Sunday, 8 December 2013

Stand To!

No, I'm not referring to the Sassoon poem ("I'd been on duty from two till four", etc) but to the title of the Western Front Association's regular publication.  Right from the start of the SSF, we've had many shared members, but in recent years our collaboration with the WFA has reached new levels and, I trust, will continue for many years into the future.  "Stand To!" comes out three times a year, alternating with the equally excellent "Bulletin".  Both provide many potential hours of happy reading.

Needless to say, although we in the Fellowship have much common ground with the WFA, their focus is different.  One of our committee came close to offending a member, a little while ago, by referring to him as a "First World War enthusiast" - it goes without saying that he didn't mean it in the literal sense.  I don't think there can be anyone in the SSF who feels enthusiastic either about the fact that the war was fought or about the way that it was fought.  What our organisation celebrates is the resilience, courage and determination of those who fought it, and most of all the creative work that emerged as a result.  

The Western Front Association tends to have a more military focus.  Many of its members are ex-service people, and are naturally interested in the strategy and tactics, the technology and the terrain, but that does not make them war "enthusiasts" either.  Like us, they have a very broad range of interests.  On page 25 of the latest bulletin, which I received this week, is a beautiful reproduction of a painting entitled "In Flanders Fields", which was done by an American lady in the 1920s and uses the words of MacCrae's poem as the central feature of an Art Nouveau illustration in stunning colours.  Two types of inspiration - an outstanding piece of literature and an outstanding work of art - both born out of one of the most destructive and unhappy episodes in world history.

Reading the WFA's publications, however, it is clear that many of its members agree with Gary Sheffield that the war was neither pointless nor ill-conceived - a view I suspect few SSF members would share.  "We shouldn't rely on Wilfred Owen's version of events," wrote Professor Sheffield in The Guardian last June.  (I would like to think that he decided to lay off Siegfried after I gave him an SSF pen at an event in 2012.)  He described the war as "an existential struggle", which seems a fair description if you look at it from the point of view of the individual soldier.  

An alternative view, quoted by the editor of the Bulletin, is that of Professor Jay Winter: Speaking of the outbreak of war in 1914, Winter wrote: "what a disaster that moment was, a moment when the population of Europe was frogmarched in to an unnecessary war, and learned that the only way to win it was with hatred and violence".  When he had the leisure, Sassoon certainly recognised an unpleasant side of himself brought out by the war, a side that was capable of hating and killing Germans whom he would ordinarily have preferred to have as friends.  Yet when it came down to making his stand, he placed the blame squarely on the politicians, not on the military commanders.

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has caused many of us to reflect on what might have happened, on how world leaders might have pursued a different course of action had they been capable of foreseeing how the war would turn out.  Perhaps only a reformed terrorist like Mandela can be expected to recognise how much more can be achieved by peaceful negotiation and settlement than by fighting.  Sadly, history has a tendency to repeat itself and we already know that, whatever the moral rights and wrongs of the situation, the lesson of the First World War is likely to have little impact on future events, or at least none for the better.

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