David Blunkett: Grim lessons of First World War that we still need to learn on centenary of Armistice

TOMORROW we commemorate the final day of the First World War. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Photo issued by the Imperial War Museum of 32,000 destroyed German rifles. The image is amongst a series of 130 black and white rarely seen photographs that are going on display as part of an exhibition on the aftermath of the First World War conflict.

Fighting continued right up to the last second and many men on both sides lost their lives in the final hours.

But the struggle for survival was not over.

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Even before hostilities ceased on the battlefield, another threat to life and well-being struck a deadly blow – Spanish flu.

Poppies in the Field of Remembrance following a service of dedication.

I’ve always been fascinated by the First World War.

Not just the indefectible courage in what for much of the time, and for many of the men, was hell on earth, but for much more.

The capacity to endure the normal deprivation of shelter, of warmth, of somewhere dry to sleep tested the human spirit to its very limits.

Graeme Bandeira's illsutration of the Armistice centenary.

Those who suffered survived where possible, fought from the trenches and experienced multiple deprivations at the same time as unheard of, and unspeakable, bombardment.

When my wife and I went to the war graves in northern France and Belgium with 
friends in the autumn of 2014, 
we were struck by the audio-visual presentations, of the impact the constant bombardment must have had, not just on the nervous system, but on the very psyche of those who found themselves in what could only have been thought of as an inferno.

Of course not everyone in the First World War had those kind of experiences.

Some in the upper echelons of the military continued to eat, drink and sleep well.

Some found themselves in other theatres of war across the world where there were hellholes such as those endeavouring to build roads in wide-flung outposts of the Balkans and other theatres of war in the Middle East.

But it was those on the Western Front, and the recall which the war graves now offer, which ensures those who gave their lives will never be forgotten.

For instance, when I visited what is now a tranquil glade entitled Railway Cuttings, close to the Sheffield monument, I came across a short letter home kept in a watertight container from a soldier to his family in the Hillsborough district of my city. It offered an insight which I never expected to gain.

Yes, I’m aware that the censor was pretty strict on the letters home but the young man in question never needed to tell his parents that ‘‘this land and these people (the French) are worth fighting for’’.

Given that many soldiers were bewildered as to exactly what they were fighting for and those who led them into the First World War were pretty unclear themselves as to how they got there, this is, in itself, a remarkable message which must have been welcome to this young man’s family.

The consequences arising from the loss of so many young men in their prime, and of course the devastating flu epidemic that I wish to reflect on here, carried forward for generations to come.

As sure as eggs are eggs
 (as my grandad would say), the losses incurred during and beyond the end of the First World War created the fertile ground from which fascism

It is, of course, true that the slump of the late 20s and early 30s was as much about the speculative behaviour, almost like a second gold rush where millions of people in the United States, and the chain reaction here in Europe, added to the turmoil.

Sadly, this is all too reminiscent of a decade ago and the emergence of the global financial meltdown and banking crisis.

Coupled, as it was, almost a hundred years ago with increasingly poor political leadership, inertia and nostalgia for a bygone era, the circumstances were ripe for extremism, with the economic slump following the financial crash on the one hand, and the promise of nationalistic belligerence and simple solutions on the other.

Whilst the rich dance the night away and debutantes look forward to coming out balls, complacent politicians believed that the Empire would go on forever and a ‘‘world fit for heroes’’ could be put off to another day.

Post-war economic activity dropped, the slump took its toll on those who had already suffered grievously both abroad and at home during the First World War, and Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany.

This was not – as Harold Macmillan once put it – ‘‘events dear boy, events’’, but a matter of consequences.

Sure, as night follows day, the choices made a hundred years ago at Versailles and the failure to address an entirely new world in the 1920, reverberated through the Second World War, and, in many ways, all the way through to today.

A century is a blink of the eye in the development of creation but to us it should be as immediate as yesterday. In that way we can learn from history rather than living in it and we can ensure that, in doing so, we do our very best to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Lord Blunkett is a Labour peer. Formerly MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, he held three senior Cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government.