When war broke out 100 years ago, the generals did not believe it would last long.
Four years later, more than 60 million people had fought; 8 million were dead - one in ten of them British - and 7 million were permanently disabled.
On Sunday, I went to the Royal British Legion’s service of commemoration in the Town Square in Arundel. In a moving ceremony, the names of those in the town who fought and lost their lives were read out, and crosses bearing each name were brought by school children and placed at the foot of the memorial.
From a town population then of 2,265 people, there were 695 volunteers, 93 of whom did not return.
As the names were read out it was striking how many were clearly members of the same family, brothers and cousins, young men whose loss must have been unbearable for their parents.
On Monday evening, I went to a concert at the Albert Hall, where the lights were dimmed and candles lit as the whole country switched off lights in memory of the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s words that “The lamps are going out all over Europe.”
And walking in Westminster on Tuesday night, I joined hundreds of people who gathered in awe-inspired silence to see Spectra, the column of light shining up to the heavens above London to mark the event.
Far from being ‘the war to end all wars’, this terrible conflict resulted in a broken Germany which fell prey to nationalism, and another world war which claimed still more millions of lives just two decades later. Today, we find it easy to forget why the ideal of a united Europe at peace was so potent after these conflicts had torn us apart. We are slow to see the dangers of destructive nationalism, including on our continent’s borders.
But we must remember. In the words of the inscription on Arundel’s War Memorial:
“They whose names are recorded on this memorial were numbered among those who at the call of King and Country left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced dangers and finally passed out of sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those that come after see to it that they are not forgotten.”
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