Not art history...

June 12 2013


A small diversion into history here, for I happened to catch a moving moment on Yesterday in Parliament last night, and thought I would share it with any First World War buffs out there. It's best to watch the speech of Labour MP Paul Flynn (on the plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the War) in the video above, starting at 9:54. But if you can't, here's what he said:

The first world war is not an occasion to celebrate. [...] I have a different tale to tell, but it is relevant and true, about a young man who volunteered at the age of 15. He was full of optimism and a great patriot, and went to war believing that it was going to lead to dignity, glory and honour. It did not; it led to disease, degradation, bitterness and early death at the age of 43.

That young man was a machine gunner. The belief on both sides was that machine gunners were never taken prisoner, because they were responsible for killing hundreds and possibly thousands of people. He found himself in a machine gun nest—a foxhole—gravely injured, and the others were dead. That was in April 1918, when the Germans broke through on the Messines ridge. His life was saved. He heard a German patrol coming to him and took out his rosary beads to pray, waiting for the bullet to blow out his brains. He could not get out of the hole, where he was identified as a machine gunner because the machine gun was lying across his body. However, he was not shot. The German officer, and two others, carried him across no man’s land and his life was saved. He was ever grateful to the Germans for the rest of his life.

He went there to serve the cause of his country that he loved and to kill the Hun, who were slaughtering Belgian babies. Other small nations had a different army experience at the time. He returned to civilian life and found that he was on a pension. He could not do what he called a man’s job ever again. In the mid-1930s, his pitiful pension was reduced by an ungrateful Government, who changed the reason for his pension from saying that his ill health was attributed to his war wound to saying that it was aggravated by it, although he went in as a perfectly fit 15-year-old.

The man was my father.

Extraordinary to think, even after the death of the last veteran, that the First World War is still so tangible for many.

Update: in case you're interested in my views on the origins of WW1 (!), you can read here why Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary in 1914, was listed at No.1 in my book 'Crap MPs' (available here at a bargain £5.99!)

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