On this day…

It is exactly 100 years ago today that the British government gained sovereignty ‘in perpetuity’ over small pockets of French territory – corners of a foreign field which were rapidly becoming what are now the iconic Allied war cemeteries.

On December 29, 1915 the French National Assembly passed a bill giving Britain ownership of land to be used for the burial of British war dead, as a ‘free gift of the French people for a perpetual resting place of those who are laid there.’

Thanks largely to the tireless efforts of one man, the dead were now guaranteed a permanent final resting place on the soil they had given their lives to defend. Today, there are over 2,000 war cemeteries in France, maintained by over 500 gardeners and still managed by the organisation founded by ex-newspaper editor and Red Cross volunteer, Fabian Ware – the Commonwealth (or, Imperial as it was then and as it remained until 1960) War Graves Commission.

It marked a sea-change in attitudes to the deaths of ordinary soldiers. In previous conflicts the fallen had merely been buried in communal graves with few, if any, individual memorials. Only in the Boar War was an attempt first made to bury individual soldiers in their own, marked grave.

But just as a grateful – and horrified – nation was facing up to its responsibilities in respect of those making the ultimate sacrifice, the scale of the slaughter between 1914 and 1918 was creating its own problems. Burial was almost always hastily conducted, often under gunfire; records of soldiers’ graves and burial sites were seldom systematically maintained.

Ware – a fluent French-speaker thanks to his time as a journalist in Paris – took it upon himself to systematically record the growing number of battlefield cemeteries on the Western Front and then to negotiate their permanent establishment as British war cemeteries. Although many troops were still simply buried where they fell and many other bodies simply vanished in the mud, at attempt was made for the first time to accord each soldier – regardless of rank or class – the dignity of a proper burial.

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That the interment was to be – and largely remain – overseas was a practical as well as a principled decision. The rapidly rising death toll meant that attempts at repatriation were impossible. Officers began to  express a desire to be buried with the men they’d led into battle; private soldiers would remain alongside comrades with whom a bond often stronger than family ties had been forged in the heat of battle.

It is an attitude perhaps best summed up by Rudyard Kipling, the IWGC’s literary advisor, who said:

‘… whatever his individual position as a civilian may have been, when a man is once in the Service, it is for his regiment that he works, with his regiment that he dies, and in his death he wishes to be remembered as one of the regiment.’

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Another Paris Conference

Recent events in Paris are a chilling reminder of how close to home trouble abroad can strike. No student of WW1, of course, needs reminding of how far reaching distant and apparently unremarkable events can be. No-one in all seriousness would have predicted that an isolated assassination in Sarajevo would lead to the death of almost twenty million people over the next four years.

But if the first shots of WW2 were fired in 1919 then so were those of The Gulf Wars, the Arab Spring, and the ISIL insurrection. For the origins of territorial disputes, jealousies, rivalries and religious differences that wrack the Middle East can all in some measure be traced to decisions made in Paris in 1919.

This week Paris has again been host to an international conference of world leaders, on the agenda another issue of global importance. And the threat of terrorism hangs over the city just as it did it 1919. Not even the French President was safe in 1919 from an assassin’s bullet. Clemenceau recovered, but complained about the poor aim of the man who held the gun!

No such terrorist outrage has interrupted the Paris climate change negotiations that have been held over the past two weeks. The agreement finally thrashed out in the small hours last night gives hope for the future. But we need to trust that the deal to be ratified later today is considerably more successful than the terms for a short-lived world peace that were agreed in Paris in 1919 – and that still have such terrible repercussions, particularly in the Middle East.

The task before the delegates almost a century ago was hardly any easier than that facing the most recent world conference. Although not quite on a global scale, the Paris Peace Conference nevertheless drew diplomats from 32 different countries. Five major peace treaties were agreed, including the Treaty of Versailles between the Allies and the Germans. And the post-war, post-Empire world was carved up according to a rather dubious set of criteria that seems to us now to have more to do with a ‘to the victor, the spoils’ mentality.

Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) made his personal views known in his monumental book, ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. His influence on decisions made about the Middle East – most of it old Ottoman Turkish territory – was negligible, his credibility effectively undermined by accusations of having ‘gone native.’

But his understanding (and wartime exploitation) of fierce tribal and territorial loyalties was ignored at some cost. Lines were drawn on maps that separated ethnic communities by new international frontiers, and tyrants were given carte blanche to govern with ruthless disdain, provided they swore allegiance to their Western overseers.

The seeds of the destruction that now threatens the very heart of Europe were sown almost a century ago in the same city that was so cruelly and mercilessly targeted by IS terrorists just a few short weeks ago.

The seeds of the destruction of the planet through the less violent  – but no less devastating – means of climate change have already been sown. Let’s hope that the world leaders currently assembling to ratify last night’s agreement on carbon reductions don’t make the same mistakes that their predecessors made when attempting to establish a new, post-war world order back in 1919.

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