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The Dave Woodhall column

WORLD WAR WHY?

07-07-2006

I'm a cynic, with a healthy disregard for authority. I don't take many things seriously. Yet I recently saw something that stopped me in my tracks and made me realise just how lucky I am.

It was a photo of some soldiers from the First World War, the officers of the 1/8th battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, taken in June 1916. There were 29 of them in all, of whom 25 took part in the Somme offensive, whose ninetieth anniversary we commemorated last weekend. Of these 25, only one survived the first day of the battle unscathed.

The casualty lists from that first day were horrendous - almost 20,000 Allied deaths, over 35,000 further casualties. Yet those larger figures, and the millions killed in total during the war, are somehow less shocking than what happened to the group of officers from the photo. Maybe it's because it's hard to equate such great numbers with reality.

Those officers of the Royal Warwickshires were, without sounding too flippant, the equivalent of two football teams, plus the referee and linesman. In little more than the time it would have taken to play a match, they were destroyed, and this incident was repeated thousands of times over before the end of the day.

In the entire history of the world, there can have been no greater insanity than those events of the 1st of July 1916.

I'm far from being a pacifist - there are examples throughout history when taking up arms has been a noble and essential price to pay to maintain civilisation and democracy. I like to think that had I been around in 1940 I would have willingly fought against the Nazis. However, I just can't understand the reasons for the madness that gripped the European Powers from 1914-18.

Why it was that a minor incident in the Balkans led to a global conflict? Why did millions rush to arms, even when it became clear that the war was being fought in conditions of unimaginable horror? And why hundreds of thousand of British troops, many of them teenagers, walked willingly to their deaths. Did they really think that the Boche were going to invade and occupy Britain? Did they believe that we were the finest nation on earth and that anyone who took up arms against us had to be crushed remorselessly? Was the class system and the belief in deference to our betters so engrained into the psyche of the nation that ‘we' did whatever ‘they' told us, even if it meant almost-certain death? I don't know, and although better writers than I have spent much of the subsequent decades trying to explain it away, there's never been a definitive answer.

All I can do is read the war memorials in the town centres and churches around the country and try to imagine the tragedy that lies behind every inscription. Look in particular at the memorial in my own local church and recognise family names of people I grew up with.

Thank God that none of us ever had to face such conflict.

Respect the memories of the fallen, and acknowledge their sacrifice. And wonder, if there is an after-life, whether the deepest, darkest pit of hell is punishment enough for those generals, miles behind the front line, who gave the orders that killed so many young men.

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