Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

First World War centenary: Why we must never forget the sacrifice of an entire generation

Today marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War which led to suffering on a cataclysmic scale, and the repercussions are still with us
Today marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War which led to suffering on a cataclysmic scale, and the repercussions are still with us

Today marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War which led to suffering on a cataclysmic scale, and the repercussions are still with us. The centenary is being marked by solemn ceremonies across these islands and elsewhere, but no matter how much is said – or recalled – there are no words which can adequately describe a horrible and sustained conflict which cost millions of lives, and which reshaped Europe utterly.

One hundred years ago, young people from all backgrounds on this island and further afield joined up to fight in a war which contemporary optimists believed would be "the war to end all wars".

How wrong they were. Despite all the sacrifice, the settlement at the end of the Great War made a macabre and massive contribution to the outbreak of the Second World War, and today we are witnessing some of the greatest cruelty and violence imaginable in the Middle East, and in parts of Europe and elsewhere.

Though the deeds of the First World War have long passed into history, the incredible sacrifice of those involved still lives on, and nowhere more vividly than in this Province where the cream of an entire generation perished at the Somme and so many other theatres of war.

Their courage and commitment to duty was in stark contrast to the blundering leadership of the commanders who placed so many thousands of recruits directly in the line of withering gunfire, from which there was no escape.

Even today many historians and military and political experts still find it hard to explain why the continent of Europe was engulfed so quickly and totally into such a huge and bloody confrontation.

There are surely lessons from this, which can be applied today to other dangerous conflicts which also threaten to spill over into a much wider conflagration.

The aftermath of the First World War created a world in which the heroes returned to a none-too-promising future. The map of Ireland itself changed, and those from the Republic who had served with distinction found themselves cold-shouldered by a society that, disgracefully, chose not to recognise such sacrifice. Thankfully those days are over, and the servicemen and women from all parts of this island are now given the credit they deserve. This has been underlined at the top level by the Queen and recent Irish presidents, and in joint services of remembrance all over the island.

Many of the old tensions still surface regularly as the main communities in this Province continue to face the challenge of living together in peace. However, it is a mark of the changing times when representatives from both sides can now recognise the joint sacrifice of their forebears on the battlefields of France and elsewhere so long ago.

Today, on the centenary of the First World War, there are still so many questions left unanswered about the whys and the wherefores.

Many of these questions may never be answered, but the certainty remains that the First World War was a disastrous conflict, yet one where countless ordinary people showed the utmost courage and devotion to duty.

That is what we recognise and most of all honour on this day, which marks one of the most poignant and significant commemorations in world history. The familiar words of Laurence Binyon's 1914 poem For the Fallen says it all: "At the going down of the sun and in morning, We will remember them..."

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