Lest we forget, lest we forget
At the stroke of 11am yesterday, Bermuda fell silent for two minutes to honour our war dead. The tradition dates from the Armistice, which ended what was then called the Great War on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918.
Ageing grandparents watched the solemn service at the Cenotaph, no doubt thinking about friends, spouses and family members who died in the service of their island.
Younger Bermudians, residents and tourists respectfully paid homage to those who fell. But for them the two world wars of the 20th century, the crucibles that shaped the modern age and Bermuda’s place in it, are now almost beyond living memory.
The First World War (1914-1918) broke out a century ago, “like a peal of thunder out of a cloudless sky” as contemporary observers remarked. It has been called an unnecessary war, which is true, but it was also an unavoidable one.
Between 1903 and 1913, the military spending of the major European powers had increased by 50 per cent. Nationalistic rivalries and the competing economic and territorial ambitions of the British, French, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman and German empires resulted in an arms race centred on the industrial-scale production of lethal new weaponry ranging from aircraft, tanks and poison gas to rapid-fire machine guns, submarines and heavy artillery.
What 19th-century German chancellor Otto von Bismark had correctly anticipated would be “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” lit the fuse for a catastrophe that turned the globe into one vast abattoir. Austria-Hungary and Russia had been vying for control of the Balkans ever since the influence there of the decaying Ottoman Empire had started to wane.
When the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated during a visit to Serbia in July 1914, the gears and levers of an interlocking series of European defensive alliances began to mesh with a mechanical precision wholly in keeping with their Industrial Age origins.
Thirty-seven days after those opening shots were fired on the streets of Sarajevo, war broke out between Russia, France and England and their territories and the combined forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Turkey had joined the fray by October, siding with the Central Powers. For next four years, a daily butcher’s bill was extracted from the combatants, paid for with the blood of their sons and daughters.
“All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them,” British statesman and future warlord Winston Churchill said of a conflict he referred to — not without justification — as Armageddon.
The mighty educated States involved conceived — not without reasons — that their very existence was at stake. Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win.
Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the forefront of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals — often of a greater scale and of longer duration.
Ultimately, 65 million troops were mobilised during a conflict that claimed four empires, cost 20 million military and civilian lives and left 20 million injured. Close to 90 Bermudians died while bearing arms during the 1914-18 war; of the more than 400 others who served overseas with either the Bermuda Militia Artillery or the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps, scores were wounded. Some were left maimed for life.
That the island’s population was just 19,000 in 1914 underscores the scale of their contribution. But the last Bermudians to fight in that conflict died decades ago. Tiny Bermuda played a similarly disproportionate role in the Second World War (1939-45), the all-too predictable outgrowth of the peace treaty following on from the November 11, 1918 Armistice that had ended the fighting in the earlier conflict.
“After the ‘war to end war’, they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘peace to end peace’,” a British general drily remarked on the excessively punitive terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty. The humiliating document stripped Germany of its national dignity, territorial integrity and economic wherewithal, and all but assured French Marshal Ferdinand Fochs grim assessment of its terms — “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years” — would attain the status of prophecy.
Germany, driven mad not only by its military defeat in the First World War but the subsequent collapse of cultural continuity, political institutions and many social norms, urgently sought a new messiah — and ultimately found one in Adolf Hitler, aptly termed “the psychopathic god” by poet W.H. Auden. To a culture long imbued with rampant militarism and imperialism, the paranoid, Austrian-born maniac Hitler introduced lethal new strains of nationalism, totalitarianism and homicidal racism.
Between 1923 and 1933, Hitler, an aggrieved First World War veteran who believed the legislators in Berlin had administered a “stab in the back” to the country’s fighting men by surrendering to the Allied powers, went from lunatic-fringe agitator to centre-stage in German political life. First as chancellor, then as de facto legal dictator when the so-called Enabling Act and the Law Concerning the Highest State Office of the Reich swept away all constitutional limitations on his rule, Hitler embarked on crash rearmament and reindustrialisation programmes, all the while remaking German society in the lunatic image of his National Socialist Party.
When war inevitably broke out, a conflict in which Hitler was eagerly joined in 1941 by a Japanese leadership with militaristic and imperialist ambitions in Asia, the world really did risk sinking into “the abyss of a new Dark Age”.
When the young men and women who put on uniforms to defend freedom and democracy had finally defeated fascism on the global battlefield, when the full extent of the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi and Japanese against those they conquered and enslaved had been laid bare for all to see, a world that mistakenly thought it had already “supped full of horrors” was shocked anew. The grim evidence of the Nazi Final Solution and the Japanese cruelties in China have long since vanquished most doubts about the wisdom or morality of the Allies’ determination to ensure total victory and the unconditional surrender of the Fascist states.
Bermuda gave up 10 per cent of its land area for Allied military bases during the Second World War. All military-age males resident in Bermuda were liable for military service in one of the two racially segregated local units. Part-time Home Guard units were also raised as a reserve. The Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps took responsibility for patrolling and defending the East End; the Bermuda Militia Artillery for the West End.
In addition to maintaining guards at the Dockyard and the Darrell’s Island flying boat base, the local soldiers guarded the transatlantic cable facilities, beaches and inlets, patrolled the island, and operated motorboat patrols. Both local militias sent detachments overseas and Bermudian servicemen participated in such pivotal engagements as the Battle of Britain in 1940, El Alamein in 1941 — where Walter Hewson Perinchief was killed in action — and the 1944 D-Day Landings in Normandy.
Thirty-five young Bermudian men and women gave their lives in the Second World War, fighting for the freedoms we now take for granted. And there are only a handful of veterans of that epochal struggle who are still with us today.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, and gives us the ideal opportunity to share the stories of Bermudians’ roles in this conflict, and in the First World War, with our young people. The National Museum of Bermuda maintains informative and splendidly comprehensive exhibits commemorating the contributions of local servicemen and servicewomen in the two wars. Pupils and teachers from every school on the island should be encouraged to visit Dockyard to tour these displays. Many younger adults should do the same.
The sacrifices made by our forebears deserve to be remembered with respect and dignity, not just on November 11 but every day of the year. All of us owe them incalculable debts of gratitude. All of us are honour-bound to bear in mind the words of the poet Rudyard Kipling: “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget — lest we forget!”
• This editorial, written by Tim Hodgson, first appeared in The Royal Gazette on November 12, 2014
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