One hundred years ago, Britain and its Empire entered the most catastrophic and devastating conflict the world had yet seen. Why? Because it was thought that fighting was the only way of defending the world against Germany. It was also thought that the fighting would be over by Christmas, with Britons returning home in time to see the New Year in with their loved ones, secure in the knowledge that there would be lasting peace in their time. Which at the time was all well and good.
The Great War, 1914-1918, was described as ‘the war to end all wars’. Men risked their lives – and many paid with their lives – to keep our nation safe. Around nine hundred thousand Britons died in battle so we wouldn’t have to. And let’s not forget the women – the nation would have fallen flat if not for the war effort of the women who weren’t allowed to fight. The only trouble is…it didn’t do that much good for the nation. In fact, it could well have made global politics far worse, even a hundred years afterwards.
Britain and France had some fun during the war, carving up the map and making plans for the empires they hoped to defeat. The Sykes-Picot Pact of 1916 formalised the dissolution of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires into those of Britain and France. But what they didn’t bank on was that the age of empire was almost over. It wasn’t long before such regions wanted self-determination, and countries were created with borders decided by the imperial powers rather than along national boundaries. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert in that (because in actual fact I know very little) but I’d say we did a fair bit to influence the problems that remain in the Middle East.
And it gets worse. At the end of the Second World War (which was probably caused by the First, but that’s another story) it was decided that the Jews needed a homeland, to make up for the atrocities suffered in the Holocaust. But that meant displacing people who lived in what could be perceived as the traditional homeland of the Jews. Conflicts have been going on between Israel and its neighbours ever since.
The thing about learning history is that you start seeing patterns between the past and the present. Anyone who looked hard enough a hundred years ago could see a war brewing, a global conflict that could be sparked off by the slightest conflict in the Balkans. Now we’re in the middle of two conflicts that could quite easily pull the rest of the world in. A hundred years later, we don’t seem to have learned many lessons.
I learned a frightening statistic today from the British Legion. 88% of British soldiers who joined the British army in the First World War made it back home. Yes, some of them were mentally disturbed or injured, but they were alive. So in my vague maths, that makes about 7.5 million people altogether who risked their lives for peace, only for the world to still be in nervous conflict so much later.
Tonight at 10pm the lights will go out across Britain, as people remember the declaration of war. People will light candles to remember the families that did exactly that a hundred years ago. If you see a candle in somebody’s window, have a think about the reason for it. Some battles need fighting. But the one question we have to ask is – at what cost?