Saturday, August 23, 2014


This August, Britain has been commemorating the start of the first world war, which began 100 years ago.

As part of the commemoration, 800,000+ artificial poppies have been placed in the moat at the Tower of London, each poppy representing one British or Commonwealth life lost.

It must have been the most devastating war to live through. What always strikes me travelling through Britain and France is how many names there are on each village memorial. Particularly as the villages were almost always much smaller in those days, at least in Britain. Some small communities must have lost all the guys aged between 16 and 35. Probably every family in Britain lost someone; mine certainly did. There was a brother of my father's mother 'shot while trying to escape' from being taken prisoner, which she seemed to find entirely in character. Then there was my mother's mother's father, who survived the trenches only to die in vile influenza epidemic that broke out during the last year of war and the first years of peace.

On my many travels I've developed a theory that Britain and America were actually quite similar in outlook up to 1914. There was an unashamed patriotism, and a strong belief in science and technology as agents of positive change. There was also quite a lot of religious belief expressed and publicly celebrated. Both nations, and indeed countries like France and Germany, felt they were special and unique and blessed by god, or at least good fortune.

After 1918, in Britain and Europe, many people felt that modern war had rendered such beliefs absurd. How do you believe in a technological utopia when science has produced poison gas, high explosive and the machine gun? How would any kind of loving god sit on his hands whilst Europe bleeds itself white, and then rewards the peace with an influenza outbreak that kills almost as many people who died in the war? How can one be patriotic, when patriotism has led to so many pointless deaths? Above all else why was the war fought and was the price in blood and treasure remotely worth paying?

Now I know America did enter the war (late as usual as British cynics would add). But although Imperial Germany felt the growing weight of American arms towards the final months of war, American casualties were, by European standards, tiny. Now don't get me wrong, 100,000+ deaths is awful - far greater than the numbers of US dead in for example, Vietnam. But from a population of 90 million, they don't have anything like the same effect as 700,000+ British dead from a population half that size.

So in the years that follow, the United States remains very religious (at least on the surface), supremely optimistic about science and technology, and unashamedly patriotic. European culture is the exact opposite; and I reckon it's because of the first world war.

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