Why Remembrance is Vital in Stopping History From Repeating Itself | History Hit

Why Remembrance is Vital in Stopping History From Repeating Itself

Dan Snow

First World War Twentieth Century
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In August 2014 I stood in St Symphorien Cemetery outside Mons in Belgium to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

It was here that the first British soldier to die on the Western Front was buried. Private John Parr was killed on 21 August 1914, the first of hundreds of thousands of young men who lost their lives in France and Belgium.

Right opposite him in that same cemetery is Private George Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed, during the morning of 11 November 1918.

He was a pre-war regular soldier who had managed to survive several terrible battles over the previous four years and who came so close to returning to his wife and son in Leeds. The placement of their graves is entirely coincidental but reinforces a popular myth about the pointless nature of the conflict: after all that fighting, they stopped exactly where they started.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme holds an infamous record for the British army, being the bloodiest day in its history. But the battle wasn't just being fought in no-man's land. Beneath the ground a dreadful, silent war was taking place, as British and German engineers tunnelled and counter-tunnelled in a vicious war of explosives and hand-to-hand fighting.Watch Now

Why should we remember?

Ever since that day four years ago I have attended many centenaries, of First World War events, large and small. Throughout them all I have asked myself what is the point of all of this.

Remembrance is one of our most important national duties. In a democracy the men and women who march into battle do so on our behalf, at our request, expressed through our elected leaders.

Remembering their sacrifice is an essential act of citizenship. Ultimately the use of violence is all of our responsibility and we must commit to support those veterans when they return and their families when they do not.

The Battle of the Atlantic meant near constant fear for merchant seamen.

Remembrance is also intensely private. I think about Robert MacMillan, yanked from a perfect childhood on an Ontario farm, and his studies to become a doctor, to be thrown into the terrifying tedium of the Battle of the Atlantic.

In his requisitioned cruise liner, he ploughed the grey sea lanes between Halifax, Derry, Belfast, Liverpool and Plymouth, always waiting for the impact of the torpedo that would send his vessel straight to the bottom.

His Chief Engineer once assured him that if the old ship was struck, she would sink by the time he had put his foot on the ‘first rung of the ladder.’ I think about Robert, my grandpa and childhood hero, and how the war changed him. He never went to a reunion, and never put on a medal. I never got a chance to ask him why not.

It was an honour to be joined by Martyn Rady to discuss one of history's most thrilling families, the Habsburgs. Ruling for almost a millennium, their imperial vision was perhaps best realised in Emperor Frederick III's AEIOU motto: Austriae est imperare orbi universe, "Austria is destined to rule the world." Indeed, Frederick's descendants would control the Holy Roman Empire, Italy, Spain, the New World, and the Pacific, a dominion that Charles V called "the empire on which the sun never sets." Weathering religious warfare, revolution and all kinds of political storms, it came to a tumultuous end with the 1914 assassination of the Habsburg heir presumptive Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which of course, marked the start of another epochal chapter of history.Listen Now

Remember, don’t repeat

Remembrance should go further. We need to remember just how we were plunged into total war with its genocide, destruction and chaos.

If we do not remember how the elites of Europe so disastrously miscalculated in 1914, and how the Axis Powers in the 1930s thought that their national destiny lay across the battlefield, then I worry that we will be tempted to repeat.

The First and Second World Wars were catastrophes. Remembrance of them has nothing to do with glorification and everything to do with warning.

bombing of germany
If we do not remember the horrors of war, we are at risk of repeating them.

The horrors of the Somme, Gallipoli, Kut, Dunkirk, or the battle for Normandy, the destruction of Coventry, Tokyo, Dresden, the murder of millions in death camps, the barbarity of the Nazi-Soviet war, the treatment of the Armenians, the forced migrations that followed the Second World War in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent need to remain as fresh and vivid to our children’s generations as they are to us. We are capable of monstrous things.

Remembering the price our past greed, hatred, racism, nationalism, egotism and savagery, is a first step in avoiding a repeat.

Dan Snow