RogerBW's Blog

Thoughts on the Armistice after a hundred years 12 November 2018

I spent a quiet day yesterday.

A friend had come up with the idea of keeping silent all day, and that seemed like an excellent plan. It wasn't particularly difficult for me; my wife was out all day and the only place I had to go was to the remembrance service on the other side of the valley. Then I realised that, really, this ought to apply to electronic communication too; that was a bit more work, but it was a useful thing to remember. So I did that from sunrise to sunset.

So I walked up the hill on a warm November morning; there used to be a more local branch of the Royal British Legion, but it appears they fell for the scam played by RBL headquarters of signing over their hall to a "maintenance group", and found it sold out from under them (it's now been standing empty for over a year, so good work making a quick profit there lads; though I suppose in the end it will become more dismal housing, because having more housing and fewer facilities for the people living in it always makes a place happy and thriving). The local happy-clappy church does a parade with scouts and guides to our local war memorial, but there's not much to it.

The next branch over is going strong, and is one of the social centres of its village; there's a surprising number of people there with significant ribbons. Its Remembrance Sunday service always gets a good crowd; I'd estimate about 1,000 people this year. The preacher (local vicar, I guess) isn't up to much but he gets the job done.

As always, I use it as a time to reflect on my attitude to war and to soldiers.

Starting from the obvious, I regard peace as a good thing. Sometimes it may be justifiable to start a war (if the peaceful alternative will be worse), just as it may be justifiable to start a revolution; more often, the proper use of a military force is to stop or deter warfare by others. Yes, it would be great if we did't need the armed services; it would also be great if we didn't need a government, but humans aren't capable of making an anarchy work, and I don't think they can make a peaceful world work either.

If you're going to have the forces, though, you need to do them right. Our defence contracts are becoming distressingly American in style, blatantly ways of funnelling government money to companies that will very evidently double or triple the cost and still never produce what they've promised. Some of the deployments – some – are clearly there to make the bigger powers think the UK still has an international role (while with the other political hand we throw away all the trust, reputation and credibility we've built up over centuries in order that a few people can become even richer). But most of that isn't the forces' fault. (So I support the troops, who have a hell of a job with equipment they don't want and inadequate support in general, but not everything that's done with them.)

Given the need for an army, what about the people who choose to be part of it? (In the UK it's unlikely to be someone's only possible career option, the way it often is in the USA.) Well, given that need, if the good people don't do the job, it'll be done by bad people. As with teaching, there are people who are good at it, and there are people who feel they have a calling for it, and they're not always the same people.

And yes, I'm a wargamer (and a role-player who often uses military settings). I try to keep the above in mind when building scenarios; a respect for the dead (whether they died for what they believed in or simply because they'd been conscripted) means to me that I shouldn't take such matters trivially. A scenario objective should never be "kill all the opposition"; it should have an actual goal, like taking ground or protecting a convoy, and killing the enemy is normally only loosely correlated with that. Similarly, forces should stop attacking and run away when they take sufficient losses; they aren't robots or zombies. (Or if they are, because I do after all play SF and fantasy games too, that should be an important distinction.) I create and recreate war in miniature in order to understand it, rather than in order to make it seem like fun.

As for remembering the Great War: yes, it was a long time ago and almost all of the people who were involved in it are dead. That is when a memory gets abused for other things, when there's nobody left who can say "that's not the way it was". We've recently seen invocations of the Blitz spirit and of Winston Churchill, by politicians whose only exposure to either is an emotional association. I don't have the memories either, of course; but I've done enough research, often in the service of games, that I feel I have a better appreciation of the lessons of history than people who just want some name to steal in support of their latest Grand Scheme.

Peace had come at last, but there was no demonstration of joy among the Berwickshires. I know not why, because it passeth my simple understanding, but a silence fell upon our ranks as though a sad figure with torn hands had passed along our line.

as quoted in H. Drummond Gauld The Truth from the Trenches, pub. Arthur H. Stockwell, London

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:00pm on 12 November 2018

    There's been a load of crap on TV about the 100th anniversary, including sadly the Peter Jackson coloured and speed corrected WW1 footage in "They Shall Not Grow Old". It left no impact on me at all, except lingering annoyance that the title spoiled the linguistic beauty of the original line "They Shall Grow Not Old".

    But the one thing that has been difficult yet rivetting to watch is the BBC series The Last Tommies. Basically three hours of TV interviews done over the last 25 years of people who were directly involved. I have the last episode still to watch, I can only watch one every few days because each one needs time to really sink in. On old chap spoke with an accent that immediately made me think "I know where you grew up mate!". I might have gone to the same school for all I know. I can still here his voice in my head: "You don't do owt bloody daft".

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 04:55pm on 12 November 2018

    MaryAnn suggested that They Shall Not Grow Old ends up feeling like a film loop you'd see in a museum, the sort of thing you'd watch five minutes of then move on – no plot, no persistent character, just well-restored and colourised/soundified footage.

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