Thirty years ago …
Thirty years ago I was sitting with my frail 96 year old grandfather in his home in Newcastle. I had brought over a portable TV/VHS video and we watched ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. This is WWI. As a 19 year old he had enlisted with the Durham LIght Infantry, and had then been transferred to the Machine Gun Corps … because he was ‘tall, fit and mechanically minded’. He served and survived the Great War (just) through the battle of the Somme and Third Ypres 1917 and training as an RAF fighter pilot (his 19 year old younger brother died as a RAF bomber pilot). He enjoyed and related to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, he had nothing against the ‘Bosch’, we were ‘just doing our job’. Lined up on either side of a trench.
This was 1992.
Britain was about to wage war in Iraq. Once again the DLI were in action and a young private next to a tank in the desert in this BBC North East report described his living conditions and rations for the benefit of the cameras.
‘That’s nothing compared to Passcendaele’ my grandfather declared, relating the youth on TV to his own experience 75 years before.
We then chatted at length, again, about the First World War, much of which I recorded and have since given to the Imperial War Museum archive. I transcribed these talks and then returned to quiz my grandfather, and he even took a pen to make corrections to what I had typed out.
Another three decades on and his words echo in my thoughts. The Putain invasion of Ukraine is antediluvian … It is barbaric. Yet such thoughts and words were expressed at the outbreak of the FIrst World War and the Second World War.
Decades of taking an interest in what starts as a violent, military conflagration (WWI MA Degree, seeing WWII bridged only by an extended Armistice from the previous war) that can become a world war tells me that Putin is another Hitler, or Mussolini. Were he a Franco he might keep his interest in the confine of ‘his’ country, which he clearly feels he owns like a 19th century Tsar.