Weren’t they all heroes?
Heroes is the name many people would apply to all the men who gave their lives in the First World War, not to mention many other conflicts. However, there are those who disagree. I heard someone argue that as the men were conscripts, they didn’t give their lives, their lives were taken from them. What’s heroic about that? You might as well say a victim of a car crash or an industrial accident was a hero.
Different classes of heroes?
I’ve got news for that person. People joined the army at different times under different circumstances.
- At the start, there was the regular army. Professionals. They had made a choice to join, but after that their choices were limited. They went where someone sent them and did whatever someone told them.
- Then there were those who joined in a wave of patriotism in the early stages, before they knew what they were letting themselves in for. They hadn’t seen any war movies or watched live news coverage of conflicts. Heroes or suckers?
- Next came conscription. You could argue that the only ones doing anything heroic were the conscientious objectors. They had the courage to be different and stick up for their principles.
- Finally there were those who joined voluntarily in response to the heightened threat as the Germans made their big attack in 1918. Many Britons responded to Field Martial Haigh’s ‘Backs to the wall’ speech. Those from reserved occupations. Men who had been sent home wounded but now recovered enough. Men who had been too young before. By then everyone knew what it was like. They still went.
Special types of heroes?
- Within each of the categories above, there were men who volunteered for particularly dangerous missions. Men who acted courageously ‘beyond the call of duty’. Men who put others before themselves. Not all got medals or citations. Not all survived.
- Some conscientious objectors, among others, volunteered to serve as stretcher bearers or medics. They often went under fire with no means of fighting back.
People say ‘Comparisons are odious’. In this case it is really appropriate. I won’t compare one kind of hero with another. I don’t have the detailed knowledge of individual cases. There again, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Even those who were ‘shot at dawn’ for cowardice deserve our sympathy and at least an attempt at understanding, not condemnation.