Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A cause for celebration

On 1 July 1916, the British Army launched its "great offensive" in what became known the Battle of the Somme. It is famous chiefly on account of the loss of 58,000 British troops, of which third were killed, on the first day of the attack.

It is also the battle in which the "Pals" were slaughtered, local regiments which had been formed in response to Kitchener's call to arms, not least the Accrington Pals – a regiment lodged in my memory as I have visited the site in Northern France where they met their untimely deaths.

The site is isolated but well preserved and what is so chilling about it is that you can see the "jump-off" trenches at the start line and then look up to the crest of a hill, on the brow of which were the German lines, not more than a few hundred yards distant. And, exactly between the two is a row of neat, walled cemeteries, marking the point at which the "Pals" fell. Under the hail of machine-gun fire and artillery, that is as far as they got.

We do well to remember this slaughter and, if I had my way, I would make it compulsory for all schools to bring their children to these sites – and in particular the moving memorial at Thiepval (pictured above) to show them what sacrifices were made – real sacrifices – for our freedoms.

It would also put into perspective somewhat the front page of The Telegraph today, which dedicates half the page to a single photograph, against a black background, of Cpl Gordon Alexander Pritchard, the 100th solider to be killed in Iraq.

The Telegraph is by no means the only newspaper to afford such lavish treatment to the death and, while we can agree that every death is a tragedy, there is something maudlin and excessive about the coverage, which bodes ill for this nation if this is representative of general sentiment.

This is one hundred deaths in three years, compared with, say, 3,500 road deaths each year, a large proportion of whom were testosterone-driven young men who seem willingly to slaughter themselves for the temporary thrills of the tarmac. These are senseless deaths, whereas the 100 soldiers who died did so in a noble cause. Their deaths had meaning.

Anticipating the howls of protest at my brutal attitude, let me recount an experience I had as a young man when, with a group of my fellow officers, I was taken to visit an operational RAF station. When we walked into the Officers' Mess, mid-afternoon, we were somewhat startled to see a frenetic, uproarious party in progress, with drink flowing like water. Inquiries soon revealed the reason. A pilot had just been killed in a crash and his friends and colleagues were celebrating his passing.

As a young pilot officer, I too was flying jets and knew it was dangerous. In fact, I knew more than most. Having worked on an airfield before joining the RAF, I had experienced that loathsome moment when an aircraft had dropped out of sight at the end of the runway, to be marked by a pall of oily smoke and the death of a fine young man.

But we knew what we were doing. We did not embrace death but we were aware that it was our companion, and took it in our stride. Unfortunately – I thought at the time – I failed the flying course, an event that probably saved my life as, with the best will in the world, I would never have made anything more than a second-rate pilot. My chances of survival would have been slim.

It ill-behoves the media, therefore, and the rest of us, to indulge in maudlin sentiment at the death of one soldier, because he happens to be the 100th, or for whatever reason.

These fine young men were soldiers. They were volunteers. They knew the risks and were nevertheless prepared to do their duty. That we still have such young men, in a society that seems so increasingly rootless and without values, is a cause for celebration.

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