Silence is the best way to commemorate past wars

On 31 May 1916, the biggest sea battle of World War One began. In just under 24 hours, the Battle of Jutland, fought in the North Sea, claimed over 5000 British lives, over 2500 German ones, a further 1000 injured sailors from both sides and destroyed 25 vessels. Fortunately, my papa survived.

He’d joined the Marines, after lying that he was sixteen, in 1911 (or thereabouts).  He served until the early 1920s, surviving the whole of World War One and also the Russian Civil War.  And when he returned to his rural village in south west Scotland, he rarely ventured furth of his native land again in his lifetime until he died at an astonishing 89, with the cause officially recorded as “old age”. Such were his adventures as a child and as a young man, having seen much of the world by the time he was 25, he appeared to have sated his appetite. For him, the farm, the ploughing, the curling and in later years, the bowling, the occasional glass of stout and annual village sports day were stirring enough.

And this is as about as much as I know of his having fought in World War One. The only thing I learned of note about his maritime escapades was that during the Russian Civil War, the river froze and they had to travel up it in canoes. When I asked what they did during that war, he replied that they played cards a lot.

I remember too when after years of campaigning, medals were awarded to the merchant seamen who had served in the North Atlantic convoys throughout World War Two.  Despite being civilian crews, these men undertook some of the most dangerous journeys during the war, sailing back and forth to Canada to load up with vital supplies.  Yet, for decades their vital contribution to the war effort went unrecognised.  It is estimated that over 5000 supply ships were sunk and over 40,000 civilian crew lost their lives.

I suggested to my Granda, who as a young man, like many from his hometown, had signed up for the merchant navy and spent nearly the entire war on those convoys, that he write in and apply for his medal.  He shook his head.  That was in the past, he said, and there was no point in raking it all up or seeking medals now.  Some things are best left alone was his view.

And that was that. Until now.

Until the UK Government hit upon the cunning wheeze to “celebrate” the centenary of the start of World War One in 2014.  And until some Scottish Labour MPs decided to make a political football out of it, what with the centenary coinciding with the independence referendum and the 700th anniversary of Scotland winning its war of independence at Bannockburn.  Oh, and of course the SNP MPs couldn’t resist hoofing said football out of the park.

The very idea that we should celebrate the start of any war is stomach churning.  The thought that we should mark the supposedly Great War which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives of so many men of so many different nationalities, who died often as a result of the stupidity of their commanding officers or from want of weapons which worked or as a result of gassing or gangrene, and very often in defence or attack to claim a few yards of bogged territory across northern France or southern Belgium, is appalling.

Unless of course, the intent is to tell the true story, of what really happened.  And of course what happened to the ones who came home, with limbs missing or faculties dulled or nerves shot.  And if we’re to tell the story of the start, then it’s only right and proper that we tell of the ending too, of how thousands came home to a land “fit for heroes”.  Which of course was nothing of the kind.

Nor should they miss out how all those who volunteered were sold a pup. Picked out by Kitchener’s ominous digit on the eponymous poster, many did indeed sign up out of a sense of patriotism or to escape a humdrum life and have an adventure. But the recruitment was skilful – it promised a shilling just for signing up – and targeted areas of high unemployment or where there was a military and martial tradition. Poverty was as an efficient a recruiting sergeant as patriotism, particularly in Scotland.

Thus, tens of thousands of Scots men volunteered to serve King and Country before conscription was resorted to, to keep the trenches full of fodder. Indeed, Scotland sent proportionately more warriors into this war than any other part of Great Britain and consequently, endured proportionately more casualties. Whole villages, workplaces and even famously, the Hearts football team signed up en masse before the creation of such pals’ battalions was stopped, when the potential impact of all those losses was realised.

But if they want to tell the real story of World War One and do honour to all those who served, those who were killed and those who survived, then perhaps we should simply follow the example of all those old warriors who through most of the 20th Century until the last one died in 2007, said very little about it at all.  Indeed, most were content to let their silence – scrupulously and faithfully maintained once a year in a special act of remembrance for all they endured, for those they lost and for all that they fought to live for – do their talking for them.

And to all those male – and they are mostly male – politicians who want to glory in the raptures of a terrible war begun over an imperial squabble among belligerent and bellicose members of the same Royal family and European dynasty a century ago and to all those pumped up politicians of this parish who want to squabble over which war deserves greater glorification, the one of 100 years ago or the one of 700 years past, I only have this to say.  Grow some.

4 thoughts on “Silence is the best way to commemorate past wars

  1. Very good piece. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of the remembrance ceremony at the cenotaph in Glasgow for the past few years, as well as a local one at Bridgeton Cross, and it’s in the silence when I think of the families and communities destroyed, people who never came back and those who did but suffered on. There’s no glory in that and the outbreak of the war that caused that should not be commemorated.

  2. It is a strange phenomenon. At school we studied WW1 in history and a chunk of our English curriculum was devoted to Wilfred Owen, Sigfrid Sassoon etc. The futility and waste of WW1 was drummed into us very effectively. Have discussed this with pals and we all got taught the same sort of thing. You can’t unlearn that stuff. Any commemoration of WW1 which does not portray it as a tragic mad waste of potential will strike an incredibly bum note. You wonder why they would risk getting it wrong. What is the point of commemorating the START of a war anyway? Very odd.

  3. Commemorating a declaration of war is in poor taste – I missed the 50th Anniversary of the start of World War II in 1989 but I’m pretty sure that’s because there wasn’t one.

    I’d welcome some help on an associated Anniversary question that has mystified me for years. Why are the Anniversaries of some people’s births celebrated but for others it’s their deaths that are marked? Is it just down to poor birth records? That would seem so mundane.

  4. I think this says it all for most of us.

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