I am still recovering from the Napoleonic wars. In his 800-page magisterial account of the French Emperor, which I read on holiday, Andrew Roberts concludes that Napoleon is comparable to his own hero, Alexander the Great. He, too, deserves the soubriquet ‘Great’. I am not so sure.
Napoleon was an exemplary product of French military schooling. He defeated elderly generals with brilliant tactics and laid the foundations for the modern French state. The Code Napoleon survives to this day. More statecraft might have followed had he not set on the road to Moscow. But the image that has stayed in my mind is of the slaughter of three million soldiers in pursuit of his imperial ambitions. ese were not pretty wars.
When the need to replenish the French army became urgent, the recruiting age was lowered and younger teenagers were quickly enlisted and marched into the enemy guns. These were the largest armies ever assembled in western warfare. Over the course of 20 years, artillery became the decisive factor and the cavalry became a thing of the past.
I was only reading a book in the comfort of an armchair but the battle descriptions still disturbed me. I was reminded of the carnage of war on Friday night listening to a former soldier read a letter written to his mother at the end of the Falklands war. He had spent the last day of the war pinned on the side of a mountain under shell re. His comrades were screaming in agony as they were killed by enemy shelling. On the front line, warfare has not moved on much since Napoleon’s day.
Although Gus Hales, a member of Veterans for Peace, had written the letter after the Argentinian surrender, this was not the letter of a victorious hero. Thirty years later, the events are still in the forefront of his mind. 250 British soldiers died in the Falklands war and 312 veterans subsequently committed suicide because they could not live with their experiences.
Veterans for Peace placed a wreath of white poppies on the Cenotaph at the end of the Remembrance parade. They live uneasily with the term of ‘hero’ which is now applied without a second thought to any former soldier. They find the pomp and ceremony of these rituals do not help them come to terms with their memories of war or do justice to obscenity of the battlefield.
Another veteran spoke of teenage boys he commanded patrolling the streets of Derry in what we call ‘ The Troubles’ they trashed Catholic houses in the middle of the night looking for guns, and because, as he put it, “they could.” He began to doubt whether the IRA were as evil as they were made out to be when they fought back. Veterans for Peace has recently returned to Belfast to meet the former republican commanders in an extraordinary act of reconciliation.
I wondered how many other soldiers had doubts. Doubt clearly has no place in the military machine. e Veterans described the way that army training produces soldiers who will do what they are told without inching. Anyone who deviates from the line is punished and ostracised. As Frederick another Great said, “If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army.”
The Veterans derided the Army recruitment adverts that make life in uniform like an extreme version of Centre Parcs. The latest and hugely entertaining James Bond lm is still reverberating around my mind too. When asked to state his occupation, at least Bond admits he is a killer.
There is no indication that killing is the main skill required if you sign up.
The government has spent £45m over the past five years on a campaign to extol the military ethos to school children. Former soldiers are encouraged to retrain as school teachers. A bit more discipline would apparently not go amiss in some of the nation’s failing schools. Veterans for Peace has collaborated in producing a video critical of the creeping militarisation aimed at young children. See unseenmarch.org.uk
For the first time in a hundred years, no British soldier has been killed in conflict. But the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan are so fresh in our minds that Remembrance Day continues to grow out of proportion. It may be part of a campaign to make us all aware of the importance of the armed forces at a time of proposed defence cuts.
There must be another way, especially on a day when the West recoils from the horrors of the terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend. War brings horrors to both sides. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, according to Gandhi.
That is why Hexham Quakers are to be congratulated on mounting an exhibition about the choices that people in Hexham faced during the First World War displayed alongside those in their twin towns of Noyon, France and Metzingen, Germany.
The Quakers have also organised a two-week Festival of Remembrance which included the presentation from Veterans For Peace and which asks us to look more deeply at the consequences of armed conflict.