In August 2014 the world will mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
Why should we remember?
Why should we stop and think about those events that happened so long ago?
By the end of the First World War there were very few people in the countries that took part who remained unaffected.
The war reached out and touched almost everyone’s life in some way or other.
Children grew up in the shadow of battle, their fathers absent or lost. Women became directly involved, picking up the pieces of industry and agriculture as the men went off to fight. By 1918, they too could join the army and serve their country.
‘Sometimes I don’t think about it for months on end, then I come back and dream about it all. How really extraordinary it was. I can’t quite get it out of my system. I can’t sleep sometimes. I just think about it.’
Stephen Williamson looking back at the First World War in 1985
Men enlisted, or were called up, in their millions, being sent to fight in places that many had never heard of before. It was a global struggle. Life changed forever. Nothing was ever the same again.
In the opening moves of the war, both in the West and the East, the nature of modern warfare soon became clear. Armies were numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Modern weapons rapidly caused heavy casualties and laid waste to whole communities. Soldiers went to ground, digging trenches and dugouts that soon began to feel almost permanent.
The crucible of war also proved very creative. Aircraft developed quickly, taking death and destruction into the sky. New ways of fighting made better and more effective use of huge quantities of shells and bullets manufactured on a scale never seen before.
“I felt that I didn’t want to live, I’d no wish to live at all, because the world had come to an end, then, for me, because I’d lost all that I’d loved.”
Kitty Morter remembering the birth of her baby after her husband had died on the Somme
The power unleashed by modern war resulted in previously unimagined losses. Over 9 million soldiers died as a result of the fighting. Food shortages, sometimes deliberately inflicted by blockade and sometimes resulting from failed harvests, weakened the people who remained on the home fronts. Nearly 6 million civilians died from disease or starvation. Almost 1 million more were killed as a direct result of military operations. In all, the estimate of dead resulting from the war stands at over 16 million.
And then there were the wounded. More than 21 million. Some recovered. Others were never the same again, either in body or in mind.
It was not just people who died. The old world order was also irreparably damaged. Both the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires were destroyed. From their ashes a host of new countries emerged, in Europe and the Middle East. Russia was wracked by revolution and became the world’s first Communist state. Monarchies fell. A new world order emerged, with the United States developing a League of Nations that they then opted not to join. The consequences of many of these political changes can be heard today reverberating around the world, nearly a century later.
Millions of people across the world still feel a connection with the Great War for Civilisation. They knew the people whose lives were changed by it. They remain moved by the enduring works of art that were created as a response to it. They live with its unresolved political legacies. The First World War created a common sense of history that, decades later, still links people from many disparate nations.
“I am for the front on Tuesday, but if you write and say I am only seventeen it will stop me from going. Don’t forget.”
Stephen Brown to his mother, April 1915. He was killed in action at Ypres a month later.
Sometimes the First World War feels like distant history. The jumpy black and white films, the unfamiliar clothes and the horses pulling wagons, all look like something from a world long forgotten. Yet the last soldiers who fought in the war have only recently died. Only a few of the 1914–18 generation, who witnessed the war but were too young to take part, are still alive. The war is slipping inexorably beyond the fringes of living memory and, as the Centenary of 1914–18 approaches, we have to work harder to make sure we do not forget.
If we want to understand today, we need to know and remember what happened yesterday.