Poignantly, this year’s Remembrance Sunday services fall on 11 November, the centenary of the end of the First World War. What would those gilded names have wanted from us, asks Barney White-Spunner
Remembrance Sunday, whether present at the solemn grandeur of the national ceremony at the Cenotaph or in a simple service at the village war memorial, is always a time of sadness and reflection. This year’s Remembrance services will be particularly poignant as we mark, appropriately on Sunday 11 November, the centenary of the end of the war that prompted us to hold these annual commemorations, the war that gave us the poppy, the war that led us, for the first time, to give each soldier a marked grave in a cemetery near where he fell and a war so terrible that it reached into every home in the kingdom and across the empire. Six million men were mobilised; around 750,000 were killed and 1.6 million wounded.
We have not, since our rather unpleasant experience under Cromwell, been a nation given to maintaining large standing armies. Rather, we have relied on the Royal Navy to keep us safe, creating tailored land forces as and when we have needed them and generally doing so successfully. When we have been forced to fight European wars we have raised volunteer armies, only occasionally resorting to conscription. We did this in the Napoleonic Wars, where the numbers involved were relatively small. In 1914, facing the huge armies mobilised by Germany and Austria, we had to field a much larger force and to do so at a time when uneven advances in military technology meant that soldiers faced new weapons whilst lacking the commensurate communications and intelligence to use them without incurring terrible casualties. It is this tragic juxtaposition that causes the sad lists of names on our First World War Remembrance memorials to be so long. We had never raised an army of that size before nor one that was subject to such deadly firepower.
We have never been an overtly militaristic nation; Athens rather than Sparta. We have not suffered from the military culture or swagger that, for example, afflicted Germany. Voltaire could never have quipped about us that some states have an army whilst the Prussian army has a state. We have been a nation long proud of its small core of professional soldiers but whose mass armies, when mobilised, were civilians in uniform. That was always their strength. It is ironic that the man who killed the Nazi Panzer ace Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, in his state-of-the-art Tiger I tank in Normandy in 1944, was Joe Ekins, a shoemaker serving as a volunteer in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry in a mass-produced Sherman.
And that is what those six million men mobilised between 1914-18 were: civilians in uniform who became efficient and almost universally brave fighting men but were not in the Army because they wanted to be. They were there because they felt they had a duty to defend their country. They were patriots in the truest sense. They also came from every corner of these islands, including a disproportionate number from Ireland despite the ongoing struggle for home rule, and from every profession and class. Siegfried Sassoon’s unkind lines that, “Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight” and now “gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare” is misleading. Seventeen percent of officers who fought were killed as opposed to 12% of soldiers; 200 generals became casualties, despite revisionist historians attempts to portray them as château-based blimps.
There is an added pathos to those long lists of gilded names in that we also have a sense that their lives were wasted in mounting pointless frontal attacks against German machine guns. There is some truth in that; the loss of 50,000 men on the first day of the Somme in July 1916 has, correctly, become a cause of national shame as well as admiration at their courage. Yet we hear rather less about the Battle of Amiens, exactly 100 years ago, which involved more soldiers. The subsequent ‘100 Days’ offensive, which led to the tactical defeat of the German army and to victory, was a triumph of British arms. Many of those whose lives you will be commemorating in Remembrance services on 11 November fell in operations that were well planned and efficiently conducted.
Yet that will have been of scant comfort to those left behind, to the wives, fiancées and lovers whose hopes and aspirations were ruined, sadly, in so many cases, for ever. There is as much sadness in these stories, which we can only imagine, of grieving parents, fatherless children, economic hardship for decades to come as single parents, or in the sheer loneliness of a partnership destroyed, that brings as large a lump to the throat as the losses in battle.
Looking at our dignified memorials and hearing the list of names read out, wincing when we hear the same name repeated as brothers fell together, we find ourselves feeling a sense of guilt. Why did they have their lives cut short whilst we as a generation have, at least so far, been spared that sacrifice? There is no proper answer other than to think what would they have wanted from us. They would have wanted us to grieve, certainly, and to remember them. It is the least we can do and any person with a soul should be ashamed if they do not attend a service on 11 November. Yet beyond that, what those who once lived in those gilded names would surely want is for us all to lead our own lives to the very fullest extent that we can, to live the lives they were denied, taking advantage of every opportunity, confronting every obstacle, and being true to their spirit. That is the truest form of remembrance.
Lieutenant General Sir Barney White-Spunner commanded the Field Army.