Remembrance Is Not Enough: the Somme's Dystopia and Thomas Richardson

This year we commemorate the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle of the First World War, which took place in France between July and November 1916. The brutality and carnage of ‘the Great War; is appalling. But it is also striking to consider the circumstantial fragility of fate it represents.

Thomas Richardson, a veteran of the Somme, was one of the many thousands of men who suffered from what today we identify as post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the conflict. While recuperating, he met a woman who was working as volunteer rehabilitation counsellor helping veterans - and they bonded well enough to get married and have children, eventually celebrating their Diamond Anniversary. Without the war they would not have met.

This emotional conflict raises the question: how can we respect the sacrifices of Thomas Richardson, and the many thousands of others who fought and perished, but without betraying sentiments about the hideousness of the war either?

The British and German empires - dismantled in the post-war age - are criticised for their extensive crimes and human rights abuses. The Great War tends to be scrutinised from an apolitical perspective, which is equally critical of the opposing sides.

However, it is also important to consider the specific ideological motivations of the leaders on the German side. The historian Arno J. Mayer describes the Great War as the beginning of a “thirty year crisis” starting in 1914, culminating in the extreme nationalism and racism of the 1940s, when the Nazis murdered millions of Jews and other minority groups in the Holocaust.

Remembrance is not enough

The German leaders of the Great War were core influences on Nazism. Paul von Hindenburg was an advocate of Lebensraum, the policy of German territorial conquest and colonisation that would be pioneered by Hitler. Though Hindenburg hated Hitler, he still owed Hindenburg a debt of gratitude as an ideological forbearer when he handed him power over Germany.

The other top general, Erich Ludendorff, was virulently antisemitic and an enthusiast for the Völkisch white supremacism that was the foundation of Nazi racism. Ludendorff was a direct participant in Hitler’s first attempts at taking power in the 1930s. Emperor Wilhelm II blamed Jews for Germany’s ills, even once commenting that they should be killed on mass using gas.

The British Empire was guilty of its own genocidal racism. But Nazism - which manifested from German imperialism - posed the most explicit and direct threat to what we understand as civilisation. The Nazis also used the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of the Armenians as an inspiration for the Holocaust. Thomas Richardson was at least able to take the fight to the seminal forms of totalitarian fascism.

According to Mayer, the “thirty year crisis” that began with the Great War, was the consequence of the tyranny of the aristocracy being unable to retain power, due to their antiquation lagging behind the rapid social change spurred on by industrialisation. So they depended on destructive rivalry to cling onto power, justify their dictatorship and expand their influence.

In a similar vein, there are reactionary forces today who seek to fracture Europe, promote the politics of prejudice and reverse the progress of democracy.

Among them is Vladimir Putin, who has a fixation on military aggression and annexation that is closer to 1916 than 2016, along with fascists and neo-Nazis like Austria’s Freedom Party and France’s National Front who are again rising to become mainstream political forces. And we are witnessing an appalling influx of xenophobia in the UK.

Remembrance is not enough: we must stand up for the peace and common humanity Thomas Richardson and his slaughtered comrades - who fought alongside Nepalese Gurkhas and the Indian Army – would be disgusted at us for taking for granted.

THE HELLISH LANDSCAPE OF THE GREAT WAR IS SURREAL TO ENVISION

Thomas Richardson, a veteran of the Somme and a member of the Home Guard in the Second World War, was my great-grandfather. He died decades before I was born, but piecing together his life story from relatives, he has become a source of fascination to me. If I could choose to meet any deceased figure from history and have a conversation with them about their life story, it would be him.

I have heard second-hand descriptions of his experiences as a “Tommy” who lied about his age to enlist in the infantry as a teenage boy from Wales. Living in the disease ridden trenches, he was forced to bury the corpses of his dead friends, who had rats living inside their ribcages.

He had war horses and killed his enemy with primitive combat-like daggers and bayonets, on the same battlefield where he was poisoned by mustard gas; he died from cancer likely caused by it. He faced down tanks, flamethrowers and machineguns, demonstrating the horrors bequeathed by a new scientific age.

Today the hellish landscape of the Great War is surreal to envision. Despite being a century ago it is so far removed from us, not just in the passage of time but in the dystopia it represents, that it almost seems like science fiction. It left Thomas Richardson a broken and haunted man for the rest of his life, barricading and keeping weapons in every house he lived in.

The Great War, which reached its macabre zenith at the Somme, was not the “war to end all wars”. But ever since it has been the retrospective counterpoint with which we have contrasted our march towards a better world.

If we allow this to fade from our collective memory, and allow hatred and chauvinism to take hold a century later, then those like Thomas Richardson who suffered and sacrificed in battle will have died in vain. Or as Wilfred Owen wrote, they would have died as cattle. I refuse to condemn my great-grandfather to that fate.

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