As so many brave men and women of our armed forces in Afghanistan and their families have found, sacrifice remains a very real part of British life.
For too many, the inescapable inevitability of sacrifice comes as an unexpected shock when they first become a parent or when a family member needs to be cared for. It is no longer a core theme of our society. A hundred years ago, it was very different.
As we saw earlier, in 1914, the British sense of fair play had been so offended by the invasion of Belgium that it had sustained the extraordinary volunteering for the British army. The nature of these “New Armies” was fundamental in understanding what happened next.
For two years the volunteers trained patiently. Some had been bloodied in the botched attack at Loos in September 1915. For most, their first experience of war would be the attack on the Somme scheduled for 1 July 1916.
The attack was to follow the largest bombardment in history, lasting seven days. The men were told there would be hardly any Germans left after the bombardment. All they has to do was walk over No Man’s Land and occupy the devastated German trenches. As they were expected to march through to open country, they were weighed down with all the supplies to sustain them for the prolonged march and the breakthrough. Once in open country, the cavalry would pour through and end the tyranny of the trenches. It could be the decisive move to win the war.
The volunteers, as we saw earlier, included skilled workers. They abandoned their factories to defend their country and way of life. It was not so easy to replace them. The factories were now churning out munitions but, without the essential skills, too many of the bombs would be duds.
So the week of bombardment did not cut the barbed wire. The Somme had been a quiet sector enabling the Germans to plan their defences in detail. They had two years to dig their dug outs deep into the chalk.
When the guns went silent at 7.30 in the morning, for a brief moment the birdsong could be heard above the trenches. Then the whistles blew and the volunteers from two years before, now British soldiers, climbed out from their trenches and walked, slowly, in neat rows to occupy the German lines.
The Germans had survived. They rushed up into the sunlight from their dug outs. They set up their machine guns and stared in disbelief at the advancing enemy. Across a thirty mile front, the volunteers walked into a hailstorm of bullets and shells. Carrying almost 80lbs of equipment, caught up in the barbed wire, the volunteers were easy targets. Wave after wave, they walked to their deaths.
The toll is indescribable. In a few hours the British army lost almost ten per cent of their entire losses in the whole of World War II. Almost 20,000 were dead and twice as many wounded – the worst day in the history of the British army.
The tragedy is compounded by the innocent hopes and expectations of that day.
You may recall that they volunteered in groups, as Pals. When the telegrams began to be delivered back home, they arrived in the same villages, the same streets, the same families. Black curtains adorned whole neighbourhoods. There was no revolt against the government; no witch hunt against the generals. Perhaps there should have been.
The immense tragedy, to modern eyes, may look too innocent and naïve to warrant respect. In fact some may question the deference that led them to slavishly follow the commands of their incompetent generals. Lions led by donkeys or donkeys led by donkeys? But this is to judge by our standards and not theirs. They were petrified of the wire, the bullets, the shells, but perhaps more afraid of letting down their comrades. They climbed out of their trenches and marched slowly across No Man’s Land to their deaths because they chose to. This is not deference. They had made their bed and they knew they had to lie in it. They had volunteered. They were here for a reason. They could not refuse to fight; that was what they were here for.
The notion of volunteering itself required an acceptance of common responsibilities – a community of spirit. It required recognition of sacrifice. The culture of the late Victorian and Edwardian era was awash with stories from the Empire and their history of people putting their own desires to one side to focus on the higher good. Nowhere was this more in evidence than the example of Captain Scott.
The author’s school house was named Scott but many will not know the story, have read the Ladybird book or watched the film starring John Mills.
Robert Falcon Scott was a Royal Navy Captain. He had become tempted to become the first man to the South Pole in his Discovery Expedition from 1901-04. Following Shackelton’s failure to reach the Pole, Scott embarked on his fatal expedition in 1910. This time there was competition. The Norwegian Amundsen was intent on being first to the Pole. Amundsen’s camp was sixty miles closer and could start earlier with his dogs whilst Scott has to wait for weather suitable for his ponies. Amundsen won. Scott and his party reached the Pole a month later. The ponies were dead. Scott, Evans, Bowers, Wilson and Oates would have to man haul themselves and their supplies across the 800 miles back to safety as the Antarctic winter approached. The winter overtook them. The Scotsman, Welshman and Englishmen died in March 1912, their bodies discovered in 1913. The author’s grandmother recalled as a schoolgirl hearing the news from her Headmistress that Scott and his men had perished.
Scott left a journal so the world heard how the injured Oates left the tent to go into the raging blizzard famously declaring he was just going outside and “may be some time”. Their dead bodies did indeed tell the tale. Their fates sealed by mistakes and an unexpected and harsher onset of the Antarctic winter. To many of us today, this was folly; an ego trip that cost lives. Yet they set out to do something extraordinary. They failed, but they had chosen to give it a try. They met their fates with dignity. It was a grand sacrifice.
Every nation will have its own examples, equally compelling and powerful, if not more so. The Russian people as a whole through Second World War, for instance. It is for each nation to find its identity and the stories, myths or legends that bring this identity to life. The stories above are important for Britain – the First Day of the Somme due to the sheer scale of the tragedy and it being the result of a mass phenomenon in Britain; Scott ‘s fate struck a deep note in British society until very recently. The distance in time from today is deliberate to illustrate how much has changed. Britain does not need to go back in time, but there is a risk that we have been too hasty to disown our past rather than learn from it. The Britain of 1914 and 1912 was not better; it was different. The circumstances of future international crises will not be the same as in 1914, but, as we see developing in Ukraine, they may well be similar. Are we that naïve that we do not expect our nation at any point in the future to ask us to make the ultimate sacrifice? Are we no longer willing to accept loss of life to strive to achieve the great things? No-one had ever reached the South Pole when Scott set out on his final journey.
We have become ashamed of our past. There is still much to be proud of. Britain generally carried respect for acting in the world with a convincing air of doing the right thing – never aggressive (apart from the aberrations of the Boer and Iraq Wars), only defensive; of not acting purely in self-interest but acting with self-restraint, acting with self-respect; . There is an opportunity to rediscover the nation of decency; the ethos for which the British were once famous.
This is more than the “British” values now rediscovered by the Conservatives, now part of the National Curriculum. Our poor children now have to revise for a test on the rule of law or freedom of speech. Oh dear.
To have to prescribe a national indoctrination in what should be self-evident and reinforced by all in our daily lives and interactions with each other is an admission of defeat. It was not that long ago that every school assembly rammed home the fundamentals of right and wrong. Every family dinner table bored the children with tales of sacrifice in war and an innate sense of justice. It did not need stating that freedom was a precious gift that required vigilance and sacrifice; that it meant you could do whatever you want so long as it is within the law and did not inconvenience others (decency).
Violence in a democracy can only be sanctioned by the state. Guidelines were unnecessary. Trips to Mosques and text books to tell us to be tolerant of minorities and jealously guard our freedom of speech were not required.
Why did these values cease to be the oxygen of our society? So many able to absorb different values; to be attracted to religious intolerance, violence as an acceptable response to insult, obsession with obedience to false prophets rather than freedom. How could such ideas thrive and attract the gullible to murder and desert their families for a life of slavery in a perverted theocracy in the wilds of Syria and Iraq?
Given the necessity of educating British values, it must be questioned whether we actually believe in them. Whilst there is much of our past that we should not be proud of, there is plenty that should engender respect. Not many nations can demonstrate as long a heritage of representing and defending fundamental values – democracy, fair play, freedom of speech, the rule of law and, above all, multiculturalism and tolerance – of race, religion and belief (by no means perfect and more to do). It is values that Great Britain represents and not jingoism. Patriotism of a flag alone or a simple accident of birth is unpersuasive, but patriotism of a nation for the values you perceive it to represents another matter entirely.
Which Britain will prevail?