One hundred years ago today, the Battle of Loos was raging in France. This was the biggest British battle of the so-called Western Front in 1915 and, like so many battles of the First World War, there were horrendous casualties.
The British commander, Field Marshall French, did not believe it was the correct place to advance but was overruled by his French allies, whose attack the British were supporting and by Herbert Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War. To cut a long tragedy short, British organisation was poor, British equipment was faulty and only the bravery of the front line soldier allowed any sort of credit to be gained from the mass slaughter. They died when the British gas blew back on the British soldiers or when they marched in broad daylight across open fields against un-cut German wire protected by massed German machine guns.
Scotland, of course, played her disproportional part. There were an estimated thirty-odd thousand Scottish soldiers with over seven thousand killed. In the fighting of the 26th September alone, the attacking British had over eight thousand casualties out of ten thousand men in only four hours. The Fourth Battalion of the Black Watch, Dundee’s Own territorial regiment, lost over two hundred men killed out of four hundred and all their officers except one. It was said that every street in the city suffered loss which is why on the anniversary of the battle, a beacon is lit on top of Dundee Law in commemoration: not in celebration of glorious victory, but as a reminder of tragedy.
What was the gain? A few hundred square yards of grimy land and the village of Loos-en-Gohelle. The families of the men who died may have been consoled by the British government’s gift to them of a Death Penny that they could display to prove the bravery of their sons, brothers, fathers or uncles. These Death Pennies, a six inch circle of bronze for the rankers, silver for the officers, were fairly common when I was growing up in the 1960s. I remember visiting an elderly lady who had eight of them embedded on her mantle-piece. Eight circles of bronze to commemorate six of her brothers, her father and her fiancé: all killed in the slaughter that was the War to End Wars. She never married again and died alone and in poverty, sitting in a one-roomed dingy basement flat in Edinburgh, one of the forgotten and unheeded casualties.
As I write this, I have a Death Penny in my hand. It was issued to my paternal grand-mother as compensation for the loss of her first husband. He was Robert McCrindle Manson and he died during the German offensive of March 1918 that I wrote about in my Last Train to Waverley. The penny has an image of Britannia and a lion, plus a couple of dolphins and is surrounded by the words:
He Died For Freedom and Honour.
My grand-mother was fortunate in some ways. She married again, became a district nurse and brought up a family. Others were not so lucky.
Memories of that most bloody of wars are still vivid: the images haunt the collective memory of the nations that were most involved. Scotland lost around 150,000 dead out of a population of five million. Compare that to the USA’s loss of 59,000 out of two hundred and fifty million in the Vietnam War, a conflict that lasted over twice as long.
Why did it happen? Why did Europe, at the height of her prestige and influence, tear herself apart in such a crazed fashion? I am well aware of the supposed reasons, the political and imperial rivalries and alliances, but could there have been another, less rational, more spiritual reason? A force of Evil that controls the rational minds of humanity from time to time? That would explain the idiocy that led to over ten million deaths over four years, or the sheer wickedness of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It may also explain the monstrosity of ISIS, or IS or Dash or whatever name can be given to the savages that are presently causing such misery in the Middle East.
Now, on a brighter note: the slaughter of the First World War gave rise to the League of Nations and a desire to stop all further wars. The idea was good but the administration flawed. The Second World War gave rise to the United Nations and the Common Market: there have been no major European Wars since 1945.
So even the worst of wars can contain a seed of Good. The world must strive to ensure that the present calamity in the Middle East does not escalate into something global and uncontrollable. The European Union must continue: the memory of Loos should be a reminder of a possible and all-too-frequent alternative. Robert McCrindle Manson and the other ten million like him, of whatever name and race and nation, must be remembered so they did indeed die for Freedom and Honour. The freedom to live in peace and the honour of a world where war is not even an option.
Please God that the Evil that is creating such horror is vanquished by the Good that created the League of Nations, the United Nations and the idea behind the Common Market. Dialogue is always better than demented slaughter. It may be necessary to take direct action to end IS, but hopefully a long term solution can bring peace to that unhappy region as it has brought peace to Europe for the past seventy years.