The Centenary of the Great War gives us a chance to pause and reflect on the huge changes that have shaped our field of experience.
The protracted peace we have seen in Europe seemed, for centuries, nothing more than a fantasy. We saw even more bloodshed later on in the 20th century, just two decades after the First World War, with a second global conflict. It is only through a concerted international effort and the triumph of liberal democratic ideas that Europe has decisively moved from being the bloodiest continent in the history of the world to being the most peaceful and tolerant.
Whereas the Great Powers of continental Europe once mirrored their violent tribal antecedents, they now represent some of the most prosperous and benign states in history.
The Great War was, of course, a catastrophe for mankind, a startlingly recent representation of the depths to which humanity can fall in the name of the state. There was very little about the war that was noble. It was a necessary war – a conflict that dragged Europe out of its collective delusions about the righteousness of imperialism and absolute government. It is often suggested that the men that Britain sent to fight were somehow unaware of the great machinations that led to their deployment, but they were under no false pretence. They knew the war would shape the future of the globe and determine whether sovereignty, the right to operate a democracy without malign interference, and the absolute privilege of people to choose their rulers, would represent the future of Europe.
The Great War dragged many of the ancient monarchies of Europe out of their lassitude. It hastened the arrival of Fascism, but it also set the standard by which sovereignty would be protected in the future. It set the line across which future malign powers would not cross without fear of intervention.
That is why we now honour those who gave their lives for our freedom. They did not fight to further some great imperial design. Nobody, at the outset, knew the scale of the trauma and catastrophe that was to unfold in France and Belgium. The real horror of war was to come only later, when Britain’s leaders were to realise that they had comprehensively failed to anticipate the changes in warfare that would come by way of the huge advances in military technology. Around twice as many soldiers died in the First World War, as a proportion of the whole fighting force, than in the Second Boer War.
It seems fairly inexplicable to those of us here today, looking back, that countries that clearly have so much in common thought it fitting to engage in such a hideous mechanical slaughter. The inability to comprehend that period in our history is an achievement of which many of the leaders of the last century should be proud.
Our role should be to ensure that the peace we have built from that period in our history is protected and cherished. As part of that, we will remember the sacrifice our ancestors made for us one hundred years ago. In Tameside, we will be marking the role of The Manchester Regiment, which was disbanded in 1958 and quartered in Tameside for many years. The 2nd Manchesters embarked for France in August 1914 and fought intensively for the next four years. Likewise in Stockport, the Mercian Regiment – formerly the Cheshires – has an equally proud history.
I will also be remembering my great-grandad, Private Benjamin Ridgway, a Lancashire Fusilier who survived at the Somme but who was killed in Loos, Pas-de-Calais, on 30th July 1916, just one month later. His body was never found.
Thankfully today, we resolve our differences around conference tables and through dialogue. From the two global conflicts of the twentieth century came a stern resolve never to resort to violence unless necessary to protect liberty and the freedom to choose a democratic way forward.
As well as remembering the sacrifice of so many, we must learn the lessons of the conflict they fought in. We recognise the supremacy of democracy. We appreciate its ability to broker peace where there was previously war. We owe it to them and to our successors. We must never forget.