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The Somme: reflections on Europe at war and at peace

Image credit: Neil Thompson

Image credit: Neil Thompson

The moving events marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in recent days prompt in me memories from 1995 when, as a Ministry of Defence official, I was invited to conduct the five-yearly review of the government-funded Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose task is the commemoration of all those who died in action or as the result of wounds received during the first and second world wars.

I spent a week at the head office in Maidenhead where excitement was high as researchers had just confirmed that the remains of the son of Rudyard Kipling, who was involved in the founding of the Commission in 1917, had been positively identified. Identifications always give rise to celebration as to this day the remains are reburied with appropriate respect and ceremony, a new headstone engraved and erected and the name of the deceased erased from one of the great memorials to ‘the missing’ – those whose bodies were never found. The discovery of Kipling’s son was a particularly special and poignant event.

The Commission maintains cemeteries and memorials to some 1.7 million of the fallen in 23,000 locations in 154 countries around the world so, conscious of departmental budgetary constraints, I had to pick and choose. I went to Italy, to visit the cemeteries at Anzio and Monte Cassino, to Egypt where I saw Commission staff in action at Suez and El Alamein, to Hong Kong on the MOD’s ‘trooper’ contract to see Sai Wan war cemetery and from there to Singapore to visit Kranji. In every venue I was struck by the dedication and professionalism of the staff and by their consciousness of the importance of the work.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing brought home to me the true challenges of the task, and the horrors that lay behind it, as much as walking quietly and reflectively through December rain in the fields of Northern France and Belgium. The numbers soon become meaningless. Tyne Cot, the largest CWGC cemetery in the world, holds the graves of some 12,000 commonwealth soldiers, but more than 8,300 of them are unidentified. The nearby memorial bears the names of some 35,000 officers and men from the UK and New Zealand who have no known grave. It was built partly to supplement the Menin Gate in Ypres which bears the names of a further 54,000.

Sir Edwin Lutyens’ great memorial at Thiepval, so prominent in recent coverage of the Somme commemorations, bears the names of more than 72,000 missing UK and South African servicemen and also acts, lest we forget, as a joint battlefield memorial with France, recognising the joint nature of the 1916 offensive. Of the 205,000 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War commemorated in Belgium alone, more than 100,000 are recorded as ‘known unto God’.

These grim statistics have remained with me, and never more so than during the years that I sat as the UK’s representative on the EU’s Politico-Military Working Group in Brussels from 2000-2006. The work is slow, painstaking and often desperately frustrating, wading through the preparation of seemingly endless Council texts and declarations with each of the member states (15 when I arrived, subsequently 25, then 27 and now 28) receiving instructions from their respective capitals and arguing for additions and/or deletions, proposing whole sections of new text or even refusing point blank to negotiate, insisting that their concerns were so important that they could only be dealt with at a higher level by ambassadors or ministers.

I was consistently struck by how closely the process resembles warfare, famously described by the famous Prussian general and military theorist Clausewitz as ‘the continuation of politics by other means’. So much depended on planning, the preparatory work carried out in the coffee bars of the Justus Lipsius building and local hostelries. There I gathered allies and like-minded partners before the debate, agreeing to support each others’ proposals in exchange for reciprocal favours, often conducting brief skirmishes with the ‘enemy’ to test the strength of their arguments before finally entering the battlefield – the meeting room – with a plan of action agreed, defensive positions prepared and dossiers fully loaded with speaking notes.

Often, when invited to take the floor, I prefaced my remarks by reflecting on the fact that two hundred years earlier on the field of Waterloo, a mere few miles from where we were sitting, some 42,000 men lay dead or wounded as Europeans settled their differences. A hundred years later on the first day of the battle of the Somme, not much further away, the British alone suffered more than 57,000 casualties. By the end of the offensive five months later this had risen to 420,000, the French had lost 200,000 and the German casualties are thought to have been around 465,000. I welcomed the fact that in the twenty-first century we had learned to measure our victories and losses in terms of words on the page, rather than a body count.

The extraordinary, and to me rather embarrassing, developments in UK politics over the past few days lead me to wonder whether modern politicians and those who vote for them have lost sight of the past. The Somme commemorations have indeed been impressive, superbly planned and executed from what I have seen on media coverage, well attended by royalty, politicians, generals, officials, descendants of those who fought, the general public and a more than sufficient number of television presenters.

I wonder, however, how many share my view that the whole event was tainted with just a little too much ‘presenteeism’ by some public figures who felt that they had to be there for fear of the media criticism that they would suffer otherwise, and a slight lack of focus on the relevance of those events to the modern day. For all the heartbreaking monochrome footage of scenes on the battlefield, and exhortations never again to let these things happen in Europe, there was too little extrapolation of that sentiment into what it means in today’s reality – international engagement and multilateral diplomacy through membership of institutions and alliances.

Last week’s referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union delivered a relatively narrow majority in favour of leaving. It was not supposed to, as is clearly evident from the subsequent chaotic events in and around Westminster. Some will no doubt criticise me for being anti-democratic, but I have said elsewhere that I view the result less as an expression of democracy than as an indictment of those whom we elect democratically every five years to take on our behalf decisions on issues of enormous importance and complexity based on the advice of expert officials and diplomats.

The man and woman on the Clapham omnibus have every right to their views on whether or not we should remain a member state of the EU, but when those views are influenced by, if not actually based on the astonishing number of prejudicial fabrications and misrepresentations (on both sides, I hasten to add) that we saw in the run-up to the vote then the result must be treated by politicians with some degree of caution. A number of eminent constitutional lawyers are now arguing that the referendum result is advisory, and that the decision to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, thereby triggering the two-year period of negotiating the terms of exit is one for Parliament, rather than the Government acting under the Royal prerogative.

The vast majority of members of Parliament are in favour of remaining in the EU, but would they risk the ire of those of their constituents who voted, for whatever reason, to leave? More than four million people are now known to have signed petitions calling for a second referendum. It seems likely that in the cold light of dawn many of our countrymen and women, perhaps including the leave campaign leader Boris Johnson, are regretting their decision.

The whistle blasts that greeted the cold light of dawn on the Somme one hundred years ago initiated five months of misery and bloodshed for very little gain in the short term, and took a terrible toll on a generation of the young men of Europe and the families some left behind, to say nothing of the families others would never have. We do not yet know what politicians will end up leading the UK following the current round of musical chairs in Westminster. I can only hope that when they address these issues in the autumn they do so with a full appreciation of the historical backdrop to their decisions.

Vol. 8, No. 16 (2016)

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