Lessons from History

Dear Editors

Surely those who ‘die for their country’ are entitled to know why?

It is understandable The Whistler should join the mass media publicity celebrating the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War by offering a brief overview of the ‘major new exhibition at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery’ – ‘War Stories: Voices from the First World War’.

Personal stories and anecdotes from letters and postcards from the front line help recapture the everyday experiences of those who served – and indeed, it’s often humbling to recall sacrifices made by individuals who, although long dead, remain an essential part of the nation’s collective memory.

Tragically, often the underlying reasons why millions from all lands were massacred on the numerous battlefields is never addressed, remaining only in a cloud of mythology, thus making it easier for those who benefit from warfare to launch new wars again with mythological justifications.

Rarely do reminiscences show how the First World War was but a ‘continuation’ of the then recent Boer War – with an intervening decade where all major powers were engaged in a massive arms race – any more than it was once clear that the Second War was no more than the logical extension of the Spanish Civil War. Today, we await the heavily edited ‘findings’ of the Chilcot enquiry while most of us are fully aware publication of the real motivations for the Iraq invasion will probably not be disclosed before another hundred years has passed.

That’s the way our system works – something to remember as we read today’s media celebrations of 1914.

One thing we can say with absolute certainty is that not a single British soldier who died in action on the Somme or at Passchendaele knew WHY his country was at war with Germany. In fact, the true reason for our 1914-1918 involvement was revealed, for the first time, in the House of Commons on 8 February 1922, nearly four years after the armistice, when the Leader of the House, Austen Chamberlain, entered the debate (on an Anglo-French pact) and admitted Britain’s entry had NOT been because Belgium had been invaded; rather because ‘secret obligations’ with France had tied the hands of the Westminster government. The Hansard report is worth referring to: one MP, who attempted to maintain the ‘public version’ of Belgian neutrality having been violated, is treated with a mild contempt.

In his statement to the House Mr Chamberlain stated, “If our obligations had been known and definite, it is at least possible, and I think probable, that war would have been avoided in 1914”, adding, in the same speech, “When there are obligations of that kind it is better for us, and it is in the interests of peace, that they should be public and known, and then it is much less likely that peace will be challenged”.

Let’s hope Sir John Chilcot and his team, the Government and the Civil Service look at, and learn from, history books and Hansard!

 Dr Bob Potter, Addison Road


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