Before his song, ‘Between the Wars’, Billy Bragg said that he was singing it in memory of WW1 veteran Will Vernon:
‘When I was a kid, I used to run errands for a old man who lived a few doors down from our house. His name was Will Vernon and he was the only World War One veteran that I knew.
He was pushing 70 in the late 1960s and had a debilitating cough, all wet and spluttery, an echo of the trenches where he was gassed as a teenager, aged 19. Will used to give me half a crown to do his weekly shopping, which was a lot of money to a 10 year old.
I happened to see an advert on Facebook offering free access to WW1 records and, thinking of old Will Vernon, I decided to put his name into their search engine where I quickly found his war records.
He was a rifleman in the 3rd Rifle Brigade, fought in the breakthrough of the Hindenburg Line and was admitted to hospital having been gassed on 12th October 1918. If you’re old enough to remember those who fought in WW1, they bore dignified witness to the insanity of war.
I was briefly a squaddie myself and I’ve found that experience has helped me to oppose war, but not demonise soldiers. The guys I served with were just like old Will Vernon, teenagers put in a difficult situation without the right equipment – where was his gas mask? – and some loving family’s son.’
In 1914-18 Britain, to protect its world interests and prevent Germany dominating Europe, had thrown all the resources of the country and empire into the First World War. Emerging triumphant, but weaker financially and militarily, Britain found itself losing markets and influence to the US – who afterwards gradually supplanted Britain as the dominant western power.
Britain’s armed forces spent the time between the two world wars mainly in their traditional role of policing the Empire. New forms of warfare were used to keep British rule in place and aircraft were found to be cheap and effective weapons for machine-gunning and gassing ‘rebels’ and dropping bombs on towns and hamlets ‘to teach the natives a lesson’.
Before WW2 many members of the British ruling class had been virulently anti-communist and pro-fascist. This included various members of the Royal family, as well as sections of the media, aristocracy and big business. They even turning a blind eye to the overthrow of the elected republican government in Spain, by a group of right wing army officers led by General Franco.
Many people in Britain and other countries had volunteered to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. And when Franco won, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, they felt that fascism could have been checked if the establishments in Europe had opposed it in those early days.
Ruling class opinion in Britain began to change, however, when it became clear that unchecked fascism threatened parts of the empire and even the old order in Europe itself. So, just over two decades after the end of the ‘War to end all wars,’ Britain and the Empire became embroiled in another global conflict, this time against German Nazi expansionism and its Japanese ally in the far east.
In the Second World War, imperialist countries again used their modern technology of warfare against each other with devastating effect, as this conflict became the first conventional modern war in which more civilians than combatants were killed. This war, like WW1, did not end war, however, because wars / conflicts continued to go on and on and on – right up to our own day.
Info by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army from 1960-68.