I remember an assignment I was given in English class at the age of 14. It was to write a letter supposedly from a First World War Tommy to his girlfriend back home. The deal was the writer had just had both his legs blown off by a bomb blast and had to write and tell his significant other about it – while asking her to marry him at the same time.
“Since I’m not able to go down on one knee or anything…”
One hundred years after the first shots were fired a new battle is being fought. Today, the subject of a similar letter detailing the feelings of the soldiers of 1914 would depend on the views of the class‘s teacher.
If the teacher is a liberal, you might expect letters like this:
“All I want is a world of equality and diversity. I want gay people to be allowed to marry, and transgender people to be able to walk down the street without being stared at like some sort of Widow Twanky. I wish they wouldn’t give us beef in the mess rooms; I yearn for some vegan tofu. Top brass won’t even lay on a prayer room for the Muslims of the battalion. Not that there are any Muslims, but that’s hardly the point is it? I hope they allocate a portion of no-man’s land for a travellers’ site when all this is over. You’d have thought with all these maimed and crippled soldiers coming in every day they’d lay on a wheelchair ramp for going over the top…”
If the teacher is a conservative:
“Which red blooded Englishman doesn’t yearn to give it to the Bosch? Is it not a God given right? Here we are saving the French again! You know what really would be a betrayal? If a few years down the line our weak-willed leaders were to sell out our sacrifices and join up with the Hun and Frogs in some sort of big bureaucratic organisation dominated by the Germans and French, in which we were subservient and forced to bend to the will of a monolithic commission!”
Everybody seems to want a piece of the dead soldiers, everybody seems to want to second guess what they were thinking, everybody wants to use their sacrifice to big up their pet cause and achieve their own ends.
I have never been comfortable with history being used to push some thinly veiled moral lesson down our throats. I should probably be writing a sombre message about sacrifice or poppies, something poignant and filled with pathos.
I leave you with a quote from the recent play and film War Horse, which probably came closer than anything to capturing the true essence of the average First World War Soldier.
“My horse! My horse! Has anybody seen my horse? I’m stepping over mounds of bodies, my best friends are being butchered in droves and the only thing I give a shit about is my fucking pet cart horse! Earlier today I saw four brothers blown up by the same grenade leaving a bereft mother back home, kids are being orphaned, the survivors scarred for life but this is nothing compared to my horse! It’s missing for crying out loud! Missing I tell you! Miiiiiiiisssssiiiiiiiing!”