I don’t know much about the First World War. I know about Ypres and the Somme, and that it was started with Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand… but the details are sketchy and vague… my knowledge of The Great War is a fraction of what I know about The Second World War.
The Second World War is generally considered somehow more exciting. It’s certainly more cinematic; there are hundreds of films set during WWII, and hundreds more that feature Nazis as the villains. I suspect this is largely because the Nazis are easily identifiable villains locked in a clear battle between good and evil. The Waffen SS— literally Nazi death squads— wore, as well as the black uniforms with sinister slashes of red on the left arm, skull and crossbones on their uniform in an almost comical caricature of villainy.
The start of WWII is also easier to understand. Although a lot of Hitler’s military actions were driven by the desire for revenge over the terms of the German’s surrender and Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, put simply the Nazis invaded Poland, Britain declared war on the Nazis, and every country in Europe (aside from Ireland and Switzerland) picked a side. Once the party was in full swing the US turned up fashionably late, just in time to inject new life into proceedings.
Although a lot of British people still don’t like to accept it, the Allies would have lost the war without American intervention. Without their troops, funding, or munitions we would have run out long before the end and we wouldn’t have been able to keep mass producing the Spitfires and Hurricanes that won the Battle of Britain.
The high involvement of the US in WWII probably explains the high ratio of Second World War to First World War films. The U.S contribution to WWI was vital, but their role always seems less prominent. They were also much more reluctant to get involved the first time around. Although these days American foreign policy has ramifications on a global scale, under Woodrow Wilson the U.S government followed a policy of isolationism. Essentially this made their foreign policy ‘well, that’s not our problem…’
I feel quite guilty about my WWI knowledge gap, particularly given the vast amount of time— in and out of school— I’ve spent learning about WWII. I’ve been to Nuremburg, seen the sight of the Munich putsch, and I’ve been inside the attic that Anne Frank hid in. I’ve spent hours at the Imperial War Museum marvelling at Spitfires, and recreations of the trenches.
I watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve seen one about a man who broke into Auschwitz and survived. He still has nightmares some sixty years later. I’ve seen a documentary about four Jewish men who escaped by stealing SS uniforms, equipment, guns, and a car. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.
War is a terrible thing, but it unites and brings out the best in people. Whilst the Nazis were displaying the absolute worst humanity was capable of, so many in the Allied forces were demonstrating the absolute brilliance humanity was capable of.
That brilliance lives on, even today in the 21st century. There aren’t many left, but those who are meet up occasionally— men from both sides. One of the best things I’ve ever seen is a wheelchair bound ninety-four year old Englishman called Henry Allingham sitting in a room with a ninety-four year old German man sharing memories of the war. At one point they realized they were both fighting in the same battle, firing shots across no-man’s land at each other. And they both laughed; they found it hysterically funny, and joked that neither of them could have been much good with their weapons.
They laid a wreath together at a local war memorial to remember the fallen. I’m sure that even if Henry had the mobility to dance he wouldn’t have danced to the deaths of the German’s former comrades. I’m fairly confident that when the Allies finally won the war Henry danced to the end of the war, not celebrating the end of people’s lives… revelling in the end of the suffering, rather than the thought of it.
We have Remembrance Day in Britain primarily to remember those who sacrificed themselves in the World Wars. There are very few towns in the country that don’t have memorials to those who died. Some are bigger than others. In the village where my parents live there’s a very small plaque and although there are fifteen different Christian names, there are only four different surnames. The majority of the names are from the First World War.
The guns fell silent across no man’s land twice during that war— once on Christmas day when the two sides played a game of football, and for a final time at eleven a.m on the eleventh of November 1918.
There was one surviving veteran of World War One.
He was Claude Choules, a British man who was known by his comrades as ‘Chuckles.’ He joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen, and served on the HMS Revenge where he personally witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy.
He later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and saw active service in the Second World War.
He died in the early hours of Thursday May 5th 2011.
And now there are none.
Shortly after writing this I learnt that Claude Choules never celebrated the Armistice, and refused to participate in memorial marches. After witnessing so much suffering and death he became a pacifist; he objected to violence and the glorification of war. I don’t really know what to make of that. I just know that it makes me feel incredibly glad that the last man standing was a good man.
One of our best.