He was standing at the window in the Foreign Office as dusk settled over London and the gas lamps were being lit, one by one, in the streets below. To a journalist who was present he sadly predicted what would happen the next day when, following his reluctant recommendation to the British government, England would declare war on Germany.
Grey said “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Or many other lifetimes to follow, he might have added. His prediction continues today. It is very much more accurate than a better known quotation penned by author H.G.Wells. Initially Wells was optimistic that if the other great powers joined with Britain and went to war with the goal of stopping German military expansion, the allies would defeat Germany so decisively that the conflict would be known thereafter as “The war to end war.”
We know how well that turned out.
So did millions of dead who came to realize the utter folly in believing that this was “the war to end war.” They understood because they watched vast numbers of their comrades slain, before perishing themselves amid deafening artillery explosions that sought them out in the machine gun-raked, rat-infested trenches that scarred the landscape across Europe.
Those millions of dead could not speak their minds to warn us of the insanity of doing this again and again in the coming years. If they had been able to speak, they would surely have quoted Sir Edward Grey, who had tried everything he could to stop the war happening in 1914. Grey did so because he knew that the cost of this conflict would be the much worse than just the lights of hope going out all over Europe. But even he, in profound dread of the enormous scale of the massacre he feared was coming, could not have imagined in his worst nightmare, the vast number, peering out from beneath steel helmets, the number beyond counting, of pairs of eyes, from which the light would go out forever.
If the dead could speak, they would remind us of the names of those who tried to avoid war. If the dead were in charge of naming streets, bridges and monuments, many more of those landmarks would bear the names of individuals who worked for peace than for generals and field marshals. If the dead taught history Sir Edward Grey would be a household name today. The dead would tell us that revenge is not just useless, but much worse than useless. The dead would have urged us in 1919 to honour their sacrifice by ending the First and, as we still call it, The Great War, in a way that did not crush the losing side so completely that the mass killing would begin again within 20 years.
But the dead can’t speak and the living are not wise enough to imagine what they would say if they could. So war continues.
In 1939, a person born at the outbreak of the Great War would have been 24 years old. An ideal age to fight. And unfortunately for millions, whose turn it was to give up their lives, along came an opportunity. It was called the Second World War. That’s because in terms of the long span of history it began just a second after the war to end war had finally ground to a halt. Even before the flowers began to wilt on the graves, we had already begun to forget.
After the Second war, our amnesia continued. We apparently had, and have, no memory of what a monumentally useless and evil solution war is, to no matter what problem we imagine it can solve. The Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Rwanda, Ulster, the Ukraine, Syria, Israel, Gaza and so many others, followed.
If only we could hear it, we would know that the chorus of voices from the dead, condemning these killing frenzies utterly, is unanimous. This year, as we mark the Great War’s hundredth anniversary, let’s attempt to pry open our ears and listen to what the dead, those who were actually there, would be telling us about war.
They would tell us that no war that has ever been fought was worth it. Then they would tell us that the next one won’t be either.
Peter Pickersgill is an artist and writer in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. He can be reached by email at the following: