Brave man's medals

Posted on Mon, 2 December 2013 by Alyson Thomas
Posted in: Medal News
Brave man's medals Getting it right

I CAN’T quite believe that this is the final issue of MEDAL NEWS for 2013 and equally I can’t believe it is the first one for 2014, a date that when I first thought about it, and the anniversaries it represents, seemed impossibly far away in the future. I remember some years ago, when I first started working on this magazine, being friends with a couple of World War I veterans, men in their 80s who had actually fought in the trenches. I remember being in awe of these old boys and thinking about what they had seen in their long lives. Every time we published an article on World War I medals I would think about these veterans and being amazed that they were actually entitled to wear “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”, but of course they faded away as old soldiers do and soon there were none left, no men to share their experiences, no memories to be recalled and I realised that actually it was left to people like me, historians and medal collectors and others of our ilk to keep the memories of those men alive. Now, of course, the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict is practically upon us and, if the Government website is to be believed there are plenty of commemorations planned to tell the story.

Commemorating a conflict is always a dodgy thing politically and it will be interesting to see how the plans come together over the next few months, indeed years. World War I was unlike any war that had gone before inasmuch that it was a butcher’s yard, a mass killing of millions, many of whom were not regular soldiers at all. However, it was a “traditional war” in a way its later counterpart was not. Few people would deny that stopping the terrible Nazi war machine and the mass genocide that it left in its wake, was the “right” thing to do. If any war can be thought of as “just” then the campaign against Hitler falls into that category, but the “Great War” wasn’t like that—it was a war between various powers, in particular two huge Empires, that simply couldn’t not have a war, such was the political tension at the time. As such commemorating it is tricky. There cannot be celebrations per se, after all there is little to celebrate, and some are questioning why there are commemorations at all, but I think such questioning misses the point.

The simple fact is that World War I saw millions of men ripped from their everyday lives and sent overseas to fight in a war that many of them truly believed would end all wars. They were fighting for King and Empire, believing that the “evil Hun” was seeking to destroy their way of life, indeed everything they believed in. British soldiers in particular saw the invasion of the low-lands and France as a pre-cursor to an invasion of Britain (never as imminent as in World War II of course, or indeed ever seriously considered by the Kaiser but that didn’t stop the newspapers of the time from whipping up the idea in “Tommy’s” head) and the Empire soldiers, the Canadians, Anzacs, etc., dutifully rallied round to support the cause.

Regardless of the truth or the politics behind the whole debacle, the men who fought, who volunteered or who were conscripted, do deserve to be remembered and the battles where they died deserve to be commemorated. In particular the youngsters today, those who never knew World War I veterans (and probably don’t know any World War II veterans either), need to be told what happened and why. When they learn about the Nazis they will, one hopes, see the rights and wrongs of that war but they need to know about the “Great War” too—and I just hope that when they find out about it they don’t learn through the rose coloured spectacles of political correctness that seem to be so fashionable these days. There will be no easy way to commemorate the 1914–18 war, not in the 21st century, but I would beg and plead of the powers-that-be that whatever they do they do not try to rewrite history. Yes, it was bloody, and bloody awful, but if we start looking at it not as it actually was but as we feel it should have been, then we are in trouble. The men represented in our collections deserve to be remembered for who they were and what they did in the context of the time when they did it; if we start putting our own values on their story then we will do their memory an injustice and I hope 2014 won’t see that sort of thing go on. As we start the year I only know as much as you about what’s planned—I just hope that by the time I write this comment in 12 months time I won’t be writing about opportunities missed and stories changed to suit political agendas. The holders of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred deserve better than that.

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