This morning, I have been contemplating what I don’t doubt many of us have: the end of the First World War. I’ve been thinking about the senseless horror of it all: 17 million dead, and more than double that wounded and disabled. For what?
There was no just reason for the First World War: it was a perfect storm of imperialism, nationalism, and having lots of shiny new gunny toys that all these powers wanted to play with. It resulted in an international massacre.
The bereaved always wish to make sense of their loss. Nobody wants to believe that their son, their husband, their father, their boyfriend, that cheeky lad who delivers the milk and always has a smile on his face, were killed for nothing. Nobody wants to believe these brutal deaths and this generational scar could have been prevented if just once, someone sat back and said “this is a little bit much, maybe let’s chill.”
And so it was processed as “their sacrifice”.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase, and started to believe there is a point to it, that perhaps “their sacrifice” is a correct way to describe what happened – just not in the way that it’s taken to mean.
Those who were killed in the First World War did not sacrifice themselves. They were sacrificed.
It was an act of human sacrifice, the ruling class feeding children to machine guns to hold on to lands far away, to make themselves slightly richer in the future. The First World War was a mass slaughter in the hope that from the blood could grow a stronger nation: something which would be of little benefit to those whose blood was spilt, but very handy to those sending them through gas and guns. Their guts – their literal internal viscera – were intended as fertiliser for an empire.
They were a sacrifice, a tribute, a prayer sent up by the rich and powerful so they could stay rich and powerful, and maybe even grow a little more rich and powerful.
One hundred years later, we say we’ll remember, but those same rich and powerful, who made their pact with a bloodthirsty devil and many of them made out like bandits, now want to see us forget.
They want to see us forget because they are still committing that same act of human sacrifice to the altar of greed, over and over again. We have had a hundred years of wars motivated by imperialism, militarism and nationalism: that very same motive for the war that they said would end all wars.
Today, I’m remembering the sacrifice of 37 million people, in fury at those who decided to slaughter and maim them.
Usually I ask for money here, but today I’m asking you to make a donation to the Peace Pledge Union, who educate for pacifism and agitate to see an end to the cycle of violence. You can also buy a white poppy for next year.
3 thoughts on “What they mean when they say “their sacrifice”: remembering the centenary of the Armistice”
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria mori.
Siegfried Sasson on the Menin Gate memorial:
“Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,
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.”
Whenever the powerful describe a group of people as ‘heroes’, what they’re trying to do is to make their deaths seem necessary and unavoidable—a lesson to heed when listening to government rhetoric around NHS workers in the pandemic.