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‘The Sacred Cause of Liberty and Freedom’

From Planet 215

Gethin Matthews on the Great War, and how it was viewed in Wales.

How to begin writing about such an enormous, multi-faceted catastrophe? It is a subject that is at once so remote from our present day – invoking images of monochrome men in staccato motion – and yet still present in our consciousness, visible in a multitude of memorials and, in this centenary year, prevalent all over our media. Today’s politicians appreciate how the first world war still resonates with the populace, and so in 2014 we are witnessing a campaign being fought in the newspaper columns arguing over the right way to commemorate the conflict.

It is a subject that is at once so familiar and so unimaginable. We know so much, but sometimes what we ‘know’ does not aid our comprehension. The British (and Welsh) view of the global conflict telescopes all the action into the mud of France and Flanders. The received wisdom, amplified by so many aspects of popular culture from Oh! What a Lovely War to Blackadder is that the Western Front was the scene of heart-rending carnage, of lion-like soldiers being sent to their deaths by cowardly, asinine officers, safe in the warmth of their faraway chateaux. Our feelings of revulsion are augmented by our knowledge that it was all in vain. Not only was this patently not ‘the war to end wars’, but the unsatisfactory resolution at its end led directly to the second global blood-letting just over twenty years later and, less obviously, to many of the conflicts that plague the world today. The f-word, ‘futility’, is never far away from this discourse. Whatever the emotional appeal of this analysis, however, it removes any rationale for fighting, and does not aid us in comprehending what the participants believed was at stake…



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