Kaiser Bill went up the hill to take a look at France.
Kaiser Bill came down the hill with bullets in his pants.
– World War One doggerel verse
“So, what was that all about then?”
What it was all about, as far as I can see, was the wholesale slaughter of an entire generation of young men (and not a few young women) in the name of preserving a little collection of morally-bankrupt kingdoms, fiefdoms, empires and the like in the name of something-or-other.
The total number of casualties in World War One, both military and civilian, was about 37 million: 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 6.8 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 5.7 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million.
So, indeed, what was that all about? And when Seaman Choules goes, which will likely be sooner rather than later, we can truly ask what that was all about. For then there will be none.
As I traveled by train from Lille, France to Brussels a few years ago I passed right through what was known as the Western Front. Lovely bit of countryside that belies its hideous legacy. There are no longer rats, barbed-wire, shit and mire, or festering cadavers of a generation of boys who went off in the name of keeping a bunch of awful crowned-heads and assorted incompetent generals in their places of esteem and cruel disdain. Lost Generation, indeed.
Now it’s all lovely meadows and little farms and you hear no hideous whines of howitzers and mortars.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
-Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum
Fortunately for Seaman Choules he was in the navy and far from the festering Western Front, but the end result was the same – death and destruction of an enemy for which soldiers and sailors bore no personal antagonism.
My grandfather was in that war, as were assorted great uncles. When I was first in the newspaper business an annual fete around Remembrance Day was known as Vimy Night and there was a goodly contingent of old sweats still around to toast fallen comrades and extol their loyalty to a Crown that surely showed them no loyalty whatsoever. Not for me to judge, they did what they felt they had to do in the name of something.
And with their numbers, in this community at least, then there were none, not that many years ago. I miss them. I liked the old boys and loved chatting with them.
So, as I noticed the story of Seaman Choules in the paper the other day I felt moved, on behalf of all the others, to offer a little toast to him.