As the world wars fade into memory, Remembrance inevitably focuses on wars fought since 1945. The trouble with this is that platitudes like ‘they died so that we might be free’ simply don’t wash when it comes to these wars. Because – let’s be frank about it – Britain’s post 1945 wars have been bad wars. Wars that were colonial policing operations; wars that were part of Cold War real-politic; or wars fought for brazenly economic interests. They have more in common with the ‘little wars’ of the Victorian era than with the moral certainties of the Second World War. And the motivation of the professional armies that fought them – largely economic conscription - has little in common with the patriotic hysteria of the First World War either.
The history of these ‘bad’ wars is essentially that of the suffering of working class young men for causes that had bugger-all to do with their own lives or those of their families back home. Recruits have always tended to come from the poorest layers of society – Wellington referred to his common soldiery as ‘the scum of the earth’. Even in that brutal age, life in the ranks of the nineteenth century army was particularly grim, and a career option taken only by those most desperate to avoid prison or the workhouse. And before Rudyard Kipling popularised the virtues of the ordinary British soldier, the army was generally viewed by society as a whole with distaste and suspicion, In part at least because it was used as much for policing its own countrymen as it was for fighting foreign enemies.
I’ve been doing some family research recently and have uncovered something of a military tradition on one side of my family – it’s quite an insight:
The first soldier I’ve found seems to be my Great-Great Grandfather - Albert – a private in the 10th Hussars in the middle of the nineteenth century. His father had been a master bricklayer and a prosperous artisan but the family struck hard times. He joined after the regiment returned from the spectacularly disastrous and pointless Crimean War, and he seems to have left before they went off to the equally futile Second Afghan War. He probably would have spent at least part of his service stationed in Ireland on policing operations.
Albert died young and his family must have been fairly poor, his widow is listed in the census euphemistically as ‘laundress’ (or more prosaically washerwoman). So his son - my Great Grandfather Frederick - joined the Royal Horse Artillery. He served for twenty years and fought in the Second South African War - a shameless bit of land grabbing by the British Empire that introduced the expression ‘concentration camp’ to the world. When Fred left the army the municipal authorities appointed him as the town’s resident fireman – in those pre-welfare state days this was typical of the charity given to the deserving poor of ‘good character’. This would have been a stroke of good fortune- then as now, ex-servicemen were disproportionately represented amongst the homeless and beggars of Victorian London.
In the Great War, Fred’s youngest son – my Great Uncle Albert Victor – seems to have enlisted underage in the Hampshire Regiment. He also fought – and was killed – in a far-flung corner of empire - Mesopotamia - or Iraq as it is now known. Even in a war of vainglorious futility and bungling this particular campaign stands out as a spectacularly misguided and pointless waste.
Fred’s grandson, my Uncle Charlie, served as a gunner in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. His time was not spent liberating Europe from Nazism but with the ‘forgotten’ 14th Army in Burma defending the empire from Japanese expansion. Before the war Charlie had been a bright grammar school lad destined for better things but his experiences led him to stay on in the army after the war and he ended up retiring as a senior NCO. That was in a pre-Rambo age when PTS hadn’t been discovered.
In all this of course I’ve deliberately omitted to mention those parts of the family who did participate in the defeat of Fascism. But that’s my point – in the tradition of Britain’s ‘bad’ wars, WW2 or the 'People’s War’ is an aberration. A century after Queen Victoria's death our servicemen are still being sent to serve in imperial outposts - in fact still in Afghanistan and Iraq.
My family’s military history - like Britain’s military history - is a story of ordinary people fighting for causes that are not their own; poor men fighting rich men’s wars. I see no glory or sacrifice in this history, only sadness and anger – and that should be the best form of Remembrance.