Siegfried Sassoon (1918)
A war can never be said to be completely over
until there is nobody left who took part in it. That time must be coming
soon: the Great War took place in the last century, and almost all of those who
experienced its horrors first hand in are now dead.
One in five of those who fought died during the war
itself. The rest have gradually followed their comrades, until now there can't be more
than a tiny number of very old men who experienced the horrors of the trenches.
Disley, Cheshire war memorial
One of the most common forms of wording on those war memorials which are found in almost every British churchyard,
village green, or town square is 'Lest We Forget'. Back in the 1920s those who had
survived the war, and those whose sons, and husbands and brothers and fathers had not come
home, vowed that the sacrifice of so many would be recorded in stone.
There is a terrible poignancy in some of those weathering
monuments; especially in small villages which must have been devastated by the loss of the
handful of young, and not so young men whose names are inscribed there.
We know now, with the hindsight of almost eighty years,
that the Great War was never likely to be forgotten. The ordered rows of headstones in the
hundreds of war cemeteries in France and Belgium and elsewhere
are a constant reminder of the terrible carnage between 1914 and 1918. And three
generations later the pilgrimages go on.
For the soldiers who came back from the trenches, there was
the thanks of a grateful country, a suit of civilian clothes, a pair of medals, and a
small cash payment. A private was given the equivalent of a few weeks wages, an officer
got rather more, and Sir Douglas Haig was given an earldom and
£100,000, and eventually was the subject of the last equestrian statue in London.
Facing an uncertain future
Many of those returning did of course get a little extra
cash in the form of a disability pension. Unfortunately that also carried with it the
inconvenience of being disabled. For most the money did not last long, and for most too it
seemed that the gratitude of the country ran out fairly quickly.
The men who hadn't shared the sacrifices of the trenches
were, by and large, a lot better off than those who had. They were settled in jobs, and
had suffered no particular upheavals in their lives and habits. And it was a well-known
fact that those who had done best of all out of the tragedy of the last five years had
been those who had proved their patriotism by making massive profits out of war
The aftermath years were a time of paradox, where the men
who returned from the horrors of the trenches wanted to forget, and where those who had
stayed behind, and had lost husbands and brothers, and sons and fathers were equally
determined never to forget. It was a world where questioning whether the war had been
right was attacked as a slur on the memory of the dead.
It was a time where remembrance of the
dead became a way of life, and where it was somehow assumed that all the best, and the
finest young men of a generation had died. The other side of
that assumption was that those who had survived were somehow less than those who had died.
It was also, and tragically, a time when a world which had
so emphatically declared that the horror of the last five years had clearly been "a
war to end all wars", was now heading inexorably towards another even more widespread
The exploration of that time, that world, is the theme
of these pages.