One more post about the Great War…
I have often wondered what would have been my fate if I had been born about 60 years earlier. The Sherwood Foresters Regiment, raised around where I grew up, were decimated in several of the huge battles of the First World War- including the Battle of the Somme, where they were almost wiped out.
Eight of these men and boys were court marshaled and executed for cowardice and desertion (check out this record here, which seems even sadder than the names on war memorials that I grew up with.)
What drove men to walk towards destruction? It is a strange testament to the fragility and contradictory nature of humanity that we regard such a thing as noble, admirable whilst still valuing life (at least our own) above all things.
It is interesting to note that even in war-drunk imperial Britain in the middle of the war, there were those who were able to show a different courage, and protest.
This protest, attended by a future Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald, caused a near riot.
Then there were the conscientious objectors- according to the National Archive, about 16,000 of them, who refused to fight. Many spent time in prison- particularly the 1500 ‘absolutists’, who refused to participate in any activities that gave any support whatsoever to the war. Prominent in this group were the Quakers, and other Christian groups who saw the taking of human life as wrong (more info here.)
These people were loathed by the society that they were part of. They were branded as cowards and traitors. Could I have been strong enough to stand with them?
Or would I have joined up in 1915 along with my pals, answering Kitchener’s call to arms? And would my name then have been entered on a monument after the pointless slaughters of 1916?
Historical hindsight is a rather indulgent pastime, but I hope I would have been able to protest.
And I hope too that in this new and very different age, I will also be able to find inspiration in the story of 16,000 people, whose names are on no monument. What would they have made of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq?
These are not simple issues. I am not sure that there is nothing worth fighting for, but I am sure that there is no such thing as a just war…
In the words of Derek Webb, from the song ‘A man like me’ from the Hummingbird album.
I have come to give you life
And to show you how to live it
I have come to make things right
To heal their ears and show you how to forgive them
’cause i would rather die
I would rather die
I would rather die
Than to take your life
’cause how can I kill the ones I’m supposed to love
My enemies are men like me
So I will protest the sword if it’s not wielded well
’cause my enemies are men like me
Peace by way of war
Is like purity by way of fornication
It’s like telling someone murder is wrong
And then showing them by way of execution
Because my enemy is a man like me