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Why we should never forget

A century on, as our arms trade results in children being slaughtered in Yemen, can we really say that the lessons of the First World War have been learned?

09 November, 2018 — By The Editor

MY father, who had acute short-sight, was so keen to join the army in the First World War that he “conned” the medical board by memorising the eye chart.

A few weeks later in 1918, while “square bashing” in Lancashire in a training camp, he failed to salute an officer – and then, marched before the commanding officer, confessed he couldn’t see his insignia. He was immediately discharged.

It happened in the last bloody months of the year, when the generals were desperate for fodder for the frontline in France.

This weekend thousands will gather to remember those who died and were maimed in the war.

Poppies will be worn. Inspired proverbs from Ecclesiastes will be recited. Hymns will be sung. And heads will bow.

But to what extent will this all be part of a ritual?

The war produced a carnage the like of which Britain hadn’t suffered in centuries. More than 700,000 young men were slaughtered. The middle class was particularly hit – the “officer” class, many of whom went over the top at the beginning with a devil-may-care attitude, was decimated.

History taught in schools up until the 1970s or 1980s – 60 years after the war – gave, in my opinion, a false picture, blaming the war on Germany for breaching treaties, for wanting to gobble up Europe.

But, it could be cogently argued, that it was a war of one colonial power, Britain, against the new kid on the colonial block, Germany, who, squeezed out of Africa by the British, wanted part of Europe to make up for it, and to pick up the pieces of what was hoped would be a dismembered British Empire.

The generals planned their battles in safety behind the lines, the politicians hoped all would be well – and the rank and file were massacred.

While we should pay homage to the courage of those in the trenches who fought for and protected each other, we should not forget the responsibility of those who engineered the war.

The squaddies were often bullied, in one way or the other, to go over the top. Shell-shocked in their thousands, more than 300 left the lines, and, regarded as deserters, were put up against the wall – and shot.

Shell-shocked officers were better treated. The great poet Siegfried Sassoon was treated in a centre in Scotland, and penned an anti-war petition to go before parliament.

The economy at home went well. The war brought full employment, and higher wages. My mother, who left school to start at a clothing sweatshop at 13, always said the war was the best time for wages.

But if it had gone on for a few months longer a revolution could have occurred in Britain – it had already swept across Germany and Russia.

In this country, thousands had protested against the war and were jailed – including activists in the Suffragette movement and the philosopher Bertrand Russell. It is not insignificant that the Labour party adopted its most left-wing policy based on Clause 4 in 1918.

Europe never recovered. Hitler emerged, the Second World War began. But this was a just war – and the world survived.

But what lessons were learned? Flag-waving, we went off to other wars – Korea (where millions were killed), and later Iraq, again where hundreds of thousands died, including many children.

We would like the services this weekend to herald a new beginning but will they? When the poppies are put away and the tears are wiped, will we remember those who died in the carnage of the 1914-18 and the Second World War, and turn our backs on war.

Will we? Already we are involved in the senseless slaughter of children in Yemen by the Saudis who are using missiles, bombs and other murderous armaments sold by this nation. Not only that but we are also said to be sending special troops to this dirty war.

Perhaps one day the sound of gunfire will never be heard again.

As a starting point, we could begin by forcing those who govern us to stop selling arms to the Saudis.

At least it will be a beginning.

Garden exhibition shows how residents responded to the war

PORTMAN Square Garden has opened its gates for a special installation about how Marylebone residents responded to the demands of war.

The Marylebone Remembered exhibition has an unusual selection of images – previously unpublicised – from the national archives and also the Portman and Howard de Walden estate’s private archives.

The installation tells the story of how in May 1916 Marion Repton sparked a campaign to open the capital’s private garden squares, including Portman Square, for convalescing soldiers.

There are images of women taking paid jobs outside the home to support their family, taking on traditionally male jobs, including road sweeping, car driving and manufacturing.

A number of Marylebone’s female residents became nurses and the “Marylebone War Supply Depot” was set up by veteran nurse Ethel McCaul.

Another highlight from the exhibition is wonderful imagery capturing a street party in Penfold Street (formerly Carlisle Street) celebrating the end of the war.

Marylebone Remembered is a collaborative project between The Portman Estate and The Howard de Walden Estate, and supported by the area’s Business Improvement District, Baker Street Quarter Partnership.

The installation also features six boards covering topics including: conscription, convalescence, new opportunities for women, new treatments and hospitals, refugees, the cost of war and estate war damage.

The exhibition is free and open daily from 10am-4pm throughout the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday.

• To find out more visit: www.maryleboneremembered.com

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