Remembrance services across the land will take on extra significance this year – a century on since the beginning of the Great War.
A conflict that would kill millions on both sides until the guns fell silent with the Armistice that began at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Peace wasn’t guaranteed until the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following year.
This was the war that was supposed to end all wars. Of course it didn’t – and after the killing began again in 1939, the Great War was soon to become known as the First World War.
The Second was always inevitable because of the terms the Allies demanded as victors against the vanquished. A nation oppressed and humiliated will, of course, rise again. The evil monster that was Hitler saw his opportunity and grasped it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Historians will forever argue about the causes, and the rights and the wrongs of these wars. Historians seldom agree. But when an assassin took out a grand duke in 1914, was that really a cause or a reason to fling nations into a bloody and costly conflict? I don’t know.
What I do know, however, is that my grandfather on my dad’s side – like millions of others – marched off to the battlefields.
For Charlie Burgess, his battle would be fought with the KOSB in Churchill’s ill-fated Dardanelles. July 1915 brought the dreaded telegrams of death to hundreds of homes across the Borders. My grandfather was shot thrice and captured by the Turks. A Turkish doctor saved his life in a field hospital and he spent the rest of the war in prison camps before returning to Galashiels early in 1919.
He was one of the lucky ones. He never spoke about his experiences, although he did detail them in a hard-back notebook, now in my custody. He told me it should never be read by any of the women in our family – not even his daughter, my aunt.
But I believed they had a right to know what had happened to him and, of course, his pals who perished on these faraway heights. Both my sisters have now read his words. This weekend there will be poppies, pipes and bugles – and rightly so.
Eric Bogle is a Borderer from Peebles, now long exiled in Australia. I last heard him in Edinburgh, performing one of his best-known – and anti-war – songs, when he sits by the grave of teenage Great War soldier William McBride and asks him if it was all worthwhile. Or was his death and that of others all in vain.
Later I found lyrics written by Stephen L. Suffet, which contained Willie McBride’s reply.
It includes the verse: “Ask the people of Belgium or Alsace-Lorraine, if my life was wasted, if I died in vain; I think they will tell you when all’s said and done, they welcomed this boy with his tin hat and gun.”
Suffet concludes: “It’s easy for you to look back and sigh, and pity the youth of those days long by; For us who were there, we knew why we died; And I’d do it again, says Willie McBride.”
And of course they did. As you remember the long dead, remember also the more recent.