The one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War took place on Tuesday, with the anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia (28th July 1914) it largely passing unnoticed, here at least. The anniversaries of the staggered start of the war will obviously have a much higher profile over the next week. While the focus understandably will be on the events surrounding the start of the war there will also be a focus on the almost inexplicable (at least from the hindsight of our twenty first century perspective) enthusiasm with which the states and many of the peoples of Europe are perceived to have eagerly rushed to war.
|Royal Fusiliers in Mons 22nd August 1914|
The selective remembrance of anniversaries is complex business: June 28th this year marked the anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo that started the European slide into war. August 1st 1914 saw Germany declare war on Russia and Serbia with France mobilized on the evening of August 2nd, when Germany invaded Belgium and attacked French troops. On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France. August 4th is a more significant date this side of the channel being the date that Britain declared war on Germany, nominally because of the invasion of Belgium.
Even when it comes to selecting which battles to commemorate the choice will be a complex one as Mons (23rd – 24th August 1914) and La Cateau (26th August 1914) were both relatively small but largely British battles. They were followed in rapid succession by First Marne (5th and 12th September 1914), First Aisne (13th September (1914-09-13) – 28th September 1914), La Bassée (10th October – 2nd November 1914) and First Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914) Aside for Mons, La Cateau and First Aisne much of the fighting of 1914 (on the Western Front) until Ypres involved mostly French and Belgian troops attempting to hold off the German Armies.
Britain's involvement (aside from at sea) was initially limited to its small regular army and the Territorial Army. The larger British army’s of popular memory never emerged until 1915 and 1916 (conscription came after two years of war). One result of the brutal and sustained fighting of the autumn and early winter of 1914 was that the precision instrument that was the regular army almost ceased to exist. The grim battles of Flanders halted the German advance short of the Channel Ports and Picardy and established the trench line that became the Western Front, which existed from the winter of 1914/1915 until the spring of 1918.
Then (as now) when a war is underway then understandably (and rightly) our service personnel, their families (and subsequently our veterans) are very much in the public eye. During the last decade successive Westminster governments have worked hard to ensure that our service personnel have had a much higher profile, making use of various important anniversaries of previous conflicts, sporting occasions and regularly promoting armed forces day. As we slowly approach the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, and another cycle of poignant anniversaries we may expect more of the same.
Yet as the direct involvement of UK service personnel in the cycle of Blair’s wars begins to wind down we should remember how Westminster (with the honourable exception of the 1945 Labour Government) has treated our war veterans after previous war’s ended and faded into memory. We all need to work to ensure that never again does a Westminster Government makes the decision that dead heroes are cheaper and less trouble to maintain than live ones.