A war can never be said to be completely over until there is nobody left who took part in it. That time must be coming soon: the Great War took place in the last century, and almost all of those who experienced its horrors first hand in are now dead.

One in five of those who fought died during the war itself. The rest have gradually followed their comrades, until now there can't be more than a tiny number of very old men who experienced the horrors of the trenches.

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Memorial Tablet

by Siegfried Sassoon (1918)

disley.jpg (24244 bytes)
Disley, Cheshire war memorial

One of the most common forms of wording on those war memorials which are found in almost every British churchyard, village green, or town square is 'Lest We Forget'. Back in the 1920s those who had survived the war, and those whose sons, and husbands and brothers and fathers had not come home, vowed that the sacrifice of so many would be recorded in stone.

There is a terrible poignancy in some of those weathering monuments; especially in small villages which must have been devastated by the loss of the handful of young, and not so young men whose names are inscribed there.

We know now, with the hindsight of almost eighty years, that the Great War was never likely to be forgotten. The ordered rows of headstones in the hundreds of war cemeteries in France and Belgium and elsewhere are a constant reminder of the terrible carnage between 1914 and 1918. And three generations later the pilgrimages go on.

Daddy's home!

For the soldiers who came back from the trenches, there was the thanks of a grateful country, a suit of civilian clothes, a pair of medals, and a small cash payment. A private was given the equivalent of a few weeks wages, an officer got rather more, and Sir Douglas Haig was given an earldom and £100,000, and eventually was the subject of the last equestrian statue in London.

Maimed in the service of their country
Facing an uncertain future

Many of those returning did of course get a little extra cash in the form of a disability pension. Unfortunately that also carried with it the inconvenience of being disabled. For most the money did not last long, and for most too it seemed that the gratitude of the country ran out fairly quickly.

The men who hadn't shared the sacrifices of the trenches were, by and large, a lot better off than those who had. They were settled in jobs, and had suffered no particular upheavals in their lives and habits. And it was a well-known fact that those who had done best of all out of the tragedy of the last five years had been those who had proved their patriotism by making massive profits out of war industries.

The aftermath years were a time of paradox, where the men who returned from the horrors of the trenches wanted to forget, and where those who had stayed behind, and had lost husbands and brothers, and sons and fathers were equally determined never to forget. It was a world where questioning whether the war had been right was attacked as a slur on the memory of the dead.

Remembrance Poppy It was a time where remembrance of the dead became a way of life, and where it was somehow assumed that all the best, and the finest young men of a generation had died. The other side of that assumption was that those who had survived were somehow less than those who had died.

It was also, and tragically, a time when a world which had so emphatically declared that the horror of the last five years had clearly been "a war to end all wars", was now heading inexorably towards another even more widespread conflict.

The exploration of that time, that world, is the theme of these pages.

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Aftermath - when the boys came home

Sunday 26 March 2006