The Great War for Civilization

At the French Ambassador’s official residence on Friday 9 November there was a small, but formal, ceremony, at which five British service personnel who had, in different ways, contributed to the liberation of France in 1944, were honoured by being created Chevaliers de la Légion d’Honneur. One of them was Ruth Bourne, a veteran of Bletchley Park, who operated Bombe machines, the crucial equipment which broke the Enigma ciphers. The others had more front-line stories. Everyone was wearing a British red poppy or the French cornflower equivalent, and all the military personnel (including the veteran honorees) were decked out with their medals. That these veterans had survived was remarkable enough – to be present with them, and on such an occasion, was very moving.

On the centenary of Armistice Day, everyone is reflecting on the significance of the end of World War 1, conflict, and a hundred years of European history. My father was just old enough to remember the Armistice Day celebrations back in 1918, though at the age of 10 he was too young to have been exposed to any of the horror of the war. But in the hall at home are portraits of his twin cousins Bob and Jack, born the decade before him, and old enough to serve. Both did duty in the trenches; both survived, with wounds. Jack won the Military Cross at Passchendaele. He lived until the mid-1980s, and I remember him well – although he put his wartime recollections into print rather than conversation.

I have their medals in a tin box in the attic. The World War 1 medal has the inscription ‘The Great War for Civilization’. That phrase is, in a sense, in code: what could possibly be civilized about the slaughter of millions, for a purpose which few involved could have described? The most sense I can make of it is that Britain – like all those servicemen – was doing its duty. There was a treaty obligation, and that was all there was to it. Like a well-engineered Victorian machine, the interlocking treaties cranked around and, eventually, Britain became involved. ‘Civilization’ meant keeping ones promises: for strong states to come to the support of more vulnerable ones.

The Great War for Civilization had many consequences, political and social, and it is hard to believe that the machinery which started it was brought into action with any of them in mind. One outcome was that the nation-state of Poland was able to emerge from 125 years of partition between its three bordering empires – so that for Poland 11 November 1918 means not so much Armistice Day as Independence Day. The creation of Poland was, in a sense, a reflection of ‘Civilization’ – but for its neighbours a source of resentment which led to invasion and re-partition in 1939, and another enormous conflict in which both my father and his (now) famous brother were both caught up. My father’s war medals are in the same tin box as his cousins’, but they do not have difficult, thought-provoking slogans on them. It took their two wars, and the political courage of those who forged the post-war system in Europe, to establish the stability which we now take for granted. That I have no war medals of my own is something to reflect on, and something to be very glad of.

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