Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
The Cenotaph in Whitehall is the most hallowed ground in the United Kingdom. For more than a century, the simple white stone monument has commemorated those Servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives in the service of the nation.
War is engrained in Britain’s history, reflected not least by the memorials in our cities and towns, including the rolls of honour in churches and schools. Of the 16,000 villages in England, there were only 32 to which all the young men sent to the land and sea battlegrounds of the First World War returned. Of these Thankful Villages, identified by writer Arthur Mee, fewer than 20 suffered no further losses in the Second.
War, and its consequences, pervades every corner of the country.
Since 1945, almost 7,200 personnel have been killed on active service, often as part of a NATO or United Nations operation; those who returned might be shell-shocked by the death and destruction they had witnessed.
The number includes the loss of more than a thousand soldiers, some of them national servicemen, in both Malaya and Korea. Conscription was part of British life for almost a quarter of century until 1963. Some of those national servicemen must be among the 1.8 million veterans in England and Wales, who stated in their 2021 census return that they have previously served in the Armed Forces, whether as regulars or reservists.
With the Armed Forces’ strength standing at 154,000 men and women earlier this year, the reality of war is far away for most of us. For the British military, war itself has changed. State-on-state conflict, of the sort currently waging in Ukraine, has been the exception in the past 80 years.
Most of the numerous operations involving British troops since 1945, such as in Aden and Cyprus, have been the so-called Small Wars familiar to the late 19th-century soldiers and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling.
Private Tommy Atkins’ adversaries were irregulars; insurgents, guerrillas and terrorists. Most troublesome were the “hard-bitten Boer farmers with their ancient theology and their inconveniently modern weapons”, as Conan Doyle described them in his history of the South African conflict.
“Wars amongst the people”, which captures most post-1945 conflicts fought by British Forces, were explored by General Sir Rupert Smith in his seminal work The Utility of Force. In recent weeks, however, we have heard too much about the futility of force.
October 7, the date of the massacre of 1,400 people in southern Israel, will live on like 9/11. Israel’s military response in Gaza – undoubtedly a war amongst the people – is vociferously condemned, not least by those marching through London or sitting-in at stations.
Yet the UK’s population is about ten times that of Israel. Had a terrorist group invaded and murdered 14,000 British citizens on British soil one morning (2,000 of them at music festival such as Glastonbury), and taken 2,400 of our people hostage, we would regard it as an act of war. A military response would not only be legal but legitimate.
The Hamas Covenant of 1988 was explicit: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Yet alongside Hamas’ apologists amongst the protesters are also well-intentioned naïfs who seem to want the government in Jerusalem to sit down for coffee and baklava, and parley for peace with a Hamas leadership intent on the destruction of Israel.
As Britain’s numerous memorials testify, and as Ukraine knows only too well, war is grim but necessary instrument of national defence and survival. Even the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which raised the possibility of the future destruction of humanity in nuclear apocalypse, should be seen in the context of the alternative: a Normandy-style expeditionary campaign lasting at least two years, with an anticipated a death toll of more than one million American, British and Commonwealth soldiers.
The Forgotten Army, and the 50,000 surviving Allied Prisoners of War held by the Japanese, surely welcomed Tokyo’s unconditional surrender. It concluded the Second World War which had cost the lives of 384,000 British Service personnel and 70,000 civilians, more than half in the 1940/41 Blitz.
Today, images of military action are on our smartphones. In the late 1960s, the brutality of the Vietnam War came via television. The anti-war protests in London back then were futile attempts to change policy in Washington. Equally fruitless was the one-million strong demonstration in February 2003 to alter the course of the Labour government set on Britain’s military intervention in Iraq.
After four consecutive Saturdays, the British public have got the message that thousands oppose the Israeli action in Gaza. Many demand “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (echoing Hamas’ revised Principles and Policies of May 2017). Understood. “From London to Gaza, we’ll have an Intifada.” We get it.
This year, Armistice Day immediately precedes the rituals of Remembrance Sunday. As some march to condemn a current conflict on Saturday, many will observe the two-minute silence at 11am. They will reflect on the impact of past conflicts which have forged Britain and are an intrinsic part of our national story.
Whether remembering fallen comrades or family members from previous generations, whether at the Cenotaph or a local war memorial or at home, whether wearing a poppy or not, whether choosing to mark Remembrance or ignore it, it’s our choice.
This freedom to choose, like many other freedoms we enjoy, have been bought with the blood and sacrifice of others. They deserve our respect; they deserve to be honoured. And as we remember them, we can take comfort that the pity of war can often lead to a better peace.