95 years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the War of 1914-18, World War I, was brought to an end with the signing of the armistice between Germany and the Allies, and the laying down of arms.In a scale almost unthinkable today, more than 70million military personnel were mobilised over the four short years of fighting: from the UK, France and Germany; from Bulgaria and Italy; from Australia, New Zealand, Malta, Canada; from many remote African colonial departments and outposts of empires in the Caribbean and Pacific; from British India; from the USA and Japan. From states now only half-remembered: the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary.
The war was bloody and brutal. Industrialised weaponry was pitted against outdated tactics; wave advances and trench warfare a poor match for machine guns and howitzers. 1st July 1916, the first day of the Somme, is a date which rings in British history with over 19,000 British soldiers killed, alongside nearly 2000 French, and between 10,000 and 12,000 German deaths. More than 60,000 more were wounded, many in the first few hours after dawn.
Several years ago I visited the Somme, as part of a battlefield tour. We traced the ebb and flow of fortunes from the basilica in Albert to Longueval and Delville Wood, and the South African memorial where black and white names are listed together. We stopped at the crater left by the undermining of Hawthorn Ridge, and by the kilted Jock and bronze caribou of Newfoundland overlooking battlefield at Beaumont-Hamel. We visited the rows of iron crosses in the cemetery in Fricourt, drawing breath at the stones marking the graves of Jewish German soldiers. We walked the ground at Bazentin Ridge in glorious sunshine that was incongruous with the stories of individual participants we heard.
The mud and the blood of the Somme have long since gone, but the horrors of the First World War shouldn’t be washed away with them. We did this, us human beings. We caused harm and hurt to others, men and women, military and civilian, both directly with weapons and warfare, and indirectly through the loss of loved ones, on either side of the conflict. We have continued to show man’s inhumanity to man despite this.
We should remember this.