial powers, not because anyone is consciously using them to keep the troops fresh, but because both are symptoms of the different stresses caused by different phases of the economic cycle.

If we want peace, then we have to remember, causes as well as sacrifice. And we need to sacrifice a bit more money, so we sacrifice fewer lives.

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