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Harry Patch

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The Legacy of the First World War

“It was not worth even one life,” said Harry Patch shortly before he died in 2009 at the age of 111. He was the last survivor of the 65 million soldiers who fought in the First World War, and by the time he died it was a normal, quite unremarkable thing to say. But he would never have said it in 1914.

Very few people thought that war was a bad thing in 1914. LOSING a war could be a bad thing, but the obvious solution to that problem was to be very good at war. Human beings had always fought wars, military values were deeply embedded in our culture, and nobody expected those attitudes to change. And then they did change.

The First World War was a human tragedy, of course, but this was when the human race began to question the whole institution of war: how useful it is, but also how inevitable it really is. And the answer to both questions is: not very.

There are still a few countries that owe everything to their ability to win wars: Israel comes to mind at once. But most countries, and most people, now see war as a very undesirable last resort. We have the First World War to thank for this great change.

The thing most people miss about the First World War is that it was a perfectly normal political event. Ever since the rise of modern centralised states in 16th-century Europe, they had all gone to war with each other in two big alliances at around half-century intervals. The wars were effectively about everything: borders in Europe, trade routes, colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The great powers fought other, littler wars as well, but these big events – the 30 Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years’ War and so on – were like a general audit of their status. Who’s up, and who’s down? Who can expand, and who must yield?

It was a perfectly viable system, because the wars mostly involved small professional armies and did not disturb civilian populations much. The casualties were low, and hardly any major player ever crashed out of the system entirely. Naturally enough, most people did not see this system as a problem that had to be solved. It was just another fact of life.

The only diplomatic difference in 1914 was that the great powers coordinated their moves better than before. Almost all of them were at war in a few days, where it would have taken months or even a few years in the old days. The armies could move quickly to the frontiers by rail, so now you created your alliances BEFORE the war – and everybody had the telegraph , so the final decisions were made fast.

But once the war started, everything was different. The armies were ten times as big as they used to be, because these were now rich industrialised countries that could afford to put most of the adult male population into uniform. That meant that the soldiers getting killed were fathers, brothers, husbands and sons: part of the community, not the wastrels, drunks and men on the run who made up such a large part of the old professional armies.

And they were getting killed in unprecedented numbers. The new weapons – machine guns, modern artillery and so on – were very efficient killing machines, and within a month the soldiers had to take shelter in trenches from the “storm of steel”. They spent the rest of the war trying to break through the trenches, and by the end of it 9 million of them had been killed. THAT is what changed everything.

One response to the ordeal, inevitably, was to demonise the other side and define the war as a crusade against evil. That way, at least, the ghastly sacrifice of lives could be seen as necessary and meaningful. But many people saw through the propaganda, and some of them were in high places.

The senior politicians and diplomats of 1918, living amid the wreckage of the old world, could see that the old international system was now delivering catastrophe, and had to be changed. So they set out to change it, by creating the League of Nations. They outlawed aggressive war, and invented the concept of “collective security” to enforce the new international rules.

They failed, at first, because the legacy of bitterness among the losers in the First World War was so great that a second one came only twenty years later. That one was bigger and worse – but at the end, everybody tried again. They had to.

The United Nations was founded in 1945, with slightly more realistic rules than the League of Nations but the same basic goal: to stop wars among the great powers, for those are the wars that kill in the millions. Stopping other wars too would be nice, but first things first – especially now that there are nuclear weapons around.

All you can say is that it hasn’t failed yet in its main task: no great power has fought any other one directly for the past 69 years. Ignore the headlines that constantly tell you the world is falling apart. The glass is more than half-full.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 11. (“Very…change”; “There…change”; and “One…places”)

Turn the Page

25 July 2009

Turn the Page

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years ago this month, there were twenty-four left. Now they are all gone, and there is nobody alive who fought in the First World War. Well, there is still Jack Babcock, who joined the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1917 but got no closer to the fighting than England, and American veteran Frank Buckles, who drove an ambulance in France as a 17-year-old in 1918. But the last real combatant, Harry Patch, who was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, died on Saturday.

They’ve been going fast. Erich Kaestner, the last German veteran, died in January, 2008. Tony Pierro, who fought with the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918, died in February. Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the generation of French men who fought in the trenches, died a month later. (One-third of French males who were between 13 and 30 in 1914 did not survive the war.)

Yakup Satar, who joined the Turkish army in 1915 and fought in Iraq, died in April, 2008. Delfino Borroni, the last Italian veteran, died in October. Australia’s last veteran, Jack Ross, died last month, and Henry Allingham, the grandest old man of all, died a week ago.

Henry Allingham was almos t twenty in 1916 when he took part in the Battle of Jutland, the last and greatest clash of armoured steel battleships. (He saw the giant shells “skipping off the water.”) As a mechanic in the Royal Naval Air Service, he flew missions over the freezing North Sea in 1917 in seaplanes that he described as “motorised kites.” And he spent 1918 in France trying to recover British planes that came down in No Man’s Land.

“We were moving forward at night,” he recalled about the Western Front. “It was dark… I fell into a shell hole. It was full of arms, legs, ears, dead rats – a lot of dead, rotten flesh… I lay there in the dark, not daring to 20move, cold and with my uniform stinking. I was frightened.” Sixty million men had the same memories, but they are no longer with us.

Harry Patch was an apprentice plumber when he was conscripted in 1916, and nineteen years old when he arrived at the Western Front in 1917. He lasted four months before a German shell burst overhead, killing three close friends and wounding him in the groin. He was evacuated to England, and never saw the war again.

He married in 1918, had children, followed his trade of plumbing, and served as a volunteer fireman during the bombing raids on Bristol during the Second World War. He died on Saturday, at the age of 111. So what have Har ry Patch of Somerset and his sixty million comrades (for it no longer matters which side they were on) left behind for us?

One thing they would have been quite clear about: we can’t do this any more. In the First World War we crossed a threshold. All the advances in science and technology came together and created a kind of industrialised warfare that is simply unsustainable in human terms. It consumes soldiers, civilians, whole cities at a rate that endangers civilisation itself.

All the technological innovations that have been added since the First World War – armoured divisions, bomber fleets, nuclear weapons – only deepen the lesson, they don’t chan ge it. Human beings have fought wars since we were all hunter-gatherers, and those who were good at it tended to prosper. Now, if you are really good at war, you will be destroyed.

Europe is just where industrialised total war first appeared. You can send expeditionary forces into the weaker parts of what we used to call the Third World and bash them to your heart’s content, but if you get into a serious fight with another fully industrialised country, you will be both be destroyed. (This is a lesson that emerging industrial countries like India, China and Brazil can learn cheaply from history, or very expensively from experience.)

What else did the sixty million l eave us? Inscribed on the wall of the chapel at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where I taught “war studies” as a much younger man, is the first line of Horace’s poem, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:” How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. But we don’t believe that lie any more.

Wilfred Owen was killed crossing the Sambre canal a week before the war ended. He never got any older than 25, but he put the wisdom that the millions bought with their lives into his poem “Dulce et decorum est.” It’s about a poison gas attack, and the last lines run: If you could hear..the blood come gargling from the froth- corrupted lungs…My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

It’s almost a century now since anybody but fascists and fools saw war as glorious. The government may tell us that our “glorious dead” have “fallen”, but we know that they were only teenagers, and that they died in agony and lost all the rest of their lives. Sometimes we even worry about the fact that we have sent them to kill people for us.

In 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, Harry Patch was manning his machine-gun when a German got close enough that he looked lik e a real person – and suddenly Harry realised that he didn’t want to kill him. Shouldn’t kill him, in fact. He shot the German in the shoulder, which made him drop his rifle, but he kept coming.

So Harry shot him again, first above the knee and then in the ankle. God knows if the German survived all this, but at least Harry was trying. So are the rest of us. Most of the time.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3, 4 and 5. (“They’ve been…with us”)