Sunday 11 November 2012

On remembering what Scots fought for

In small Scottish towns there is usually a memorial with a kilted soldier listing the names of the people from that town who died fighting in the First World War. Often the names of those who died in the Second World War are added. We are supposed to remember these people, especially in early November, but also on important anniversaries. Indeed we are told to remember them twice a day, once at the going down of the sun and once in the morning. No doubt, in the years following World War One, friends and family of those who died did not need any memorials to remember their loved ones. No doubt, they remembered far more than twice a day. But what of us one hundred years later, when we are faced with names on a memorial? We did not know these people and commonly know nothing about them. How can we remember the Scots on the war memorials?

In trying to remember someone who lived a time long before I was born, I must rely on history. Why did these people fight? They would have given a number of reasons. They fought for their king. They fought for freedom. First and foremost they fought for their country. But which country? Obviously they fought for Britain as these soldiers all served in the British Army. They were not mercenaries fighting for a foreign power.

Naturally these Scottish soldiers were conscious of being Scottish. The fact that they were often kilted meant that everyone, including the enemy, knew that there was a distinction between these men in khaki kilts and those men in khaki trousers. But they all served together in the same part of the line. They were part of the same British Army, which at times was led by an Englishman, but in the end was led by Sir Douglas Haig, a Scot from Edinburgh. So their Scottishness, while very real, was a part of their Britishness, which was equally real. When they wondered if they might get a “Blighty one”, when they sang “Take me back to dear old Blighty” the home that they were longing to return to “Blighty” was a slang word for Britain. When we remember what these men fought for it is important to think from their perspective. When they died for their country, they were dying for Britain and to dishonour Britain today is to dishonour the memory of the Scots who died fighting for this country.

The Scots who voted in the elections of 1910 and 1918 overwhelmingly chose either Liberal or Conservative candidates. The only nationalism, which existed in these elections was in Ireland. Both the Conservative and Liberal parties were unionists with regard to England, Scotland and Wales, indeed no one even thought to doubt that these were all parts of one country. Scottish soldiers therefore who fought had no problem with their identity as both Scottish and British. It is important when we remember them, that we remember this, for otherwise we distort what they fought for and devalue their sacrifice.

There is an uninformed popular memory of the First World War, which sees every general as an upper class fool and the whole thing as pointless. But this is not how Scottish soldiers saw it at the time. They were pleased that Britain had emerged victorious and thought the sacrifice worthwhile. If Britain had not fought in 1914, there is little doubt that Germany would have emerged victorious. People at the time thought that it was right that Britain stood by France and defended the rights of Belgium. They thought that German aggression and militarism was worth fighting against. Looking at the names on the war memorial it is important to see the world from their point of view. What right do we have to say, “you all died for nothing”, when they who did the dying thought their deaths had purpose.

The world needed a Britain with a common purpose in 1914 and again in 1918 when for a brief moment in March, during the Kaiserschlacht, it looked as if we might be defeated. The unity of Great Britain and a people fighting together as one made the difference. Whereas the French Army after one too many sacrifices on the Chemin des Dames descended into mutiny, the British Army emerged stronger from its ordeals. Lessons were learned, unity in the face of adversity was maintained and the British Army by 1918 was the best army on the Western Front, performing feats of arms, which would have seemed impossible even a year earlier. History would be very different if Scottish soldiers had not played their part, if Britain had been divided and lacked a common purpose.
What were Scots fighting against in 1914? Primarily we were fighting the rise of German nationalism, which began in the 19th century  and came to an end in 1945. In two world wars the rest of the world had reason to be grateful that Scotland, England Wales and Northern Ireland formed one country which together could stand up against a nationalist bully. There were times in the first half of the twentieth century when disunity would have been fatal to us. It is this which we remember when we contemplate the names on the war memorial.

When we remember the fallen from the wars of the twentieth century, its important to realise how often nationalism, and proposed changes in international borders, played a part in causing war. Whenever politicians begin to play the nationalist card, they appeal to the selfishness of a people. They begin pointing out the differences between one group of people and another. They appeal to the basest emotions of a people rather than their reason. The people are reminded of past wrongs and injustices. Gradually the people are made to feel more and more indignant. In time this nationalist tinderbox needs only one spark to set it alight, which happened on 28th June 1914 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sararjevo . Looking at the memorial with the kilted Scottish soldier,  it is vital, when we read the names listed, that we realise that it was precisely nationalism that they were fighting against.