Robin Hood’s Bay to Liverpool – A Twearly returns home

The Final Hill - Robin Hood's Bay

The Final Hill – Robin Hood’s Bay

Having taken 16 days to get across country, from the Irish to the North Sea, the aim was to try to get back in one and, as part of the game, to try to see if it was possible to get from Robin Hood’s Bat to Liverpool, without too much pain, by using the Twearlys’ All England Bus Pass.

First I had to get out of Robin Hood’s Bay. As things worked out I had decided to leave at the first opportunity. The weather wasn’t looking too promising (and during the course of the day became considerably worse) and I suppose I was also getting fed up of the instability that comes with being away from home. There were no real problems it was just that I didn’t feel like chasing around to fill my time with something useful. It’s one of the consequences when you set yourself a task, a target, that on completion there’s a sense of anti-climax, the adrenalin that has kept you going returns to normal levels and consequently you feel tired. So I thought a day sitting on a bus, gradually heading west, was the best option.

Robin Hood’s Bay would be a pleasant place to spend some time in the right conditions (as is the YHA at Boggle Hole) and I’ll make an effort to return in the not too distant future – as well as getting to Whitby to experience the famous fish and chips. It’s different from what I expected. I didn’t realise that the old part of the village is at the bottom of a very steep hill and that caused me to wander around aimlessly looking for the bus stop the day before.

There’s a strange ‘monument’ at the bottom of the hill, next to the Coast to Coast finish/start sign. This is a statue, if that is the right word, of a fish, donated by a couple of locals (I assume), a Captain Isaac Mills and his wife. Didn’t notice a date and have no idea what it’s supposed to represent. So that the fish won’t escape it’s fenced in.

What makes Robin Hood's Bay Famous!

What makes Robin Hood’s Bay Famous!

Before relaxing on the English local bus network there was one last challenge – and that was getting up the hill. There had been some steep ascents during the last couple of weeks and this was one of the steepest, but thankfully short, if not so sweet.

With the timetables of the buses I reckoned I could get back across country in about 10 hours. This would be on 5 different buses and some of the changeovers were tight so a delay of only 10 minutes or so at a couple of places would have meant a delay of another hour or two, so there was a lot resting on the buses keeping to their timetable.

In planning the exact buses to catch I had forgotten one crucial fact – and that’s the time limitations on the bus pass, i.e., it’s not valid before 09.30. Trying to use the pass before that time brands someone a ‘twearly/twirly’ (don’t know if there’s an official way of spelling it). For those who may not have come across it this is the term applied to any old fart who tries to get on a public bus before 09.30. It almost certainly has it derivation in Liverpool, that city and Sheffield being the only two metropolitan areas that offered free travel to over 60s long before it became a national affair.

A ‘twearly/twirly’ would stand at the bus stop anything from 10 or 15 minutes before the pass was valid and would ask the driver ‘Is it too early to use my pass?’. Perhaps the first ones to try it succeeded but after a while drivers began to realise that the same people would be trying it on and so started to stick to the time limit. As drivers would change the persistent old arses would keep on trying and hence the term came into everyday use in Liverpool.

I think it’s probably spreading around the country now, especially in the major cities but, fortunately for me, has not yet become an issue in North Yorkshire. I was at the bus stop for the 09.24 bus and it wasn’t till it came to me en route to Scarborough that I realised I had, inadvertently (honest) joined the ranks of the ‘twearlies/twirlies’.

Travelling long distance on local buses is an interesting experience/pastime. For one thing, being used, as we have become, to racing along at 70 plus mph on motorways when travelling by road we have lost the pleasure of passing through small towns and villages. The pace is obviously slower so when you are passing places of interest there’s actually time to see what’s there. The routes will change from fastish dual carriageways to then follow a quiet country road on the off-chance that someone in an out-of-the-way village is waiting for the bus. For those with no transport of their own these bus services become a bit of a lifeline to the outside world. I cursed these diversions (unfairly) when my bus was running late, especially when no one would subsequently either get off or on the bus, but that’s just being selfish.

The outside world is seen in a different light but so is the internal, the one inside the bus itself.

Travelling throughout the day you get to understand the different groups of bus travellers who occupy the different time slots and you get an insight of people’s lives as they interact with public transport. And it’s not always that edifying.

On the first bus, from Robin Hood’s Bay to Scarborough, leaving as it did at 09.24 it was too late for the early start workers, or even schoolchildren, but even on that bus there appeared to me to be a handful of people who might be starting work a little later, or even travelling to work via Scarborough railway station, the terminus for this particular route. Together with them you find those who might be making relatively local visits, going early morning shopping or having a day out in the larger seaside town.

The bus from Scarborough was completely different. Going all the way to Leeds (a scheduled journey of 2 hours 45 minutes which takes in York) this was packed by the time it left the centre of the city and was almost full of people using a bus pass. Some going only a short distance but quite a few getting out at York. They would have been on a day trip, returning after an afternoon wandering the narrow streets of the old town. But that bus also picked up people doing their shopping and those travelling relatively short distances to carry out the everyday affairs that make up people’s existence – visiting family and friends, doctors, dentists, signing on at the dole, getting away from annoying family members, trying to escape for a short time, basically just doing something different to break up the monotony of their mundane lives.

From Leeds the make-up of the passengers changed again. Some seemed to be going home after sorting out their affairs in the big city, perhaps after dealing with officialdom or shopping. Then there were the first people who may have started work really early, on a morning shift perhaps, and going home in the middle of the afternoon as they had started in the middle of the night. As we got closer to Skipton (this bus’ terminus) it got darker and soon we were travelling through driving rain. These were the weather conditions I thought I might have had to face, but fortunately for me didn’t, as the winds from the east kept me dry. Once I didn’t need them the winds reverted to normal and hence the torrential rain, which kept falling until I was almost within sight of Liverpool. Towards the end of this journey schoolchildren started to appear as by 15.30 we were coming towards the end of the school day.

The changeover in Skipton was tight, only 5 minutes between one bus scheduled arrival time and the next one, to Preston, leaving. By now the rain was persistent and heavy and Skipton bus station is not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time in such weather conditions. One of the problems with the deregulation of buses, and the slashing of staffing levels, is that there’s no one present to hold buses back for a few minutes if a connecting bus is delayed. There must have been 7 or 8 people doing the same as myself and transferring to the Preston bus but if the Leeds bus had arrived only 5 minutes later it would have meant another hour’s wait for the next one. There’s just no planning for these situations when technology provides an easy way to create an integrated transport network, possible even with many bus companies if there was the will. But timetable punctuality means more than passenger ‘satisfaction’, something which also happens on the railways. If notice boards contained passenger comments rather than meaningless statistics we would all have a better understanding of transport infrastructure efficiency in Britain.

But ‘a close to Skipton bus station pub’s’ loss was my gain as the next bus pulled into its bay less than a minute after I got there. Now the passenger mix changed yet again. There were a few of us long haul passengers, making it all the way from Leeds to Preston – and beyond. Again people returning home along the almost 2 hours of this route. But dominated by schoolchildren. Passing through a number of small Yorkshire and then Lancashire towns the route passes many schools so not a surprise that they would be providing the passengers. What did surprise me was the distance some of these young people had to travel. They weren’t in any way going to a local high school. This was the case at the beginning of the route but became even more pronounced on the second half of the journey where some of these kids were on the bus for 45 minutes or more, to then arrive in the centre of Preston – how much further they had to go I wouldn’t know. And we’re not talking about a local bus that gets caught up in traffic lights and roundabouts. This was a bus that raced along dual carriageways and the miles soon mount up. These children must have been spending at least a couple of hours a day just getting to and from school and that can’t be right. I walked to all my schools and if it took longer than 10 minutes you were dawdling, surely that’s a more civilised approach to education?

The final stage from Preston to Liverpool was the 17.30 commuter bus. They are always quiet as people tend to travel alone and with mobile devices there’s even less incentive to communicate with fellow travellers. But even on this bus there was an indication of the pressures that are placed on working people in ‘austerity forever Britain’. A young teacher, or trainee, was looking through her class’s workbooks for the first part of the journey (which for her was over an hour). This is as bad as the circumstances of the schoolchildren earlier. She wouldn’t have got home much before 19.00 and I can’t imagine what time she left in the morning. I would like to think she had spent an hour or so in the pub after finishing teaching but I think that is, unfortunately, unlikely. People are working too long! When I was involved in the trade union we were fighting for a shorter working week/life but that is all a thing of the past now. The advantage of her working such a long day is that she won’t have to wait until her early 70s before retiring, she’ll be dead before then.

One of the last of my travelling ‘companions’ was a young women who had obviously been spending some time mucking out stables. This information was gleaned not from her dress or what she might have said but by the smell of horse piss and shit emanating from her foot wear. Judging (is this being prejudiced and imposing stereotypical points of view?) by where she got off the bus she was unlikely to have been the owner of a horse, more a stable girl. But why bring her work home with her, and in the process leaving her mark on a public bus? So many questions, so few answers.

By now the rain had stopped. The streets were wet but I had, yet again since leaving home just over a couple of weeks ago, missed getting seriously wet. Liverpool awaited. It had taken me 13 days walking to get from west to east and just 10 hours (more or less) to get from east to west.

10,153 total views, 2 views today

Who’s mourning Nelson Mandela – and why?

Murder at Sharpeville 21 March 1960 - Godfrey Rubens

Murder at Sharpeville 21 March 1960 – Godfrey Rubens

In May 1929 Mao Zedong wrote a short article entitled ‘To be attacked by the enemy is a good thing and not a bad thing’. If a revolutionary does something that challenges the capitalist/imperialist system then their representatives will do their utmost to discredit, undermine and denigrate those revolutionaries involved in order to destroy their attractiveness to the oppressed masses. In the same way they will praise to the skies anyone who, under the guise of ‘fighting’ for the oppressed actually are no more than a lackey of the ruling class. It is in this light that we should look at who’s mourning Nelson Mandela – and why.

International politics is not civilised. There’s too much at stake, not just in terms of wealth but also control, prospects for the future and the long-term existence of particular social systems. At the moment there’s only one political system that’s able to have a significant impact upon matters globally and that’s the system of exploitation and oppression known as capitalism. For a good part of the 20th century this moribund and decadent system was fighting a rear-guard action against the progressive system of socialism, first with the establishment of the Soviet Union after the 1917 October Revolution and then the dramatic success of the Chinese Communists and the declaration of the People’s Republic in October 1949.

The Soviet Union took the revisionist road in the years after the death of Joseph Stalin and China went even quicker down that capitalist road within months of the death of Chairman Mao. The reasons for those dramatic developments have been, are and will be subject to debate and an analysis which is too complex to go into here. Suffice it to state that this caused confusion and disarray amongst revolutionary forces throughout the world and it’s impossible to calculate the consequences of these traitorous moves on the poor and oppressed throughout the planet.

However, it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union as a viable entity in 1991 that imperialism felt confident enough to go on full-scale attack and recover its dominance over the world. This covered: the economic – with the whole scale privatisation of the people’s resources in whatever country under the guise of restructuring and efficiency; the philosophical with, for example, the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ in 1992, which argued that capitalism was the epitome of human development; and the cultural with the widespread dissemination of English language films and the ubiquitous presence of capitalist ‘icons’ such as McDonalds and Coca/Pepsi Cola.

It was into this environment that Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years imprisonment under the neo-fascist South African apartheid regime. The timing of his freedom couldn’t have been better chosen.

As early as July 1987 debate was taking place amongst the South African establishment of the necessity or otherwise of the apartheid regime in maintaining capitalist control of the country. Newspaper articles at that time looked to the lack of significant change in the economic structure in neighbouring Zimbabwe since Independence in April 1980 and argued that capitalism had little to fear from Black majority rule.

In Zimbabwe the status quo had not been significantly challenged. This was partly due to Mugabe honouring the conditions of the Lancaster House Agreement (signed in London on 21st December 1979) but also to a lack of real political understanding by the leadership in Harare. At the time I considered that Mugabe and pulled off a coup against the white Rhodesian supremacists and their British supporters but have had to revise that opinion in the light of subsequent developments. The ten years of grace given to the white racists allowed them to consolidate their control and also to undermine the revolutionary forces by seducing the weak and fomenting disillusionment amongst the true revolutionaries.

Later pressures and restrictions placed upon the country by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund throughout the 1990s only made matters worse. When land seizures became more prevalent at the beginning of the 2000s it was too little, too late and led to the chaotic situation that has bedevilled the country in recent years. Only now with the support of capitalist China is Zimbabwe able to drag itself out of the mire but only to change one master for another.

So by February 1990, when Mandela was released from prison (less than three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall) his role as mediator between the extremes of the apartheid regime and the Azanian revolutionaries was crucial in maintaining South Africa in the capitalist orbit. Leaders that spend such a long time in prison, separate from the day-to-day struggle, are notoriously bad at understanding the contemporary situation. He went in with certain political ideas and views and came out with those same views 27 years later. Subject to the oppression of the apartheid regime in a passive sense he hadn’t experienced the viciousness and violence to which the people of the townships were increasingly being subjected. In that way Winnie Mandela was a better representative of the ordinary people.

On the balcony in Cape Town the biggest cheer in his speech was that in response to his declaration that the armed struggle would continue – this from a man whose attitude to such a course of action was ambivalent to say the least. In that same speech he also spoke of reconciliation but in the climate of the time, with the general impression and feeling that the regime was on the run, that the long, long years of oppression were almost at an end, there was a mismatch between the masses in the square and the individual on the pedestal.

But those behind the scenes knew exactly what was going on. I’m not necessarily saying that Mandela made an agreement to secure his release. He didn’t need to. If anyone was to read his defence speech at the Rivonia Trial of 1964 (the one that ends with the words ‘ …. I am prepared to die’) rather than just refer to it as ‘one of the most famous speeches of all time’ they would realise that Mandela spent more time saying what he didn’t agree with than what he did. Being in prison, isolated from the struggle, not developing his ideas as the struggle in the country intensified, to be of use to the Afrikaaner state (and its imperialist backers) he just had to remain intellectually where he was in the early 60s. And he did.

Pik Botha, and later FW de Klerk, knew Mandela wasn’t a hot-blooded revolutionary who wanted to fundamentally change society. He would be happy with the end of the apartheid system even if it didn’t change the basis of South African society. Never did Mandela express any support for, real understanding of and a desire for the establishment of socialism let alone communism. He stayed loyal to his class background and presided over a Black majority state where the conditions of the people got worse instead of better.

It’s one of the contradictions of ‘freedom’ in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In 1987 Zimbabwe was ‘free’ but was still restricted by capitalist control of the economy but across the border in South Africa the people weren’t ‘free’ but the standard of living of those in the townships was often higher than those of comparable workers in Harare. The people in the erstwhile Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe are now ‘free’ but things like education, health, welfare services and elderly care are increasingly out of reach for many of the poorest in society.

Forces within Africa, particularly the Pan-African Congress, did have the shoots of a socialist ideology but the ground was taken from under them with Mandela’s release. Very soon after his release he became the darling of the ‘west’ and the ‘east’ (he made a visit to Cuba) and soon it appeared that the only person who could talk for the Azanian people was Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). People believed the empty promises as his release presaged a better future for everyone. These empty promises were believed in the same way that ‘democratic’ politicians promise the world before elections but deliver nothing when in power – just consider the mismatch between promises and reality in late 20th Britain. And those promises were made for the same reasons, to try to deflect the people from taking more direct and significant action.

(Just as an aside, whatever happened to the term Azania and the impression that I certainly had, for many years before the ‘end’ of apartheid, that South Africa would be renamed, just as Rhodesia became Zimbabwe? But that would have upset the Afrikaaners and we wouldn’t want them put out.)

Mandela gave greater credibility to the right-wing within the ANC which wanted no more than black faces in control of the society as it was. Even though there were some within the ANC and Umkonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) – the armed wing of the ANC – that considered the armed struggle the only way to true liberation, especially in the early years (see copies of Sechaba from the 1970s), it never had the impact that was achieved by the other liberation movements in other countries fighting European colonialism and racism as in Rhodesia, Mozambique, Namibia, Guinea-Bissau and Angola. In fact, the armed movement was so ineffectual in South Africa that the apartheid regime was able to send its forces to try to claw back what the ex-Portuguese colonies had achieved through long, bitter and painful liberation wars.

Nelson Mandela became the ‘First Freely Elected Black President of South Africa’ in 1994 and in his wake revolutionaries faded into the background, corrupt black politicians and business started to feed at the trough once exclusive to the whites and the poor, both black and white, remained poor.

What, it seems, is often forgotten in the context of Southern Africa is that the ratio of blacks to whites in South Africa was about 3 black to one white in the 1990s. That meant that poverty wasn’t just the fate of the blacks. Some blacks lived in relative luxury in Soweto – the township to the south-west of Johannesburg – whilst poor working class whites might be homeless and begging on the streets. Contrast that with the situation in Rhodesia before independence when the ration was something like 27 blacks to one white and which led to an even more vicious and vindictive society. As the whites had much more to fight for that resulted in 47,000 black Zimbabwean deaths in the National Liberation War between 1973 and 1980.

And that situation remains almost 20 years later. Instead of uniting and fighting against the system that oppresses them all the workers, of whatever colour, are fighting amongst and against themselves and leaving the rich and powerful to carry on in the old way. That’s fundamentally Mandela’s legacy.

He didn’t want a revolution and those that did never realised that a revolution is not a dinner party (as Mao described in an article in 1927). A revolution is messy, violent and unpredictable. The only ones that can gain by avoiding such a situation is the present ruling class. They can/will be contrite and make all the apologies necessary, as long as their wealth and power are not challenged. On the other hand the exploited and oppressed can only end their exploitation and oppression by challenging the world order, by turning the world upside-down.

And that’s why world leaders, both past and present, are falling over themselves to shower Mandela’s corpse with praise. He stopped people from doing that. This is all shown in the film that came out at the time that must have had the producers rubbing their hands with glee – just weeks prior to his death. The film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom showed quite clearly where his politics lay.

If to be attacked by the enemy is a good thing and not a bad thing then being praised by all those who spend all their time and efforts maintaining the system of inequality and injustice is a bad thing and not a good thing.

 

14,377 total views, 2 views today

Ypres Salient – The Menin Gate and Tyne Cot Cemetery

Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium

Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium

Ypres, in south-west Belgium, was totally destroyed between 1914 and 1918 being, as it was, the area on the Western Front, known then as the Ypres Salient, that the British Army would never concede to the German forces, whatever the cost in human life. Now the rebuilt town lives on that destruction.

Thousands of visitors go there every year in order to remember, commemorate and mourn over the useless sacrifice of so many (mainly) young men from whatever country involved in the conflict. Those 4 years of slaughter are shamefully described by the British as the ‘Great War’, known in history as the First World War, but really is another example of where the working class fight out the disputes between the rich. Commemoration of those killing years only makes sense if that war really was (as it was ‘advertised’ and propagandised at the time) the ‘War to End All Wars’ if, indeed, 1918 saw the end of the useless and wasteful slaughter of lives that is an integral part of the capitalist and imperialist system.

But instead of being the end of the history of war this ‘Great War’ only presaged a century of even more destructive and murderous conflicts.

Ypres was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So it had to be destroyed. Not by design but just because it was there. It’s history stretching back almost a thousand years meant for nothing to the heavy artillery of the Kaiser’s army and the ruins of the fleeing residents homes’ became the brothels for the soldiers of the British Empire, seeking solace and relief from the horrors of the front.

Many of them returned home to a ‘land fit for heroes’ where they were ignored by the state that had sent them to Flanders Fields in the first pace and for a future that offered less as time advanced to an even more destructive conflict that would see the death of many millions of lives that made WWI seem like a picnic in comparison.

In Ypres the Gothic Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall), originally built in the 13th century, was reduced to a huge pile of rubble by German artillery fire, as was the nearby St Martin’s Cathedral. Both have now been rebuilt, perhaps in an effort to try to convince the population the past had not really happened and the good times could return. This falsification of the past has obvious negative effects as even some present day visitors don’t seem (as can be seen in TripAdvisor reviews, for example) to understand that the city is not as old as it looks.

Even though that anti working class, neo-Fascist, staunch champion of the rich and privileged Winston Churchill wanted the town of Ypres to be turned into a memorial to the British dead the Belgians were able to get their homes back as long as they allowed the British imperialists to build a memorial arch that fitted in with their perception of Imperial splendour. The result is the Menin Gate, at the north-eastern end of the town’s principal (reconstructed) thoroughfare.

Officially unveiled on July 24th 1927 this monument records the more than 54,000 combatants of the British Empire (later to become the Commonwealth) who have no known grave. These monuments are always emotional – you can’t help but think of the useless waste of life for something so lacking in substance and relevance to those who actually did the dying. On both sides of the arch facing the road that passes beneath are two carvings that maintain that those who died did so ‘Pro Patria’ – For Country – and ‘Pro Rege’ – For King. Not for themselves, their families, their class but for a bunch of parasitical aristocrats who use tradition and so-called ‘loyalty to the Crown’ to keep the forelock-tuggers in their place.

Class follows you to the grave, Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium

Class follows you to the grave, Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium

I remember a couple of years ago listening to a Radio 4 play where one of the characters stated that he understood why the ruling class sent its sons to die in the trenches but not why the industrial and agricultural families gave white feathers to their sons if they didn’t rush to volunteer to suffer in the mud of Flanders fields. I still don’t understand why the working class are so keen to see their children eaten up by what is now known as the military-industrial complex.

And that’s what makes a visit to Ypres, and the memorials that litter Flanders, such a contradictory experience. Yes, you feel for the young men torn from their homes in the countryside or the industrial centres of their homeland. Here I draw no distinction between any of the ‘sides’ in the First World War – a distinction that has to be made in World War One – Part Two, that started in 1939 (at least in Europe) to kill and be killed by their international brothers. They died needlessly but there was a general perception amongst the populace that such a war was so destructive, so ludicrous, so meaningless, so wasteful, that such could never happen again.

But here we are, in 2013 on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the ‘Great War’ and Britain has been involved in one of the longest wars in its modern history where an unrecorded number of dead (residents of the invaded country) number in their hundreds of thousands – but they really don’t count as they are Iraqis, Afghans or Libyans.

The Last Post ceremony that takes place EVERY day at 20.00 is an even more disgraceful for that reason. As are the ceremonies that take place every year at 11.00 on November 11th. If other wars, with the same rationale, that is the perpetration of the rule of one class over another, as was the case in Greece, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam to mention only a few, continue to take place (with our connivance or acceptance) then nothing has been learnt and the celebration of the dead of the Ypres Salient becomes a sham, if not worse, an insult to those whose disappeared under the sticky Belgian mud – good for leeks but a killer for northern factory hands.

The class nature of the war is even demonstrated by the way that the names of the dead are recorded. It is not the individual who is commemorated but his rank, each name coming in descending order depending upon the insignia on their uniform. This is a situation where the last continue to be the last as the ordinary private foot soldier is the last to be recognised in his regiment’s roll of honour.

Big as it is the Menin Gate is not big enough to hold the names of all those who have no known grave. For that reason another monument in the Ypres area was constructed at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, just to the south of Passendale (about 8 kilometres to the north-east of Ypres).

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passendale, Belgium

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passendale, Belgium

Here another 35,000 names of those who became manure for the farms that were re-established in the years after the slaughter can be found.

And more than 12,000 graves.

Tyne Cot is a ‘typical’ First World War cemetery, with its serried ranks of white marble headstones, some of which have a name, many of which don’t. It’s also the biggest cemetery of the ‘Empire’ dead and therefore has the most visitors from the 21st century. If you are buried in one of the smaller cemeteries that abound in this region only aficionados of the war, obsessed ex-servicemen/women or ghouls will pass by your last resting place.

If a war memorial such as the Menin Gate which lists thousands of names is emotional that takes a step up when you see these rows upon rows of headstones. Carefully carved with the insignia of their regiments and their names, rank, age and date of death (if known) most of these men had more time, effort and money spent on their deaths than on their lives.

Soldiers of the 'Great War', Tyne Cot, Passendale, Belgium

Soldiers of the ‘Great War’, Tyne Cot, Passendale, Belgium

This is the sort of place that the present UK warmongering Prime Minster hopes to send schoolchildren next year. Bored out of their minds, but glad to be away from home with their mates, what will they learn about that war? That it was the valiant British fighting against the evil Hun? That they died fighting for freedom – but for whose freedom, that of the poor or of the rich? That those from the colonies were there because they believed in the glory of the British Empire? That they thought that, should they survive, they would return to a better life in Britain? That they would return as heroes? That they would be respected as people and not as the dross of society, that many of them would have been considered coming from an unskilled background?

That they came back realising that once they had ‘seen Paree’ they could do anything? That they returned home with their weapons and organisation to see off for good their oppressors and exploiters, as their international comrades of the Russian army did in consigning Tsardom to the dustbin of history? Unfortunately not.

They returned to the same lies they, and their ancestors, had been told for generations and for the same reason we are still sending out young men (and now women) into battle situations. (The only truly ‘honourable’ war in history was that fought against German and Japanese Fascism – and the result of that war, at least in the UK, was the welfare state, not socialism but a considerable improvement to that which the 1914/18 heroes returned.)

Those lies haven’t change substantially so we are caught up in this seemingly never-ending trawl of death. Young men and women looking for an escape from the banality of modern-day society, with its emphasis on mindless consumerism and excess in everything are looking to the ‘excitement’ of warfare. In battle they can test themselves, feel real, feel ‘free’ – even when under the orders of those above them, have individuality even when the armed services by definition deny such individuality, find a meaning in life away from the debt ridden hedonism that continues in Britain even after the crisis/crash of 2008.

But many of them are now coming back home as screwed up psychologically as they did a hundred years ago (although I have less sympathy for those who join a volunteer army as it is today than those who were conscripted between 1914 and 1918). At the beginning of the 20th century most people weren’t aware of what war really meant but there’s no excuse nowadays – if you don’t watch the news then fictional films give some idea of what being shot entails. It hurts if the bullet hits you so why should it be any different for the ‘other side’? What makes present day wars more ‘acceptable’ is the advance in protective body armour and the ability to get the injured out of the combat zone within minutes and a medical infrastructure which can prevent death.

In this way modern armies end up ‘shooting themselves in the foot’. The more they protect their soldiers from death the more they create an army of seriously maimed. Just look at the images from the Vietnam war and you’ll see American conscripts going into combat zones with no more protection that a cotton shirt. Now they are more like the knights in shining armour of the age of chivalry. If their protection is greater this reduces the headline figure of fatalities but results in a greater number of seriously injured who survive, many with disabilities which will need a lifetime of support. This creates a virtual ‘hidden army’ of wounded. Some people might be able to tell you the number of killed in Afghanistan and Iraq – but the number of wounded?

In Ypres and Passendale (and, of course, the notorious Somme – but they were French so they don’t really count) your chances of survival if injured were drastically reduced, hence the thousands of names of those who lingered to death in a septic, stinking bomb crater, eaten by rats who took away their identities as well as their bodies. That’s why different headstones at Tyne Cot show no name, but perhaps a regiment, an occupation, a reason for being on the battlefront.

The returning heroes today, the ‘lucky’ ones, might have got a ‘Royal’ Wootton Bassett welcome back to the UK, in a flag draped coffin, weeping ghouls lining the street, a funeral procession formally reserved for the ‘great and the good’ – but hated by the army hierarchy and government as this turned war into a sentimental exercise.

But no more.

Wootton Bassett has become ‘Royal’ but the dead of any present and future war will have to come back in the cargo hold of an RAF transport plane and think themselves lucky if there are family members to greet them.

The fate of those involved in the war of 1914-18 was different. The state didn’t really want to know about the dead, they had done their job and that was it. However, there was still a class bias to the aftermath of the ‘Great War’. Haig didn’t like, and wasn’t liked by, Lloyd George but he still got an earldom and a not insubstantial cash payment. On the other hand family members of the ‘disappeared’ had to pay French and Belgian workers to dig up the remains of their fathers/sons/brothers etc. who had been identified. This financial burden upon people who had little extra after their own daily maintenance probably accounted for the hundreds of thousands who had a grave only ‘Known unto God’ – the most common inscription in the cemeteries in the environs of Ypres.

There was a reason to create these iconic cemeteries in the 1920s. The establishment had to be seen to be recognising the sacrifices of ordinary working men without accepting any real change in the structure of society. Winston Churchill who had been in government roles both before and after the war had sent the warship HMS Antrim up the Mersey to intimidate the transport strikers in 1911 and was equally willing to use the army against workers in the General Strike of 1926.

This isn’t happening now and won’t in the future. It’s bad PR to be confronted with a mass of white headstones. People could get too emotional. It’s doubtful the dead in the 21st century conflicts (so far) will have a separate national memorial. It’s bad enough that small memorials are sprouting up around First World War cenotaphs, a national war dead cemetery is going too far.

 

 

 

48,420 total views, 8 views today