Such was the horror and outrage at the enormity of the loss, damage and cost of the 1st World War people were convinced those responsible for war would be deposed and never again would nations in Europe go to war against each other: H.G.Wells coined the phrase “the war to end all wars”.
The 20th century was the most violent and bloodiest in history. There was only one year in the century when no British serviceman died in action. It’s estimated that over 120 million people died as a result of tyranny: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot etc. The true figure will be much higher because figures from China, N Korea and many other states are not available.
My memories are mixed; having served with Battalions and Regiments where the personnel are mainly young, fit, motivated, active and driven to achieve and then working with the Regimental Associations where the members are often old, infirm, and speak first hand of the wars and skirmishes they have fought in.
In my final posting based in Imphal Barracks, York I had the privilege to lead the annual act of Remembrance for the Veterans of the Battle of Kohima: March to June 1944. The battle of Kohima was an attempt by the British 14th Army to retake Burma from the Japanese and gain access to India: the battle was won by the British at the cost of 17,857 British and 65,000 Japanese lives.
Annually survivors would gather at York Minster to remember the fallen and then to the Kohima Museum in Imphal Barracks. Frail men, some in wheelchairs, supported by family and friends as they came together, each year fewer in number: men – warriors – marked by the reality and horror of war. Children and grandchildren were shocked when they read about and saw the pictures of Kohima, when they realised what the “old man” had been through.
Like Kohima the wars of today will be forgotten by future generations but those who fought in them will still be around, still bearing their scars: physical and mental. So why bother to remember such brutality, degradation and horror?
- Not because it was a glorious victory.
- Not because we revel in the defeat of an enemy.
- There is no glory in war.
When men and women are pushed beyond breaking point by ceaseless violence, when they see colleagues and friends maimed or killed, when they have to go out and collect the remains of their comrades blown apart by bombs and then have to go out on patrol knowing the enemy is still there waiting to kill again, reveals the soldiers character and courage. In the western democracies, we frequently elect leaders who promise to give us what we want and protect us from what we fear. Self-interest and expediency are the order of the day.
When we forget what our freedom cost others to achieve we are in danger of taking freedom for granted. When we take our freedoms for granted it is easy to feel an entitlement and our rights become disproportionately important; our society reflects this. Selfishness, lack of concern for the elderly and infirm, impatience with those who can’t keep up physically or mentally, an erosion of the freedoms of others: the freedom to eat nutritious meals, drink clean water, have an education, live free of fear or persecution, to have access to medication and medical facilities. When we become selfish the weak and poor suffer. Remembrance isn’t an act once a year it is a frame of mind 24/7.
There may be many who have never heard of Kohima but they will have heard the motto which is inscribed upon the Kohima Memorial:
‘When you go home, tell them of us, and say: “For your tomorrow, we gave our today”.