No matter what FIFA says, it seems entirely appropriate for all of us to remember those who served in the British armed forces and most especially those who returned home disabled or who did not return home at all. For the first two centuries of this Union, we Scots were willing and active partners in the great Kiplingesque cause of building the British Empire, which became a cornerstone not only of prosperity but of pride and of identity. The British Army and Royal Navy were instruments of its policy and, although the concept of Remembrance Day came from WWI, a grateful nation celebrated its heroes, whether at Trafalgar or Rourke’s Drift, the Nile or Inkerman.
And, whether press-ganged jolly tar or lifer redcoat, life in the empire-building forces was harsh and brutal: for them to survive, courage and fortitude against the enemy had to be augmented by courage and fortitude against a harsh military regime imposed by the cat o’ nine tails and the lash. “Ah” said Wellington, inspecting his troops on the eve of Waterloo “the Eniskillens; I hang and flog more of them than the rest of the army put together”. Often, the men suffered from the bigotry or stupidity of its commanders, whether under Cornwallis at Yorktown or Chelmsford at Isandlhwana. Seldom did they get to retire with dignity, with enough of a pension to see them through old age.
In the first half of its third century, the empire and its forces were called on for what might be considered more noble reasons than colonial ambition. The two World Wars taxed Britain in all senses of the word. Whether WWI was against German aggression or a kind of collective, self-destructive hubris by European powers is a moot point. What is a fact is that, for four years several million soldiers died under machine gun and artillery fire disputing trivial amounts of shattered land along a thin, bloody corridor running across France, Italy, the Balkans, Ukraine and Poland. It was also, in retrospect, the swan song of empire. It is little wonder that Remembrance and its symbolic poppy came out of the utter carnage of a “war to end all wars”.
But it didn’t. Easy though it is to blame Allied negotiators for fostering German resentment through the harsh Versailles Treaty, the fact was that peace had come because everyone was fought to a standstill by the horrors of mechanical war. In WW2, this then developed to such a pitch that lives were actually saved at the front, even as the civilians suffered disproportionately. But WW2 is generally regarded as a ‘good’ war: the enemy was clear, the cause of defending against aggression obvious and resulting ‘Dunkirk’ spirit under pressure was undoubtedly Britain’s ‘finest hour’. And whether sweating in a Crusader tank in the desert or in a Japanese PoW work camp in Malaya or freezing in the tail turret of a Lancaster over the Ruhr or on the ice-bound bridge of a corvette bucking its way towards Murmansk, there are countless examples deserving of remembrance for the terrible hardships they had to endure.
Since then, wars have been less clear-cut and the morals rather fuzzier. Was fighting the Mau-Mau in Kenya or Eoka in Cyprus of the communists in Malaya simply postponing the inevitable end of empire? Were the well executed but ultimately futile Suez or Korean or Falkland operations just throwbacks to an earlier glory of which our armed forces were now barely capable? And whatever your morality over Kosovo or Iraq or Afghanistan, were any feasible independent of the only real world power: the US.
But in all of these post-WWII/Cold War conflicts, the British armed forces have done what was asked of them without demur, maintaining throughout a high level of professional competence that continues to earn the respect of other countries. Whatever your political stance on such conflicts, our veterans deserve the same respect that their fathers and grandfathers bought so dearly.
As readers will have gathered from an earlier blog, I am no great fan of British colonial leadership. But for all that we on this island have achieved in the world on the back of the indefatigable Tommy, whether in trench or Tornado, who did his bit with humour and humanity, I will be at my war memorial like other millions to give thanks and remember those millions who risked everything to serve, especially those “who grow not old, as we that are left grow old.”