At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month World War 1 ended. So it was then that at 11am on the 11th of Novmber 1918, the guns fell silent all over Europe for the first time in over four years.As the eerie silence grew, the war weary people of a battered continent began to take in the enormity of the losses and consequences of the so called Great War – the deaths, the injuries, the broken families and not least, the broken men who returned from the trenches and who would never be the same again.
Nearly 50,000 Irish men, died in the bloody obscenity that was World War 1. The figure of 49,435 is mentioned on the War Memorial to the dead in Islandbridge in Dublin. These men had enlisted for a variety of reasons – to show Britain their loyalty so that Ireland would be rewarded with Home Rule, its own parliament in Dublin at war’s end. The bill to allow Home Rule, had in fact been passed in 1912 and was due to come into effect in 1914. However, due to the outbreak of war, it was shelved for its duration. Others joined from youthful idealism, some answered the call for adventure while others still saw an opportunity to receive a regular wage to support their families at home.
Whatever their reasons, thousands marched away to war to the sound of pipes and drums, flag waving and cheering. So many never returned and for those who did in 1918, the climate was so politically changed that they found themselves strangers and regarded as traitors in their own land. No cheering heaving crowds or marching bands, no flag waving or great speeches to welcome them home. It was a totally changed landscape. In 1916, the Easter Rising had taken place and in the words of W.B. Yeats ‘All changed, changed utterly’ so that the men who had marched off to War in September 1914 as heroes were yesterday’s men: by fighting in the British Army and not in the GPO, their sacrifice and bravery were consigned to oblivion for decades.
All War is an obscenity but none, I feel, more than World War 1, a conflict caused by the greed and ambition of the Great Powers in Europe. Moreover, when peace was finally restored by the treaty signed in the grandeur of the halls in the palace of Versailles in 1919, it was an utterly punitive one against Germany, revenge not justice, the driving force. All it ultimately achieved was a twenty year lull, during which time, anger and resentment festered in Germany, giving rise to Hitler and the Nazis.
So it was that in September 1939, an even more ferocious conflict was unleashed on a world not yet recovered from the barbarity that had occurred just two decades before. And across Europe, the sounds of guns and bombs and tanks and death, filled the silence once again. And once again, the sound of marching men was heard echoing into the silence.