‘We will remember them’ The First World War – 100 years on
The sheer fascination that the First World War continues to exert – even a full century after its ending – may seem bewildering to many (and perhaps even rather misplaced). But there are, of course, sound reasons for the awe that this conflict can still arouse.
In the first place, the First World War was a new kind of war. The century before this confrontation began was an age, not only of empire, but also of industrialisation for the northern hemisphere. Massive industrialisation inevitably affected weaponry. The means of destruction in war had become incrementally more deadly as the 19th century moved into the 20th century.
We all recognise what Archbishop Richard Clarke describes as “the sheer fascination that the First World War continues to exert – even a full century after its ending” (front page). The sheer enormity of suffering and loss of life was on a scale never seen before. It is suggested that up to 15 million people died, including civilians. For historical reasons, as well as loss of life, the First World War had a deep impact on this island.
The article also highlights something else – that for years after the war “memories of the terrible conflict were deeply divisive in Ireland. Remembrance Sunday was a ‘Protestant’ matter, south as much as north.” The involvement of people from this island in that great conflict took place for many varied and complex reasons. The remembrance of their involvement over the decade was just as complex, and at times hidden.
One of the more hopeful things to have happened in recent times, is an evolution in the way that World War I is now remembered on this island. There is an increasingly respectful and public remembrance, not only of the war itself, but also acknowledgment of the involvement of Irish men and women. It is impossible not to be moved by the commemoration events, detailed on pages 8,
9 and 10. These will take place right across this island.
So, what is the potential in coming to terms with history? “Seeking the truth in history is for building relationships as well as the integrity of finding facts. Ethically reflecting on history is being willing to undertake a journey and construct a process, built on ethical principles. It is a journey of the heart – a commitment to reconciliation.” (Beyond the pale) That is the great possibility in remembering.
The article concludes with the possibility that remembering this momentous period in history can build relationships. Its final words are: “We can now live with the sheer complexity of the First World War, and remain in genuine awe tinged with a profound sadness, at the waste of so much young life. All this even as we recall the sacrificial courage that those youthful lives expressed, many of them in the sincere belief that this terrible War was a war to destroy war itself. How mistaken they may have been, but their motivation cannot be gainsaid. And so, as we must, ‘we will remember them’.”
To be able to do this is not only to be able to appropriately remember the past – it gives hope for the future.
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