How We Remember WW1 by Aly Renwick


Jubilee & Machine Guns

In 1897 Queen Victoria was applauded by large crowds as she travelled from her palace to St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate her jubilee. Accompanying her in the vast procession were soldiers from all parts of the Empire. Reporting this event, the Daily Mail commented on the troops:

‘White men, yellow men, brown men, black men, every colour, every continent, every race, every speech – and all in arms for the British Empire and the British Queen. Up they came, more and more, new types, new realms, at every couple of yards, an anthropological museum – a living gazetteer of the British Empire. With them came their English officers, whom they obey and follow like children. And you began to understand, as never before, what the Empire amounts to … that all these people are working, not simply under us, but with us – we send out a boy here and a boy there, and the boy takes hold of the savages of the part he comes to, and teaches them to march and shoot as he tells them, to obey him and believe in him and die for him and the Queen.’ [Daily Mail, 23rd June 1897].

While the fighting qualities of Britain’s forces were glorified at home, it was really the superiority of military technology that in many cases won the day. In 1898, a year after the jubilee, at the battle of Omdurman the British casualties numbered in the low hundreds, while 11,000 Sudanese Dervishes were killed – most died from Maxim machine-gun fire:

‘It was not a battle but an execution … The bodies were not in heaps – bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composed with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces…’ [‘With Kitchener to Khartoum,’ by G. W. Steevens]. Wounded Dervishes were shot or bayoneted where they lay. Afterwards General Kitchener boasted that his victory had opened all the lands along the Nile: ‘to the civilization influences of commercial enterprise.’ Whatever the propaganda, Empires were always about plunder and exploitation and run as businesses, from which great fortunes were made.

Sixteen years later, the First World War started. This was a conflict over trade and empire between Europe’s strongest nations, where imperial armies would use their latest military armaments and weapons against each other. In the trench warfare of the First World War, the weapons that were most dreaded by all the opposing troops was the artillery, barbed wire and the machine guns. Invented by Hiram S. Maxim in the US in 1884 the machine gun slaughtered the soldiers of both sides, especially during the major offensive actions as one side tried to overcome the other by throwing troops at the oppositions defended positions. The Somme Offensive from 1st July to 18th November 1916, in which over 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded, was one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

Shell Shock to Shot at Dawn  

The British Army suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme, mainly on the front around Bapaume and Gommecourt. Given that the casualties suffered on even a single day could be enormous, a system had to be put in place to deal with the injured. Therefore, there was a great expansion of medical facilities. In the British Army area in France the number of medical officers increased from 200 to over 10,000. Clearing stations were set up just behind the front lines with base hospitals to the rear and a further move back to the more extensive medical facilities in Britain, if that proved necessary.

While humanitarian concern for the wounded motivated many of the doctors and nurses, there was another reason for the vast expansion of the medical network. During the great battles, high numbers of casualties reduced fighting units to a skeleton, depleting armies and rendering them impotent. The military command required an efficient system for clearing the badly wounded from the front and quickly treating those with lesser injuries, to ensure their speedy return to the trenches. Soldiers soon learnt to recognise the type of wounds that would ensure their evacuation from the horror of the front for good. To have a ‘Blighty one’ was regarded by many men as preferable to staying on in the trenches.

By the end of the war, some 80,000 front-line troops had been treated for various types of psychological breakdowns, which became known as ‘Shell Shock’. At first, it was thought that the cause of Shell Shock lay in gases escaping from exploding shells. Others thought that shock waves from the explosions were responsible. Various theories were put forward to explain the condition:

‘For conventional medico-psychiatry, the First World War disturbances presented real diagnostic difficulties: how to make sense of this “no man’s land” of illness, which seemed to negate commonly held beliefs about valour and masculinity, and to defy the prevailing organic models of insanity and its aetiology? The idea that the shellshocked were all hereditary degenerates or that their condition could be put down to the commotional effects of exploding shells on the central nervous system proved increasingly unsustainable. Yet shellshock could not be explained away as malingering. It blurred the distinctions between neurosis and insanity – and it was a crisis on a massive scale. According to one account in 1916, shellshock cases constituted up to 40 per cent of the casualties from heavy fighting zones; more alarmingly still, officers seemed especially prone to it. Army statistics revealed that officers were more than twice as likely to suffer from mental breakdown on the battlefield as men of the ranks.’ [‘War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age,’ by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press 1993].

In the British Army, senior officers tended to regard any sign of weakness among their troops as cowardice. So, ordinary soldiers were on the receiving end of harsh discipline and military courts when they were unable to function as soldiers due to mental stress. Under the regulations of the Army Act, over 3,000 men in Britain’s armed forces were sentenced to death during the First World War. Most sentences were commuted to terms of imprisonment, but over 300 soldiers were ‘shot at dawn.’ Many of these executions occurred before and during the large scale attacks, when men were ordered ‘over the top’ to almost certain death. Some of these men were so scared that they were reported as having urine and faeces dripping down their legs. But they still went to meet the guns and their fate, because they were more scared of being branded cowards and then being shot by their own side.

Mad Jack

Siegfried Sassoon was known as ‘mad Jack’ to his men in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was a model front-line officer, leading with such bravado that he had won a Military Cross. In 1917, recovering from war wounds in a British hospital, Sassoon wrote ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible for them to be changed without our knowledge, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them. Also I believe that it may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise.’

Sassoon’s declaration was published as a letter in The Times and he was ordered to travel to Liverpool, where he angrily threw his Military Cross ribbon into the Mersey river. He fully expected to be court martialled, and hoped to use the process to focus attention on securing a quick end to the war. Instead, a friend and fellow officer, Robert Graves, organised for him to appear before a medical board. The authorities were happy to go along with this and the board immediately sent him to Craiglockhart war hospital in Edinburgh as a shell shock case. This successfully curtailed Sassoon’s protest, suggesting that his anti-war views had come from someone suffering mental problems.

In Craiglockhart, which he nicknamed ‘Dottyville,’ Sassoon was to see at first hand the ravages that the war had brought to the minds of some of his fellow front-line officers. Sassoon wrote of the hospital:

‘The doctors did everything possible to counteract gloom, and the wrecked faces were outnumbered by those who were emerging from their nervous disorders… But by night they lost control and the hospital became sepulchral and oppressive with saturations of war experience… One became conscious that the place was full of men whose slumbers  were morbid and terrifying – men muttering uneasily or suddenly crying out in their sleep …’

Sassoon clearly felt deeply about the suffering of his fellow soldiers and expressed anger against those who had caused it:

‘Shell Shock. How many a brief bombardment had its long-delayed after-effect in the minds of these survivors, many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour; but now; now, in the sweating suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all, in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncomplaining – this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell-shock; it was in this that their humanity had been outraged by those explosives which were sanctioned and glorified by the Churches; it was thus that their self-sacrifice was mocked and maltreated – they, who in the name of righteousness had been sent out to maim and slaughter their fellow-men. In the name of civilisation these soldiers had been martyred, and it remained for civilisation to prove that their martyrdom wasn’t a dirty swindle.’ [‘Sassoon’s Long Journey,’ edited by Paul Fussell, Faber and Faber 1983].

War Poems

Compared to the General Staff, wallowing in the comparative luxury of safe base areas, junior officers had to share the hell of the front line. Some started to take issue with aspects of the war and a few developed kindred feelings for the soldiers they commanded. These officers were typical products of their class; highly educated, articulate and confident. This officer disillusionment and fraternisation with the ‘lower orders’, in an organisation which had adhered rigidly to a class system, was often expressed in verse, producing much of the famous First World War poetry. Siegfried Sassoon was incensed by the jingoistic support for the war back home. He attacked this attitude, especially as expressed in the music-halls, in his poem ‘Blighters’:


The House is crammed: tier upon tier they grin
And crackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.


A fellow patient at Craiglockhart was Wilfred Owen from the Manchester Regiment, whom Sassoon encouraged to write war-poems. Owen was suffering from shell shock and encapsulated his experiences in these verses from his poem Mental Cases:

Mental Cases

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of the set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing at us who dealt them war and madness.

Through the realisation of what conditions at the front were really like and the evident effects this had on their returning men, the British public gradually came to accept shell shock as a condition that could affect any soldier. In Europe, people like Sigmund Freud, the father of psycho-analysis, took up this issue:

‘The war, as Freud noted in the introduction to a psychoanalytic study of shellshock, “was not without an important influence on the spread of psychoanalysis,” because medical men “who had hitherto held back from any approach to psychoanalytic theory were brought into close contact with them when in the course of their duty as army doctors they were obliged to deal with war neuroses.” The book had arisen from contributions to the fifth International Psychoanalytical Congress held in Budapest in late September 1918. A symposium had been held on “The Psychoanalysis of War Neuroses.”

… official observers from the highest quarters of the Central European Powers were present as observers at the Budapest Congress. In Freud’s words, “The hopeful result of this contact was that the establishment of psychoanalytic Centres was promised, at which analytically trained physicians would have leisure and opportunity for studying the nature of these puzzling disorders [the war neuroses] and the therapeutic effect exercised on them by psychoanalysis.”

Before these proposals could be put into effect, however, “the war came to an end, the state organisations collapsed and interest in the war neuroses gave place to other concerns”.’ [War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press 1993].

In Britain, at the end of  WW1, political battles were fought in Parliament and in the medical establishment to prevent the practice of designating the worst cases of shell shocked soldiers insane and committing them to asylums. Many in the British Army Command were still refusing to accept shell shock as a diagnosis. Class prejudice was clearly evident when they looked at the problem:

‘… the War Office Committee of Inquiry into Shellshock under the chairmanship of Lord Southborough in 1922 entertained but then rejected Freud’s therapy, or at least the “sanitised” version they had been offered by Head and Rivers [British shellshock doctors]. The committee declared that Jews, the Irish and the working classes were more likely to break down, as were “artistic types” and “imaginative city-dwellers” and other such “highly strung’ people”.’ [War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press 1993].

No doubt, the Top Brass thought that the officers who succumbed to this condition were ‘artistic types’ or ‘highly strung.’ In the ten years after the ending of WW1, pension boards examined over 100,000 cases of former front-line troops suffering from mental disorders. At the start of the Second World War the British Government was still paying £2 million pounds a year to shell-shocked veterans of the First World War. In the Second World War Shell Shock became known as Combat Fatigue and in our own day it is recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At least in part, it results from the battle in the minds of soldiers, between the civilian ethos, where the worst thing you can do is kill another human being and the ethos of the battlefield, where you are trained for, and expected to do, just that.

Demobbed Veterans

In the early years of the 20th century, the British establishment had still believed they were ruling the most powerful nation and empire in the world. But they were also aware that threats to their power existed both at home and abroad. Across the Atlantic, the US was out producing Britain in manufactured goods. Closer to home, Germany was doing the same – but also threatened to dominate Europe and even menace parts of the British Empire. In Russia the Tsarist autocracy was threatened and then overthrown, leading to the rise of the Soviet Union and the prospect of world wide communist revolution. Within Britain militant women were engaged in a struggle for the vote and a labour movement, that not only sought to unionise workers but also looked towards new forms of social organisation like socialism and communism, was emerging. And in the Empire there were demands for more democratic forms of government and the threat of colonial revolts. Especially in India, where 5 months after the end of WW1 the Amritsar Massacre occurred, and Ireland, where a war for independence ensued. [Further information on Amritsar Massacre: ].

All over Europe, at the end of the First World War, there were young men who had gone straight into the trenches and who knew no life save that of soldiers. Most of these demobbed veterans had served at the front and many of these men were left traumatised and brutalised by their experiences. In London in 1922, on the anniversary of Armistice Day, 25,000 unemployed First World War veterans marched past the Cenotaph in remembrance of the dead. To protest about their own plight, many pinned pawn tickets beside their medals. Ex-soldier George Coppard recalled: ‘Lloyd George and company had been full of big talk about making the country fit for heroes to live in, but it was just so much hot air. No practical steps were taken to rehabilitate the broad mass of de-mobbed men.’

In Germany, some similar disillusioned veterans were recruited into the anti-revolutionary Freikorps (Free Corps) by their former officers, who now used these ex-soldiers to help crush the political Left:

‘There was no doubt a ruthlessness, a feeling of desperation, about some of these men who were unable to formulate effective political goals and who rightly or wrongly thought themselves abandoned by the nation whose cause they championed. The suppression of revolution in Berlin or Munich was accompanied by brutal murders, and such murders continued even after the Free Corps had been disbanded, most often committed by former members of the corps. … The 324 political assassinations committed by the political Right between 1919 and 1923 (as against twenty-two committed by the extreme Left) were, for the most part, executed by former soldiers at the command of their one-time officers…’ [Fallen Soldiers – Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, by George L Mosse, Oxford University Press 1990].

These veteran ‘new men’ saw themselves as continuing the comradeship established among the fighting men at the front. In Germany demobbed veterans were to join Hitler in the Nazi party, in Italy they marched on Rome with Mussolini and in Russia they fought on both sides in the civil war. In Britain, the establishment recruited some veterans again, this time to fight against the Irish people, who were seeking their independence. Rank and file ex-soldiers joined the Black and Tans, while a number of their former officers joined a more formidable force, the Auxiliaries. They both combined to wage a campaign of state terrorism against the Irish people. [For further information:].

Monuments and Remembrance

In most countries, however, there were still a considerable number of ex-service people around and they were thought to be potential troublemakers in establishment eyes. In Britain some of these veterans joined ex-services organisations like the Sailors’, Soldiers’, and Airmen’s Union (SSAU), which not only sought to organise discharged veterans, but also put forward demands for those still serving. The SSAU wanted official recognition from the Government and the prevention of servicemen being used as strike breakers in industrial disputes. The British establishment, already alarmed by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, turned the secret forces of the state against the SSAU and spies, agent and provocateurs infiltrated the organisation.

There were also a number of ex-service organisations, which were considered to be friendly and safe for establishment interests. Among these were the Comrades of the Great War, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers and the Officers’ Association. In 1921 these four organisations were merged to form the British Legion, which became the official safe voice of the veterans. One of the founders of the Legion and the President of the organization until his death was Earl Haig, who as a British commander had sent untold numbers of his men to their deaths at the Somme and Passchendaele. On its 50th anniversary in 1971 the British Legion was grated a Royal Charter – allowing it to use the ‘Royal’ prefix.

The Royal British Legion (RBL) organises and adjudicates over the Monuments and remembrance events that take place every year in November on Remembrance Sunday. For the last 25 years in Wellington, Shropshire, 92-year-old WW11 Normandy veteran George Evans had read the memorial poem at the town’s RBL event. This year he wanted to read his own poem entitled ‘The Lesson,’ which contained these lines: ‘I remember my friends and enemies too. We all did out duty for our countries. We all obeyed our orders, then we murdered each other. Isn’t war stupid?’ For this message of truth and forgiveness Evans was sacked and told he would no longer have a place in the town’s RBL annual parade. A Legion member said: ‘He won’t stick to the script in the remembrance parade. He wants to say what he wants to say about peace, but the remembrance parade is the wrong time and the wrong place. People haven’t gone there for that.’

If remembrance events are organised to bestow honour and glory on conflicts, this gloss not only obscures the dreadful events that occur in any war, but also helps the warmongers, when they decide to start another one. The First World War was not a glorious victory. While drummed up patriotism and conscription provided the human fodder for the guns, the war was factory fed for everything from combatants clothing to weapons, shells and bullets. Behind the war was a vast enterprise, from which great profits were made and those concerned had vested interests in ensuring its continuation. The war was a crime committed by establishments across Europe against both their ‘enemies’ and the mass of their own population – including their own soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Veterans should be able to pass on the different lessons they have learned from wars and if any have turned towards peace and pacifism they should be allowed to say so. In 2004 Harry Patch (1898 – 2009) ‘the Last Fighting Tommy’ visited the WW1 battlefields again and said:

‘When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a license to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?’

After the First World War Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967), became a member of the Peace Pledge Union, who produces the white peace poppies every year. In 1928 Sassoon wrote the following poem about a Monument to the men killed eleven years before:

On Passing the New Menin Gate

Who will remember, passing through this gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.


  1. Rod Tweedy says:

    Great article Aly. Was particularly struck by your comments on the role of technological “superiority” underwriting the elite’s sense of “moral” superiority. I’m reading Robert Jay Lifton’s ‘Home from the War’ at the moment, which is really interesting on the significance of US technology in the Vietnam and Gulf War, e.g.:
    * that many Vietnam veterans reacted strongly against the cult of technology in US when they got back, associating it with the enabling of atrocities against technologically “inferior” cultures – e.g. one vet ripping out “every bit of technology I could lay my hands on” in his apartment, apparently “equating that technology with what he & his country did in Vietnam”
    * “the new generation of high-tech weaponry used in the Gulf War contributed enormously to American information control” – i.e that media will focus on ‘smart’ weapons, fetishise stealth bombers etc, rather than report what’s actually going on/the human consequence of military engagement
    * that embedded in every technology is an ideology, – and in this case it seems to be to minimalise guilt and empathy: “that avoidance of guilt is built into the technology”
    I wonder if there’s a way of exposing this equation of technologically advanced with morally superior..or whether the whole language of “superiority” is plugged into and dependent on Enlightenment ideas of (left brain) ‘progress’/science

  2. Ally. I think the faces of the young lads in these picture speak more words and articulate more emotion than the printed word ever can. Words fail me now in expressing any meaningful comments. I am a fan of Europe and have travelled all over the continent both during my RAF career and as a civilian tourist. I love the place and I am one that embraces the EU and all the many benefits that EU membership brings the UK and, of course, the multitude of immigrants that have colonised large parts of Europe and taken advantage of EU membership. I am mystified at why the UK political establishment seem to resent the UE, our membership of if and all the positives it brings, including the many and also less talked about positives immigration brings to the UK economy despite the many negatives of mass immigration on our small island nation. We, Brits, fought twice to liberate Europe yet today we wish to show nothing but hatred and contempt for it. Since the creation of the EEC, most land wars and factors responsible for wars in Europe more or less stopped instantly. I hope the many lives that were lost of the 2 wars that consumed so many lives in Europe did have some meaning and that we all embrace the many positives that the European Community bring to all that live within it!

    Garry Harriman
    RAF, 1987-2006
    Ga, USA

  3. Paul Rogers says:

    Thank you for the timely reminder of the utter futility of war.

  4. Gus Hales says:


  5. Gus Hales says:

    1. Very moving, Gus. Thanks for uploading.

      PS: Is that Ben Griffin singing the vocals?


      1. Gus Hales says:

        My Grandfather was in 1/8 Royal Warwicks on the first day objective of Pendant Copse and I often wonder if he’s in one of these clips. Haunting.

  6. Gus Hales says:

    Great article Ally. Another classic exposition on the futility of war. Well done

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