Civilian suffering shocked the public in the first world war, but we have become numb to it
The tragedy of the centenary we commemorate this week is that it falls as some of the most brutal and merciless wars of those same hundred years are raging. What characterises contemporary wars above all – in Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic – is that the main victims are civilians, many of them utterly innocent children. Furthermore their deaths and injuries cannot be dismissed as unintended consequences of war. Some are deliberate.
Attacks on Belgian and French civilians, including children, by Germany’s invading army in August 1914 shocked the public and politicians in Britain and elsewhere into intervening, and many individual men into enlisting – so much so that conscription in Britain was not introduced until 1916. Among those appalled by the attacks on civilians was my mother, Vera Brittain, who was to become the author of Testament of Youth, a remarkable memoir of the war. Her childhood dream had been to go to Oxford University and become a writer. But the suffering of civilians and the mounting toll of soldiers compelled her to abandon that dream and sign on as a volunteer nurse in military hospitals in England, Malta and France.
Reports of civilian and soldier deaths in 1914 were carried in Britain by local as well as national newspapers. But today’s television images of dead babies, terrified children, destroyed homes in ruined streets, while evoking outrage, also have a numbing effect: so much horror, so much violence that the traditional distinctions between civilians and soldiers, originating in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s concept of a “just war” seem irrelevant.
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