Russell and Duenes

The Fiction of Glory in War

with 2 comments

I read something today that I can’t get out of my mind. In The Last Lion: Alone – Winston Spencer Churchill, William Manchester writes,

Air power would prove to be the ultimate blow to the [British] Empire’s role as the world’s one superpower, but the first great blow to the imperial future had been dealt by the Great War. In the red month of August 1914, when England’s poet laureate promised Oxford and Cambridge students that if they enlisted they would find “Beauty through blood,” all 450 million subjects of the Empire went to war, bound by a single declaration from their king-emperor. They sprang to arms in a trance of ardor, even elation. By Armistice Day 3,190,235 of the King’s subjects had fallen in the slime and gore of trench warfare, 1,165,661 killed in action, 962,661 of them from Great Britain. Over 2 million soldiers had been wounded, thousands of them crippled and maimed, destined to be public wards for the remainder of their lives. Add to these the nearly half-million young widows and fatherless children, and one finds that two years after the war 3.5 million Britons, nearly 10 percent of the population, were receiving a pension or an allowance…The most extraordinary thing about England’s disenchantment with the war is that it didn’t surface for over ten years. The reading public had been fed the self-serving memoirs of those responsible for the disaster and the thin fictional gruel of Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay. Those who had remained home were simply incapable of absorbing the truth. Aging Tommies told them that sixty thousand young Englishmen had fallen on the first day of the battle of the Somme without gaining a single yard. Sixty thousand? It couldn’t be true. Those who said so must be shell-shocked. (pgs.46-7)

Indeed, I find that I am incapable of absorbing the fact that 60,000 men could be obliterated in one day and not have gained a yard. I can’t process a million Britons losing their lives in war over 5 years, leaving behind their wives and children. But what I can grasp is that there is nothing glorious about it. In my mind I add to it the incalculable destruction into which all Europe was plunged again a mere twenty years later in WW2. It is simply beyond reckoning at this point the damage that was brought on mankind by these two world wars. My heart reels. As Peter Hitchens says, “Wars – which can only ever be won by ruthless violence – are seldom fought for good reasons, even if such reasons are invented for them afterward. Civilized countries become less civilized when they go to war. And they hardly ever have good outcomes. In fact, I think it safe to say that the two great victorious wars of the twentieth century did more damage to Christianity in my own country than any other single force (The Rage Against God, 79-80).

A damning indictment indeed, and a sobering one.



Written by Michael Duenes

November 19, 2010 at 12:08 am

2 Responses

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  1. Reminds me that I recently watched Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) about the Christmas Truce in the trenches in 1914 – . Worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.


    November 19, 2010 at 8:53 am

    • Great film. I’m intrigued by WW1, mainly by the sheer lunacy and horror of it and what it wrought in the world, some of which, I dare say, is still with us.



      November 19, 2010 at 9:31 pm

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