Time to pay our respects and celebrate the Tommies’ victories

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

As someone who strongly advocates that we do more to teach younger generations about historical conflicts and the sacrifices of previous generations, I am following plans for the centenary commemorations of the Great War – both locally and nationally – with interest.
Next year, on August 4, it will be exactly 100 years since Britain entered the first truly global war which led to the loss of 16 million lives.
It was carnage on an unimaginable scale: A conflict which changed the face of warfare forever.
It ended after four years with harsh reparations for the defeated Germany which, many historians have argued, sowed the seeds for the country’s militarisation under Hitler just over a decade later and contributed directly to the outbreak Second World War.
In recent years we have watched as the last surviving veterans of the conflict, such as Harry Patch – dubbed ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ – slipped quietly away.
There are very few people still with us who recall those momentous days of the early 20th Century and those who remain were but children at the time their brothers, fathers, grandfathers and uncles went to fight overseas.
Thus the emphasis really is now on us, the Great British public, to determine how we mark the centenary of the First World War – its major battles and milestones.
In Whitehall, a committee under the umbrella of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is overseeing the planning of our centenary events.
The word is that the powers-that-be are split over how to strike the right tone for these commemorations.
In one camp, as it were, are those who believe we mustn’t upset the Germans by being too triumphalistic and say we should avoid a ‘VE-Day-like’ celebration.
There are even those who argue that Britain and its allies did not, in fact, win the war at all as an armistice was signed and therefore we have nothing to celebrate.
I am very clear in my own mind that Great War commemorations in the coming years must not be simply Remembrance Day will bells on.
I believe the centenary provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight this country’s role in the conflict – both the good and the bad.
No amount of spin can persuade me that Britain and its allies didn’t ‘win’ the First World War and to my mind that fact, and the major battles of the conflict, must be properly commemorated.
You see, I had it drummed in to me by the most excellent Geoff Ball, head of history at Holden Lane High School, that Germany was forced to disarm, give up vast swathes of territory and pay heavy reparations precisely because it lost the war and the allies were able to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Remarkably, I can still recall that the region of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by Germany to France and that Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark after a plebiscite – along with other stuff about the size of Germany’s army being limited and the Kaiser being a very naughty man.
I’m hoping that the teaching of GCSE history hasn’t changed too much in the last 25 years.
I’d like to think that, like me, pupils in UK classrooms still learn about the Treaty of Versailles and leave school having come to the conclusion that Britain was indeed among the victors.
Equally importantly, I hope they leave school with something of a grasp of the incredible period in our history which their great, great (great) grandparents lived through.
I hope they appreciate how young lads of a similar age to today’s school-leavers had to go ‘over the top’ and face almost certain death at the hands of merciless machine guns.
Irrespective of the reasons for the Great War and irrespective of political failings or the failings of military commanders during the conflict, the courage and sacrifice of the combatants must celebrated along with their victories.
The sense of liberation and the outpouring of joy at the end of ‘The War To End All Wars’ was certainly equal to that felt by those living in this country and across the continent at the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945.
The centenary of the battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Jutland and Passchendaele should be marked properly and the remarkable achievements of British soldiers, sailors and airmen should be honoured above any concerns over how our modern-day EU partners may feel.
‘Bugger that’, as any of the millions of Tommies might have said as they stood knee-deep in the freezing mud of the trenches.
We should, of course, never forget the role of our forefathers from this neck of the woods throughout the Great War.
We should remember that in September 1918 it was the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – who changed the course of the war.
On that day the 46th Division smashed a hole in the Hindenberg Line and captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns – undoubtedly shortening the conflict and saving countless lives.
I, for one, think that is a victory worth celebrating as part of centenary commemorations for a war this country should not be ashamed of having won.
This isn’t about triumphalism.
It is about recognising that a British generation not so far removed from ourselves went through indescribable horrors and came out victorious.
It is about showing that generation some respect.

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