It was meant to be the war to end all wars. It was the conflict that went global. And it killed millions, leaving families across the globe grieving lost sons, brothers, fathers – and lost womenfolk and children.
The Great War has left a deep scar across Britain, France, America and the Commonwealth, not to mention Germany and her allies. The photo at the top of this post captures young Frenchman leaving Paris for war as France mobilised the day before Germany declared war on the country. Britain and its empire entered the fray the following day. This was one of a moving open air exhibition in Paris’s Avenue des Champs Élysées. By a curious coincidence, I photographed the photo 100 years to the day after it was taken.
That scene was repeated countless times in countless cities as Europe’s youth entered war with high spirits, little imagining the horrors of the following four years. How many of the young Frenchmen survived the trenches? And how many of those survivors returned maimed or gassed?
Small wonder that the Great War casts a long shadow. Unlike the second world war, it’s rarely seen as a just war; we’re more likely to view it as the accidental war that wiped out millions. (Blame the system of alliances, the tinder-box of the Balkans and the rivalry between the British and Germans.) Those who survived were forever haunted by their memories: my grandfather refused to allow my father to become a schoolboy army cadet as the shadow of war fell again in 1938.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the later war was inevitably more prominent in every day life. But 40 years ago, I remember talking to Mum’s mother on the 60th anniversary of the Great War. My maternal grandfather also survived and it was a sad day, shortly after his 1966 death, when Grandma lost his Great War medals in a burglary.
I’ll end with these wonderful photos of my paternal grandfather Frank and Great Uncle Bert in their Great War uniforms. Both identical twins survived the war, but tragically Bert died in the flu epidemic that swept Europe in 1918/19.
I am forever grateful that my generation has been spared the war tragedies of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Peace is a precious gift.