Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Why we should listen to Pericles on Remembrance Day

Why the dickens we were firing to kill some mother’s son two hours before eleven on armistice day God only knows’

By Alper Ali Riza

The guns fell silent at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1918 on the western front a hundred years ago today. They had already fallen silent in the east on October 30, 1918.

It was the first war on an industrial scale and the last between empires. By armistice day the British Empire increased in size – mostly at the expense of the German and Ottoman empires – the Austrian-Hungarian empire broke up, the Russian empire imploded and the US came of age as a superpower.

The war to end all wars did nothing of the sort. Rather it turned peace on its head and caused the second war that killed 50 million people including innocent civilians in gas chambers. A war that saw the first use nuclear weapons killing 150,000 innocent civilians in one fell swoop.

The armistice of 1918 did not just fail to end war, the cessation of hostilities had a pointless cut off point: ‘why the dickens we were firing to kill some mother’s son two hours before eleven on armistice day God only knows’ an ordinary soldier said on a Remembrance commemoration programme last week.

The soldier-poet Wilfred Owen experienced the death of comrades and set his feelings of the pointlessness of war in verse, refuting the lie peddled by nationalist warmongers that it is sweet and right to die for your country.

‘If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori’.

Wilfred Owen fought in the war and died on November 4, 1918, just a few days before armistice day – one of the many who died for no conceivable military reason.

Rupert Brooke, another soldier-poet but with little experience of the killing fields of France and Belgium, had a naïve, romantic view of war. The opening lines of his poem ‘The Soldier’ imply a zest for the old lie that it is indeed sweet and right to die for your country. Bizarrely he died in a French hospital ship after being stung by an infected mosquito en route to Gallipoli. Alas, the manner of his going did not match the magic of his most famous lines:

‘If I should die think only this of me

That there’s some corner of a foreign field,

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.’

Perhaps it is just as well he did not see action at Gallipoli. It might have changed his mind about glorifying war and might even made him countermand his most famous lines as he was bound to witness close up donkeys leading lions.

Mustafa Kemal was the Turkish commander who defended Gallipoli and repulsed the allied invasion in 1915. He and his troops fought hard. Not for him watching the battle raging through binoculars in the safety of a navy destroyer.

According to Lord Kinross, Mustafa Kemal rode through the forward positions driving his troops with unwavering energy. Placing his mountain battery on the ridge, he helped to wheel its guns into position and directed operations from the skyline with a complete disregard for his own safety, without sleep, riding over the whole front encouraging his troops, listening and giving orders.

The irony was that as the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918 Mustafa Kemal was heading west to Istanbul, a brilliant general in search of a role after defeat. As he told a British journalist at the time, the Ottomans had chosen the wrong side in the war.

He soon found a role and an excuse to travel east to Samsun – ostensibly as inspector of the Ottoman armed forces – but as he landed in the provincial city on May 19, 1919 the task in hand was the struggle for independence and the making of modern Turkey.

Mustafa Kemal is interesting because as a statesman in civilian life he personified the link between the sacrifice of his soldiers and contemporary values that impelled him to set up a modern secular republic from the ashes of a defeated empire.

Pericles made the link 2500 years previously in his funeral oration that is the best justification for Remembrance. Pericles eschews praising military prowess, preferring to praise the war dead by glorifying the values for which they died in terms that are much more refreshing than the simplistic: my country right or wrong.

“Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”

The first war was not fought for any reason Pericles would remotely recognise whereas World War II was different. The UN, the European Union and the human rights and refugee conventions were all created after 1945 when it seemed Europe and the world had learned the lessons of unbridled egoism of the kind deprecated by Pericles in his funeral oration. The hope is that they will survive Brexit and President Donald Trump.

The last word on the madness of war, however, goes to Albert Einstein: “I cannot predict how the Third World War shall be fought or with what; I can, however, predict that the Fourth World War shall be waged with sticks and stones.”


Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part-time judge

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