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Over the top, ahead of their men.

Next year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War (or the Great War as it was known to my grandparents’ generation). The government has accordingly made plans for it and sent its own best troops out to make fools of themselves in advance. Hence Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, stating that the government will not take a ”judgemental” approach to the anniversary, as if grown ups aren’t allowed to make judgements about such things. But actually that’s a message to us proles, namely: “Don’t go on about how the Germans started it”.

It’s not just a case of not being beastly to the Germans but also of not pointing scornful fingers at the French for, as my grandmother used to say without a scintilla of shame or doubt, “letting us down in two world wars”. As she had lived through both of those wars I didn’t feel qualified to argue with her.

Maria Miller’s asinine statement is a case of trying to apply the PC brakes to the incipient nationalism that the politicians fear may come rumbling down the road once the anniversary begins. “Don’t get embarrassingly patriotic,” is the unspoken corollary, “because we don’t want to upset our EU colleagues”.

Mrs Miller apparently thinks that the war “ensured that Europe would continue to be a set of countries which were strong”, a statement that bespeaks its own monumental ignorance. Mrs Miller is a shining example of British education, and thus a demonstration of why we need a Govista revamp of history teaching. Her words are, however, the kind of hogwash that advocates of the EU like to make as justification for the European project and since Cameron and his goons are signed up to the whole thing, despite the noises they make in public, it’s all to be expected.

The idiocy of those pronouncements provoked me into doing some preparatory reading. One book I got hold of was Six Weeks by John Lewis-Stempel, originally published in 2010. The six weeks referred to is the average trench-life of a British junior officer at the most intense periods of fighting on the Western Front: that is, six weeks before you were either killed or removed by injury. Lewis-Stempel has put together one of the most readable and most moving books about the Great War that I’ve read. Using excerpts from diaries, letters and memoirs from both officers and men it describes the life of the junior officer (Second Lieutenant, Lieutenant, Captain).

IT’S BEEN CUSTOMARY over the decades to entertain a caricature of the junior officer as an upper class twit who’s either a weasely coward or a gung-ho loon intent on leading his men and himself to a pointless death. His great sin is to have been born into the upper echelons of society and to have received a public school education. That education, luckily enough, turns out to have provided him with some of the qualities required to survive the horror of the trenches. Bad food, strict discipline, discomfort, an emphasis on sports and physical exercise, putting others ahead of oneself, working as a team, developing leadership skills, self-confidence, courage, loyalty, a sense of duty and responsibility, and so on, all prove useful. And being a member of the Officer Training Corps. In the consolidation of the left’s class war over the last five decades such qualities have been routinely sneered at but if you were an ordinary private in a stinking trench you appreciated an officer who had them.

One thing that’s conspicuous is the high literary standard of the writing by these men. They were literate, even if they weren’t particularly intellectual, acquainted with the classics (MacMillan, later to be Prime Minister, passed time when trapped in a shell hole reading ancient Greek) and all, it seems, of a poetical bent. I have Lewis-Stempel to thank for introducing me to the most personally moving poem of the First World War that I’ve read – “In Memoriam, Private D. Sutherland”. It’s by a minor poet, Ewart Alan Mackintosh of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Mackintosh is writing to the father of one his men who has been killed and makes the point that the father has lost one son but he, Mackintosh, as an officer, has lost many. It may sound trite but it’s a powerful, simple poem, and its final stanza hits home:

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed ‘Don’t leave me, sir’,
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.

Politicians and educators have been at pains (not without reason) to acquaint us with the horror of war through poets such as Sassoon and Owen, but they have tended to leave out other equally important elements. Most soldiers, for example, despite the unspeakable misery of the war, believed they were fighting for a worthwhile cause. The closeness between officers and men began to break down the class divisions of British society. The sons of the ruling classes, when the call came, took their their place on the fire-step, and with pistol in hand, went over the top ahead of their men.

The arguments still go on as to whether Britain should have entered the war or not. It certainly brought nothing of benefit to us. The horror and waste should never be forgotten, but we should also remember the courage and sense of honour and duty that both men and officers possessed. It’s humbling to remember what they went through. It makes me thankful for the easy life I’ve had compared to them. It also makes me rather proud that these men were my ancestors. Mrs Miller and her ilk could do with a little more of that pride. It would help them be less afraid to be judgemental.

Michael Blackburn.

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