I have mentioned the year 1914. I am making these loose jottings on the 4th August, 80 years to the day since our declaration of war on Germany. I know that looking at the plain statistics, we can dethrone the Great War from the place that it occupies in most liberal imaginations. Other wars have lasted longer. Others have had higher death rates, both absolutely and proportionately. On the same basis, others have consumed more wealth. I cannot say that our statist ascendency is wholly a product of the War: its roots can be traced far back into the 19th century – even into the age of high liberalism.
Yet for all this, I cannot but regard that war as the greatest of all known calamities. The only real civilisation that has existed on this planet came close to blowing itself apart: and no one but a fool can say that a full recovery has yet taken place, or be sure that one will take place.
I began this jotting with the intention of saying something smart and clever about today’s anniversary. But there is nothing smart and clever to be said. When I contemplate the events that unrolled between the 28th June and the 4th August 1914, I become a child again, in the audience of a pantomime. I want to cry out to the person on stage – “Look behind you!” “Don’t go there!”, “He’s coming for you!”. But there is nobody out there to listen.
And that, perhaps, is why we are so busy commemorating the events of 1944, but have chosen very largely to overlook the still greater and more unimaginable events of 30 years’ earlier.