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.”

  • willis

    Another very considered and literate post Turgon.

    Since I do not have your insight into the black heart of Unionist paranoia, I was unaware that there was even a suspicion that the 36th were in some way marked out as a Suicide battallion.

    Given that the British Army were overwhelmingly unionist in outlook and had even mutinied (Curragh) when it was thought they would be sent in against “their people” the thought is frankly laughable.

    From what I have read it was equal opportunity slaughter in WW1.

    I well remember Leo McKern reading a description of newly arrived Newfoundlanders walking into no-mans-land with their Greatcoat collars against their faces as if they were walking into an Atlantic gale.

    Equally I remember John Kenneth Galbraith describing how during WW1 his father was on a panel in Canada assessing which boys could join up and which needed to stay behind on the farm. He was lambasted in the press because he held so many back. In the 1920’s he was a hero.

  • United Irishman

    Turgon

    “seems to have lost little of its awful resonance in the near century since it ended”

    Regardless on how awful war is, or has been, we never ever learn period – “we” are intent on creating war – just look around you today – there are more wars fought today than ever before in the history of our world.

    Think about it – once an army is created it must fight, that is its raison d’etre – the “Grand Old Juke of York” simply doesn’t work.

    Defence only you say! – but it is a fact that the best plan of defence is attack.

    “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”

    Yea – “what about the hierarchy of victims” that some here keep on whining about.

    Pity we all could not all take the same view of “our own dirty little conflict” as Harry.

    Roosevelt’s policy has value – “speak softly but carry a big stick”. War should be an absolute last resort. Pity Bush and Blair didn’t learn this.

    In the words of Policeman Carroll’s wife “A piece of land is a piece of land and at the end of the day, on Friday, my husband is only going to get six foot by six foot, and that’s all any of us are going to get”

  • sinless

    The daily Mail, the Telegraph and other fascist rags are this week going on about World War 2. I am sure the BBC is playing the World at War, as they always do. Must be tough to be yesterday’s boot boys.

    Harry Patch was importanr because he was an old codger and nothing else.

    The Orangies trying to cover their well deserved inferiority complexes by going on about the Somme are like the Aussies going on about Gallipoli, the terrorist attack on Turkey which had more French and Irish casualties than Aussies.

    Most Brits going on on the Somme were crying because they knew they were being sacrificed in the name of profit.

    Get a life, Orangies. Abandon your silly, empty, old and ugly myths.

  • Dec

    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.

    The British army was the only army they could join. Many joined up to ensure Home Rule, some for Belgium, many due to adventure or economic realities – “economic conscription” as Connolly called it. Few for King and Country.

    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.

    Which was predicted by Tom Kettle in 1916:

    “These men'(the 1916 leaders) will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer.”

  • willis

    Dec

    Thanks for that reference.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Kettle

  • The Raven

    “Harry Patch was importanr because he was an old codger and nothing else.”

    Really? Have you read “The Last Tommy”? Do you think you could manage a modicum of respect?

    I was glad to see this piece. It’s a tad late. Shame it had to link in with our petty wee spat here.

  • Clady Cowboy

    I’m now living in the village that Harry Patch was born and bred in. I’m hoping the water is the secret to the longevity.

    I share his views on the Great War.

  • eranu

    “For unionists there is sometimes the feeling that the 36th purchased the maintenance of the Union for Ulster with their blood”

    “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.”

    Wow! im actually quite shocked that anyone would be thinking like this. isnt this just your paranoia at work? this is the first time ive ever read anything like this and i find it very strange. where do you get the link to ‘the union’ & ‘betrayal’ from the mass slaughter of an international war?

  • Reader

    eranu: Wow! im actually quite shocked that anyone would be thinking like this.
    I think a lot of divisions had their own persecution theory – we were sacrificed/punished/exploited/consumed… Clearly, some people are going to react to ‘the mass slaughter of an international war’ with a conspiracy theory, and a military unit is a solid starting point for a bit of groupthink.

  • borderline

    “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.”

    Catholic Unionists: read and learn.