The Great War – What exactly are we celebrating?
Both my great-granddad and granddad on my dad’s side of the family both served on the front line during 1914 – 1918 War.
The Great War, described as the ‘War to end all Wars’ and from which young men, most of them mere boys were promised that they would return to a “Land fit for Heroes”.
What they found of course after suffering what we can only imagine was the unbearable trauma of seeing not thousands but hundreds of thousands of their friends and compatriots killed and many more permanently injured and maimed was anything but.
What they returned too was a social system where those who held the power expected as if by right that they should continue to determine the future of the Nation and that the ‘Tommy’ would be subservient and return without objection to their former lives.
It of course wasn’t only the men who were expected to accept the status quo but also the women who had been recruited to work in the munition factories and farmland who were expected to return to the pre-war role of domesticity.
As history shows those in power were prepared to use the state means of coercion and violence to put down any dissent by the people.
I don’t remember either my great-granddad or granddad, both having passed away at a relatively young age, as did many others who returned from the front which isn’t surprising when you think of the four years of physical and mental stress and neglect they faced.
What I do remember is that every year we went to spend part of our summer holidays in Rotherham where my mum came from, and during which we had to pay an obligatory visit to meet Great-grandma Wroe.
It is I’m pleased to say impossible to forget the visits which were memorable for a number of things.
First was her appearance,
A little old, and of course she would have only been in her sixties but it was really, really old to us, always dressed in black and had a stick that was more akin to being a club rather than a traditional walking stick.
Grandma Wroe lived in a two up two down back to back terraced colliery, that’s a ‘pit’ house in Whinney Hill, Thrybergh where on the walls of her scullery, (now there a word you don’t see used very often), was a line of sepia photographs of young men in uniform.
The photographs were of her four sons who died during the Great War and were a permanent reminder of her personal loss.
Her daughter Lily of course was our grandma on my mum’s side.
How does anyone manage to live with the grief except through the hope that the future would be brighter for their children, grandchildren and future generations?
The promise of ‘ a land fit for heroes ‘ of course didn’t materialise and the greatest shame was that it could have been delivered for a fraction of the £7 million a day that the War had cost.
Just like today the country could have delivered if they had prioritised and committed to keeping their promise.
What the ubiquitous ‘Tommy Atkins’ returned to was poverty, poor housing, poor medical care and a society where the wealthy and powerful, many of who has got richer from the waging of war were in no mood to give any of it up without a fight.
They returned to lives dependent on food parcels, soup kitchens, unemployment, high infant mortality and people dying early because of a combination of poor nutrition and housing conditions.
History shows that where there was employment it was ‘gifted’ by employers to those they felt like patronising with men lining up every morning at the ‘works gates’ hoping to get a few hours employment.
Zero hours contracts at the very worst in one of the richest and at the time most powerful countries on the planet.
The result was that the children who were born immediately after 1918 were brought up during the depression years until they too became the poor bloody infantry who went to war in 1939 amongst who were my Dad and Uncle Frank.
Brought up in the North, as proud Mancunians, (never to be mistaken for Lancastrians) they both enlisted in 1938 for the same reason as many others joined the armed services at the time.
Simply to escape poverty, the lure of at least two meals a day and a warm bed being the route to survival for 17 year olds from the Northern slums.
Is there any wonder that as the children of the generation who served in WW1 and who had been so disgracefully betrayed that in 1945 they set about changing society and making it more equal so their children would have the opportunities denied to them.
I have to say they did a pretty good job of it, and were undeniably helped by the political environment of the time in which all political parties recognised that compromise and working together was better than social divisiveness.
There was also a determination that never again would the world be plunged into a global conflict.
Those that fell between 1914 – 1918 of course deserve to be remembered as do those who have fallen in defence of the principles of freedom and democracy since.
It is remembered every November on the 11th day at the 11th hour when the armistice was signed bringing a War that cost over 30 million men and boys their lives on the battlefield to an end.
As one of six children, five sons and a daughter we will always be grateful for the sacrifices our great grandparents, grandparents and parents made which allowed us to take advantage of the opportunities they fought for.
My eldest brother Stephen, sadly no longer with us, followed our dad into the Parachute Regiment serving in the Radfan, Aden and Northern Island; I broke the mould by going into the Royal Navy and Stephens son Scott served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nevertheless whilst we ‘had our moments’ there is no doubt that it was nothing compared with those who served in the Great War or the 1939 – 1945 War.
It is why I’ll always publicly remember them all on Remembrance Sunday and privately at other times throughout the year as events recall memories.
I will also think of the millions who came from the ‘colonies’ to fight on the Battlefields of Europe, thousands of miles from their homeland, whose descendants according to some are no longer welcome in the UK.
They also paid the ultimate price.
What I won’t celebrate is the start of a War that saw 30 million young lives lost,
A War that was waged to maintain Imperialistic Empires and which the promises to build a ‘Land fit for Heroes’ given to those who were prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice were so cruelly broken.
So at the risk of upsetting people give me a call at 11am on the 11th November 1918.
I will be proud to celebrate the end of World War One.
The gave so that we can have a better tomorrow,
I wonder what they would think if they were here today seeing people reliant on food parcels, zero contract and forced unpaid workplaces, insufficient and overcrowded homes, increasing poverty and elderly living in one room because they can’t afford to pay the heating bills.
Sadly this is still not a ‘Land fit for Heroes’,
but perhaps their HOPE will Fulfilled and the need for food parcels will be a thing of the past, that the Government are committed to providing enough decent homes, that rogue landlords have been driven out of the system, that healthcare is free and available to all as and when required and that education of the next generation is given top priority.
It’s good to be over optimistic.