Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A Great War

It was called the 'great war' by some, it was also called 'the war to end all wars' by others. 'Lions led by donkeys' is another phrase that has been used to describe the British infantry of World War I.  However, the origin of the phrase pre-dates the First World War. It paraphrases an ancient Arabian proverb which says 'An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep'.

But what is it exactly that we are remembering. Are we remembering the senseless slaughter of combatants on both sides or are we remembering a very costly and pyrrhic victory. Some years ago we went on holiday to France. We stumbled upon a military cemetery by chance. At the time, I had been driving for quite a while. So we decided to stop and rest. Entering the cemetery, I was awestruck by the sheer number of graves. I also became increasingly angered by the futility of war. Walking amongst the headstones reading names, ranks and ages, I quickly came to realise that these were not all men - not in the sense of being a worldly wise adult - many were just adolescents who had not even started to understand life. These were youngsters who had no experience, reacting to the call to defend King and Country. Off on what many believed would be a great adventure and being back home in time for Christmas.


Britain's largest military cemetery is Tyne Cot Cemetery located at Paschendaele in Belgium. It has 11,908 soldiers graves and a wall of remembrance dedicated to 34,048 soldiers still missing in action. This is one amongst many soldiers cemeteries. There are over 1000 cemeteries of the Great War.

The phrase 'Lions led by donkeys' is also used pejoratively to describe and at the same time, blame the senior offices, the Generals who commanded the troops. The contention being that the brave soldiers (the lions) were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders (the donkeys). 

The phrase was the source of the title of one of the most scathing examinations of British First World War generals. The Donkeys is a study of the 1915 Western Front offensives - by politician and writer of military histories  the late Alan Clark.

The culmination of the Blackadder series was intended to be a spoof and send up of wartime interaction between the front-line troops living in the trenches and the back-line commanders enjoying a leisurely life away from the carnage in a French ch√Ęteau. A place where the command and control was usually sighted.  However, the poignancy struck a cord with the nation. It touched upon a deep and still unhealed wound.

I find myself getting increasingly irritable because as a supposedly enlightened nation. We seem to be moving away from taking part in an act of true remembrance of the bravery, camaraderie and sacrifice that was made. Into becoming participants in something of a celebration which it must never be allowed.

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