I NEVER knew my grandfather. Having served in the Royal Navy all through the First World War, he was called up as a 50-year-old reservist in the Second and killed by a bomb that sank his ship off the coast of France.
Both my parents also served in the Second World War, not in the armed forces but in the London fire service. During the Blitz, that involved more danger than was faced by most fighting forces.
The chances are that you too had relatives involved – and perhaps killed – in those wars. There are few people in Europe, Russia, the Middle East or the Far East of whom that’s not true.
It is right that we should remember those catastrophic wars, the death, destruction and mass misery they caused.
Twenty years after the Great War, there were;
· 442,000 men still alive who were so maimed, gassed, nerve-racked or otherwise ruined in health that they could not work;
· 224,000 dependants still suffering through the loss of sons and relatives who were their breadwinners;
· 8,000 men with one or both legs missing;
· 3,600 with one or both arms missing;
· a further 90,000 with limbs severely damaged.
In the meantime, countless families had lost men to a huge variety of sicknesses and wounds that had blighted their last years. Countless because no one bothered to count – but it was certainly an enormous number.
And all those figures relate only to Britain, which was not invaded and whose casualties – roughly 800,000 men killed – were relatively light. France lost 1.6 million, a fifth of its men of military age. Germany lost 1.8m. The best estimate of Russian casualties is 1.7m dead.
It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. In fact, the botched treaties that followed the Armistice made the resumption of hostilities, 21 years later, almost inevitable.
The scale of devastation wrought by the second outbreak is impossible to grasp, the figures in many areas literally incalculable.
British and French losses were less than in the First war – about one per cent of the total population. The Soviet Union, Poland and Yugoslavia suffered a death rate between ten and 20 times higher than that. In Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Japan and China, between 4pc and 6pc died.
Never in human history had such devastation been caused by human action. Only the plague known as the Black Death in the 14th century ever wiped out a greater proportion of humanity.
Most wars since, and almost all the major conflicts in the world today, can be traced back to those two wars. The division of Korea; the very existence of some countries, including Israel; the addiction of the USA to its military might – all these are direct results of the two great wars.
It seems appropriate that we should occasionally stop and remember all these things. With sorrow. With awe. With determination that it should never happen again.
But though I regret never having met my grandfather, and though I honour his memory, I will not be wearing a poppy. And I will not be attending some pseudo-military service of Remembrance this weekend.
I don’t wish to “thank God for soldiers” – partly because I have no god. And partly for the reason that was put so succinctly by Donovan in his wonderful 1960s protest song Universal Soldier:
He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame…… without him all this killing can’t go on.
The issue is perhaps not quite as clear-cut as some – the wearers of white poppies, for example – would have it. But I do worry that the conventional Remembrance Day, once a genuine expression of grief, has become over the years a glorification – even a celebration – of war.
Its Christian nature seems to put Christ’s stamp of approval on war (so much for “Thou shalt not kill”).
And if it is a mourning ritual, it is one from which those who have a different god, or none, are excluded.
To paraphrase the TV historian Dan Snow, how would the average Christian feel about joining in quietly with a religious ceremony held in a mosque, a synagogue or a Hindu temple?
Last Sunday Snow hosted a “Remembrance service for atheists” at London’s Conway Hall.
Like me, he calls himself “godless rather than anti-God”. And he described the service as “a neutral space for those who feel alienated by the religious aspects of the traditional ceremony”.
I don’t feel the need of any such ceremony myself, but I can see his point.
Apparently they sang songs – not hymns. Universal Soldier might have been a good choice. As might the Bob Dylan number from the same era, With God On Our Side:
The words fill my head and drop to the floor,That if God is on our side he’ll STOP the next war.