Centenary of end of World War One offers moment for reflection
November 9, 2018
This Sunday at 11am will be exactly 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front, signalling the end of the First World War. We are still living with the long-term consequences of this terrible conflict, which touched every family in York, and unleashed powerful forces that helped make the world what it is today.
The map was redrawn, with the Russian, Turkish, German and Austrian Empires all collapsing, alongside the emergence of America as a world power, and birth of Communism, later to sweep the globe from Asia to South America. At home, the whole of society was impacted by warfare in a way that had no precedent. 6 million men served in the armed forces, with 700,000 killed and over 2 million wounded. More British people died during 1914-18 than in any other conflict before or since.
World War One is now passing beyond living memory, with the deaths of the last people with direct experience of this period, which makes it all the more important that we use this momentous anniversary as a moment of sober reflection. The scale and impact of the war serves to put many of our current debates and problems into their proper perspective.
Most obviously, we are all lucky enough to live in a time of peace and prosperity that would have seemed unimaginable amid the mud and blood of Flanders fields 100 years ago. This anniversary serves to remind us that peace and security cannot be taken for granted, and have to be built through pain-staking work.
In this context, we cannot ignore the fact that the world is now more menacing than it has been for several decades. This centenary should concentrate minds on how high the price of failure can be if we are unable to correctly address the challenges that confront us.
Since the Second World War the whole democratic West has successfully addressed these challenges by uniting to maintain peace through collective security and cooperation in defence of common values, most obviously through the NATO alliance, and European collaboration, which we will remain wholly committed to whatever the precise outcome of Brexit.
It was therefore reassuring to see the Chancellor assign new funding for defence in last week’s budget to help us continue our role as a solid partner to the other Western democracies. Our armed forces are a vital insurance policy that we hope not to use, but which it would be perilous to think we can afford to do without.
This was shockingly brought home to us by the chemical warfare attack in Salisbury in March by agents of the Russian state, which caused one uninvolved local resident to suffer a horrible death. I was glad to see our government coordinate a robust international response to this outrage, which we continue to seek justice for.
This year also witnessed the barbaric gas attack by the Syrian regime on its own people at Douma in April. The use of chemical weapons is completely illegal, but these rules are worth nothing without the willingness to take action against those who use them. It was therefore heartening to see this country join with its French and American allies to destroy Assad’s chemical warfare facilities, upholding international conventions against this wicked criminality.
As the 1918 centenary reminds us, we have paid too high a price in defence of our values to not stand up for them when they are challenged. The current international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons is descended from the 1925 Geneva Protocol, drawn up in response to the hideous suffering they caused during the First World War. If we do not act to enforce rules like this, we have learned nothing from the War and all that followed from it.
On Sunday I will join other representatives of the community at York Minister to mark this historic anniversary. There is perhaps no place more appropriate to commemorate 1918, with the Minster’s long history as a symbol of humane and civilised values itself an important physical statement of how hope and solidarity can outlast hate and division. Together, our city, regardless of our views on the historical rights and wrongs of conflicts since 1914-18, will be able to affirm our common humanity by saying ‘we will remember them’.