Search This Blog

Sunday, 12 November 2017


Yesterday and today the British commemorate the people killed and injured in military campaigns: the official ceremonies are usually focused on those who were serving the crown in the armed forces and the police, fire and ambulance services [as in the London bliz and in Northern Ireland], but allied and associated units are also remembered as thought appropriate. In Australia and New Zealand 11 November stands coequal with Anzac Day, when those two countries recall the carnage wrought upon the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps [hence, the Anzacs] under incompetent British generalship at the invasion, siege and retreat from Gallipoli in the First World War. That tragedy is regarded as the episode that made both Antipodean countries aware that being loyal to the British crown - or even to the British Empire - was not the permanent best bet for the future of their peoples. So far they have stuck with the monarchy, but it is very widely anticipated that on the death of the Queen both countries will take the opportunity to review their constitutional position.

It is absolutely incredible that the Queen still reigns in Australia and New Zealand - obviously, under total constitutional restraint - 101 years after the disaster of the Dardanelles became apparent. It is incredible that Britain and Northern Ireland settled down in 1919 to live under a constitutional settlement that was temporarily patched up until the Irish Free State could be set up in the 'twenties without full-scale war between the Republican/Fenians and the Ulster protestants: a conflict in which the British army, navy and newly-minted Royal Air Force would have been of ambiguous loyalty.

I have mentioned in recent days that the headbanging Brexiteers will not have their way because the Irish question will prove intractable. Peace in Ireland can only be maintained - 99 years on from the first Armistice Day - by keeping the Good Friday Agreement and all that stems from it. Edward Heath combined his failed attempt at peace in Ireland [epitomised in the Sunningdale Agreement] with Britain and Ireland joining the European Common Market together in the expectation that the two would eventually surrender their statehood to the 'ever-closer Union'. John Major led huge steps towards peace in Ireland based on keeping the UK tightly within the Union [as it had become with the agreement - however completely understood - by Mrs Thatcher]. Then the apparently fresh, young Tony Blair was able to bring the process to a very satisfactory conclusion entirely within the EU context. Ireland has always been a major constraint on British policy, and anyone who dismisses that issue as unimportant in the run-up to 'serious' Brexit negotiations is in for a very major shock.

Returning to the main point of today, we can note that the monarchies which had obviously been defeated in the war - the many sovereign German princes, the Empire of Austria and Kingdom of Hungary, and [in effect] Russia - were wiped out; and red revolutions were attempted in Vienna, Budapest, Munich and Berlin. Soldiers with their weapons in hand put down the risings in central Europe, while the navy and the army mostly sided with the workers in Russia to permit Lenin to grab power.

But in Belgium, where much of the country had been devastated by the war, the king returned as a national hero. In Britain during the war there had been rumblings about the king being a German - which, in ancestral terms, he was - leading to the proclamation of Windsor as the royal family surname. The king loyally supported his ministers, while intervening to keep crass generals - first French, then Haig - in supreme command even though their stupidity could not be concealed. Haig accepted assurances that the third major assault on the Somme, known as the Battle of Paschendael, would succeed because such an efficient artillery barrage would be launched before troops were sent 'over the top' that all the barbed wire in front of them would be destroyed and 'not even a rat' would be able to survive the gunfire. The men went over the top, the barbed wire was in place; and as soon as the artillery barrage was lifted the Germans restored their machine-guns to be ready to slaughter the British, Canadian and Indian infantry who were sent forward. Then came the rain, and the churned-up ground turned to deep mud; but Haig sent more and more troops forward for four months, until the Canadians' capture of a small ridge of land enabled the idiots at HQ to proclaim the battle a 'success'. That was just one of the most conspicuous, crass, wastes of human lives that went on from Mons in 1914 until November 11, 1918.

Almost every street and every extended family in the United Kingdom - including, then, Ireland - suffered casualties. Yet the regime, the politicians, the generals and the king were exonerated from blame: individual generals were the subject of loathing from conscripts whose companions had been killed, injured and deprived of their reason as a result of the commanders' stupidity and arrogance, but the regime was not seriously challenged on the mainland of Britain. However, the losses of the war - in men, industrial output wasted, foreign debts incurred and international power - could not be ignored. So a huge propaganda effort, such as had never before been seen, was launched: with massive effect. A temporary 'Cenotaph' - a tall plinth for a coffin - was erected in Whitehall for the first anniversary of Armistice Day, and 'the Glorious Dead' were honoured as national heroes. A couple of years later the 'unknown soldier' was disinterred from a war grave in France and moved to Westminster Abbey, so that every bereaved mother could imagine that her son would ever after be honoured by kings, princes and politicians. That could only continue if kings and princes were kept in place; and so the regime was more deeply cemented in national sentiment than ever before.

This is a spectacular achievement, adopted throughout the Empire and the United States; and with a similar set of events in France and Belgium. Its force in maintaining the socio-economic order is rarely recognised: but the Irish dimension is again being exposed.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment on any of the articles and subject matter that I write about. All comments will be reviewed and responded to in due course. Thanks for taking part.