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What happened to death or glory?

01 August 2014

The experience of the First World War effectively removed notions of romanticism and chivalry from military conflict, argues Richard Harries. It should also make us cautious about current alliances and interventions


Reality check: a British soldier keeps watch as his comrades sleep in a captured German trench during the Battle of the Somme

Reality check: a British soldier keeps watch as his comrades sleep in a captured German trench during the Battle of the Somme

NEVER fail to be gutted by the list of names under war memorials. Whether it is the long list carved in the entrance to Christ Church, Oxford, where half of the names seem to bear a title, or the list outside a memorial hall in a small Welsh village, where a high percentage of the young men who lived there at the time lost their lives, the emotional impact is the same.

I am struck by the futility of it all, to use that word made so familiar through the poems of Wilfred Owen; but, above all, by unutterable sadness for lives cut short and their desolated families. One moment I will never forget is standing before one such memorial in South Bavaria, where the list went on for column after column.

For people of my generation, although we were formed and shaped by the Second World War, it is the First World War that has entered most deeply into our being, above all in the way in which it de-romanticised war.

The Victorians were brought up on the romances of chivalrous knights, noble crusaders, and brave idealists. Most - in the officer class, at any rate - began the war with something of that spirit. Rupert Brooke wrote to Violet Asquith in February 1915 to say:


I've never been quite so happy in my life, I think. I suddenly realise that the ambition of my life has been - since I was two - to go on a military expedition against Constantinople. And when I thought I was hungry, or sleepy, or falling in love, or aching to write a poem - that was what I really, blindly, wanted.


RNEST RAYMOND was a chaplain in the war. When he came back, he wrote the novel Tell England, about two public- schoolboys in the war. On the boat going to Gallipoli, the chaplain initiated them into the pursuit of beauty. "Pursue beauty like the Holy Grail," he told them.

Among the death and devastation and ugliness of the war, they began to doubt this creed. But one of the boys, before he was killed in France, wrote to his mother to say that he had, indeed, learned to see beauty "in everything". It was a consolatory message that people wanted to hear in 1922, and the book was reprinted 14 times in that year, and many times thereafter.

In fact, that message was not so consolatory for Raymond himself, and he left the priesthood to become a full-time novelist, although he did return to the Church in the 1960s. No one today could look at war in the same way as the boys in that novel did.

More representative, perhaps, was the attitude shown by a young chaplain with the 8th Scottish Rifles, William Wilson, the father of Lord Wilson of Tillyorn. He wrote to his mother every week, with a mixture of good spirits and sangfroid.

Then the letters, all in the same tone, start to contain information such as: "By the time this reaches you, you will have heard of our smash up . . . only one of our officers came back unhurt. . . It is awfully sad isn't it? But we have to face these things out here. I am the only one left in our mess and now occupy the whole of the dugout in a solitary state."

This was a morning in which 25 out of their 26 officers were killed or wounded, and 400 men. All this was interspersed with news that they had managed to get porridge two days a week, or tinned prawns for breakfast.

News that "more and more chaplains are crocking up, or getting 'cold feet'", is followed by statements such as: "I am extraordinarily fit and happy. By the way, my servant considers that I have a pair of boots worth polishing! Could you send out a tin of polish - but I don't want any unless you can get some dark stain-polish - mahogany or dark red."


HIS attitude was not so much representative of tales of chivalry, as a public-school attitude of coolness, understatement, and keeping going, without making a fuss. The attitude is much to be admired, but it is one that deliberately does not dwell on the horrors.

During the 1920s, when the general population began to be aware of the horrors in the trenches rather than what the papers had wanted them to believe, the romantic gloss was stripped away. There was a general sense of disillusionment with life as a whole, as expressed, for example, in T. S. iot's poem The Waste Land, and a widespread feeling that anything was better than war; so pacifism was the only option.

In 1940, this attitude, too, shifted, and thoughtful Christians who had been pacifists realised that there were some things worse than war. Consequently, reluctantly, but firmly, most of them supported the war against Hitler. That realisation, together with the hollowness of Munich, is also part of the legacy that we inherit today.

It may be necessary to fight, but only as a very last resort, when all else has failed; and then with a sense of tragic necessity, not romantic idealism. Wellington got it right when he remarked, after one battle in which he had been victorious, "There is only one thing sadder than winning a battle." Winning a battle, however necessary it might seem, is still the second saddest thing in the world.


N RECENT months, we have, I think, seen some lessons learnt from the First World War operating in practice in relation to the Crimea and Ukraine. We have made it quite clear to President Putin that, although his actions are illegal and immoral, and sanctions will be used against him, we will not be using force.

We have judged, correctly, that the horrendous cost would outweigh any possible good, just as we made a similar judgement in relation to the Soviets when they suppressed the rising in Hungary in 1956, and the one in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

This is never a cost-free option; for it meant, for example, that the peoples of those countries suffered under Soviet domination until the end of the Cold War. Crimea will not go back to the Ukraine. (That Russia has a reasonable claim to the Crimea is another issue: the fact is that it has acted illegally.)

The other lesson learnt from both world wars is the danger of entering into security alliances. It is not that these are wrong in principle - NATO has been an essential one - but they need to be drawn up only to defend essential interests, and with the clear determination to use force if those interests are threatened.

So it is that the Western countries have been resisting the attempts by Georgia to join NATO, because it is inconceivable that NATO could actually go to war to expel Russian forces from Georgia, where they are now camped, only 20 miles from the capital.

Deterrence is important - and it was the failure of deterrence that led to the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands; for we withdrew the last of our Antarctic supply vessels, thereby giving the impression that this was not something we were serious in defending. But, in order to work, deterrence must be credible; that is, it must be meant, and be seen to be meant.

The experience of the First World War has made us rightly cautious about using military force in Europe, and about entering into uncertain security alliances. That is surely a good. Military interventions outside Europe are another matter altogether, and we are far from a consensus on the rightness or wrongness of those in recent years.



The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishop of Oxford.

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