100 years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany. It was a day that changed the world, however innocuous it might have seemed to those who slept quietly in their beds as the sun rose that morning – though one imagines perhaps that such restful sleep was not afforded to the politicians who were watching the world step ever closer to the brink of war as time ticked onwards. The 4th of August 1914 heralded a change in the old order, but with it came four years of carnage to which the youth of England, Germany and many other nationalities were witness, carnage that came to an end after four long years, but the effects would continue to be felt, years down the line.
Boys who were little more than teenagers died, hundreds of miles from home and all for some promise of “glory” to, in the end, be given little more than a gravestone bearing the words ‘A soldier of the Great War’ and an epitaph by Ruyard Kipling reading ‘known unto God’. A fitting tribute one might argue to those who had little more left to cling to than their religion as their world came crashing down around them in a hail of bullets and shells – mechanised warfare of the kind that had never been seen before on such a scale.
Did they believe that they’d be home in time for Christmas? That there would be one big advance and then they could go home? That it would be a laugh, that they could be with their pals, their comrades and friends?
That they would be home in time for tea and medals?
Today, perhaps we wonder how on earth they did it, or to be more precise, why. Why there were so many volunteers that one post ran out of sign up forms. Why there were grown men who told boys to “come back tomorrow when you’re eighteen.”
Today, perhaps we think of them as naive, idealistic even but to me, that is because we cannot completely comprehend what drove them to do what they did in 1914. Our society today is different, we have a different set of values and ideas, goals and drives never imagined by the youth of England in 1914. We cannot comprehend that, and we cannot quite understand the courage, the sacrifice that was shown by those same men a hundred times over from the early days of 1914, to the unmitigated horror of the Somme in 1916 and then to the last, final drawn out days in 1918.
This is for them.
This remembrance, today.
A proper and fitting tribute, a moment’s silence, a lone candle.
(Or are they watching us, and wishing we’d get on with it – so many of them were just teenagers, young boys.. would they think this pomp and circumstance unnecessary?)
To the boys who were forced to become men among the horror and bloodshed, among the rats and lice and corpses of friends who they had grown up with – who died screaming for their mothers.
To the officers who were there for their men, who provided encouragement and hope in a place that was little more than hell on earth – who had a life expectancy of a mere six weeks but who were always there for the boys they began to think of as their own. The officers who had to write letter after letter, filled with regret; who had to turn around and joke to keep their men’s spirits up. The officers who sacrificed everything they had to give.
To the poets who wrote and wrote in an effort to communicate their agony to those who would never understand because others had taken their place. Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Laurence Binyon, John McCrae and to all those who’s names and words are unknown and unrecorded but no less precious.
To the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who never saw their beloved’s face again – who waited for a telegram, half agony and half hope, their worlds snatched away when the news finally came, condemned to think of what might have been. The mothers who gave their only sons, or who gave all their children to England. The daughters who would never see their fathers again, who would never have their father walk them down the aisle. The sisters who were left without siblings, without the affectionate taunting and teases of an elder brother. The wives who would never again be held by their husbands, who would never again feel quite whole once more.
To the fathers who watched their sons march proudly away – who then stood in solemn silence as the armistice bells rang out in 1918 and cursed that they had not been a week, a month, a year earlier.
To those who returned, irrevocably changed, without sight, hearing or touch – who turned to drink, who screamed in the night because there was no-one there who could, or would listen.
And to those who did not return, who found their final resting place in some corner of a foreign field.
For Wilfred Owen, who died a week before the armistice.
For Captain R. P. Phipps who died in November of 1916 aged merely 19.
For my great-uncle William, a rifleman in the West Yorkshire Regiment who left behind a family, as so many others did.
We shall remember.
“We cannot Lord, thy purpose see but all is well that is done by thee” – epitaph of W. Dyer (9308) Drummer of the Norfolk Regiment who died on the 20th November 1916, aged 23.