The Passing of the First World War Generation

Last month we saw the passing of Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of the trenches of the First World War and a few days before that Henry Allingham also died. With their deaths there is now no direct link between the living and those who fought there. Many tributes have been paid to both men and it has been an opportunity to think about that terrible war which seems to have lost little of its awful resonance in the near century since it ended, especially so in Britain (and Ireland). Patch’s position on the war is in many ways similar to the nation’s: he wore his medals but eschewed the accolade of hero; weapons even ceremonial were banned from the funeral service; his coffin was carried by British soldiers but with an honour guard of German, Belgian and French soldiers symbolising Mr Patch’s desire for reconciliation and his view that, “irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims;” one of the songs played was the anti war classic Where Have all the Flowers Gone.”
It has been suggested that the British are obsessed with the First World War because it involved vast levels of sacrifice of young British lives (almost 1 million) and also there is the feeling that it was an unnecessary war. Certainly it seemed to involve an unnecessary level of death and although revisionist accounts have suggested that the generals were possibly a bit less the donkeys leading the lions than they have been popularly portrayed, there is no doubt that the prolonged attacks during 1916 and 1917 seemed to achieve comparatively little and at an almost incalculable price. The place names of the Somme and Passchendaele have become imprinted on the collective national psyche as examples of ghastly suffering and a real life version of Dante’s Inferno. The First World War is, for the British equivalent to a combination of the American Civil War (in terms of loss of life) and Vietnam (in terms of debate on its morality, efficacy and necessity): do the Germans view the Second World War in a similar (or probably worse) light?

For Irish nationalists there is the problem that their young men joined up in large numbers to fight for the British, some maybe for King and Empire, some for Catholic Belgium, more maybe expecting to help gain home rule or independence. Despite the sacrifice of the Irish, the heroes of Ireland from that period became and largely remain those of Easter 1916 and at least until recently the 10th and 16th Divisions have received less recognition than they deserved.

For unionists of course the 36th (Ulster) Division and its sacrifice at the Somme are something taught to every child from a young age: the names of heroes like William McFadzean and his actions in saving his comrades are recited every year; Thiepval Tower remains a place of pilgrimage. Whatever may be said about the play, the idea of the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme remains a central iconic event in Ulster Protestant self identity. For unionists there is sometimes the feeling that the 36th purchased the maintenance of the Union for Ulster with their blood that 1st of July: if you like it was our blood sacrifice to compete with Pearse’s a few months before and that that is a debt which the rest of the UK must remember in perpetuity. Any treachery by the British government can be compared with the sacrifice of the 36th. In addition there is also the sneaking suspicion (probably unfair) that the Ulster Division was placed where it was in order that it be destroyed and get rid of the potential danger of those men resisting any British sell out after the war.

A further problem for unionists is the feeling that religiously one cannot pray for the dead: their eternal state is already decided and probably for some it is a lost eternity. In the memorials on 1st July and Remembrance Sunday we are, however, almost allowed to pray for the dead; the poppy wreathes the sacrifice, those laying them our priests and the hope (against hope and against our religion) that somehow the heroic actions of those young men might have purchased their souls’ salvation.

Whatever the myths and legends of the war for all of us of whatever political view, it is perhaps worth remembering Harry Patch’s views on war, and for those tempted by the supposed romance of violence and to “..tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.”