When Claude Stanley Choules passed away this year, we lost our last living connection to the First World War, making it now and forever a part of history, no longer a thing of living memory.
I can remember thinking about what this would mean back in 2006 when I started researching for The Eyes of the Dead, some of the titles of the books I bought at the time tell the story well enough; The Last Tommies, The Last Veteran and Forgotten Voices, these acknowledged that we were on the brink of a historical precipice but what does that mean now that we have crossed onto the other side?
I think it means that something has been lost.
Of those that survived the Great War, only a few were willing to talk of their experiences and the horrors that they told of are unequalled in recent military history. I say unequalled because the Great War was a grey war, purpose was eclipsed by pointlessness, worth by waste. The military and political leaders applied the tactics and politics of the nineteenth century to a mechanised twentieth century war. Even in the late stages of the conflict, during the Passchendaele campaign, there were Generals hoping for the moment to arise when they could send the cavalry in and sweep away the Hun in a glorious charge to victory. It sounds ridiculous and comic now but they thought this would genuinely be possible. The price though was paid not by the Generals but by civilians and the men in the trenches, ever has it been so.
As we move further into the twenty-first century, there seems to have been little change in how our conflicts are fought and resolved, almost as if the First World War served as a grotesque blueprint for what was to come, which I think signifies just what was lost, the nature of that something I mentioned before.
From those civilians and the men who served and survived, like Claude Choules, we could have better understood what path we were on and still going down. Better than annual tributes, we could have looked at and understood not only why wars happen but what they do to us as people, the scars that they leave behind. Sadly, we did not do this and now that chapter in history is closed to us, because we were not there and if you are not there then understanding is difficult, if not impossible. We could have made the nickname it earned of ‘The War to End All Wars’ actually mean something but we chose not to and now that phrase stands instead as a judgment over us.
The next chapter to close will be that of the Second World War and I hope that humanity can learn something there before it is too late, from a time that gave us the Holocaust, Little Boy and Fat Man, and thus make a start down the path that will lead us to the end of war.
The Eyes of the Dead is available now: