Belfast Telegraph

Sombre day shows war's lessons are never learnt

By Grace Dent

During a busy day of TV scheduling devoted to remembering the Great War on Monday, the irony was that no one was left who truly remembered.

The bullets, the bloodshed, this futile massacre of life could only be pieced together second-hand via veterans' children, love letters from the front, or Chelsea Pensioners recounting the supper-time anecdotes of long dead friends.

Here was a conflict that had killed millions, destroyed the global economy and altered the world forever, but we had little left to grip in 2014 except some grainy footage and some sad notes from young lads to their mothers. You got the feeling, as another outside broadcast unit in another corner of the Commonwealth picked the brains of another proud son or daughter, that this had been a war fought by tight-lipped, dignified blokes who'd not wanted to talk much about their battle.

It's an unfathomable notion nowadays, when one of our most popular Saturday night TV shows The X Factor displays grown men weeping when they're not allowed a second go at nailing Living La Vida Loca.

On Good Morning Britain, Ben Shephard was knee-deep in a Who Do You Think You Are?-style history quest, uncovering the work of his great grandfather Levi with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

"It was still a dangerous role. There were many deaths. I mean, they were dodging chunks of shell like this," the historian stressed, lugging a large jagged artifact as big as a football into shot. Suddenly I understood the actual horror of "shelling".

Sombre moments like this were scattered throughout the day: Prince Harry in Folkestone attending the playing of The Last Post; the mesmerising sea of ceramic poppies that make up the Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red installation by Paul Cummins; the story of 17-year-old Private John Parr, the first British soldier to lose his life.

Parr was sent off on a mission, on his bike into rural Belgium and was found dead soon after. One hundred years later it was still unclear why as the Germans were at least 11 miles away. All we had now were desperate notes from his mother.

No solemn dignitary or bow-headed royal representative went unmonitored. This was the day we got our full money's worth out of our royalty.

In Glasgow the Prince of Wales, dressed in the uniform of a British Admiral of the Fleet, attended the Service of Remembrance at Glasgow Cathedral. At the Cointe Inter-allied Memorial in Liege, the Duke of Cambridge spoke of the great debt of gratitude we owe Belgium. What, I found myself thinking, is the exact point of this grand fuss acknowledging the First World War's horror when the remaining news headlines proved that not one iota about the unspeakable pointless carnage of war had been learned.

Statistics of 1914's fatalities, financial expenditure and subsequent escalation merged with modern-day news of an Israeli "humanitarian window" ending, having merely "slowed violence" over a seven-hour period.

Then the screen filled with David Cameron saying: "A hundred years ago today, Britain entered the First World War and we are marking that centenary to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learned live with us for ever."

As the day wore on I began pondering how many house fires would be caused as Britain ambled about in the dark lighting candles.

More pressingly, I thought of how, at one time, we were a nation of stiff-upper-lipped Trojans; yet now I was worried about the health and safety aspect of encouraging the public to handle a naked flame.

Some might say a good war would sort us out.

Belfast Telegraph


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