‘We will remember them’

‘We will remember them’

When the outbreak of hostilities signalling the start of the First World War was announced in Malta, the Daily Malta Chronicle reported that “it evoked a spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm amongst all classes of the population”. When the war ended on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), the same newspaper splashed the headlines: “The Final Victory of the Allied Cause – Great Demonstrations in Malta – Indescribable Enthusiasm”.  

The day Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, it was committing not only its own men, but also those of its empire. The war gave a sense of identity to the then British Dominions and Colonies that comprised the British Empire. They entered the war willingly, proud, like Malta, to go to the aid of the empire.

The Great War left a clear imprint on Malta. It marked another important moment in our history, in which nearly 800 Maltese servicemen lost their lives serving with distinction in both combat and support roles. It also brought years of prosperity with its boost for employment in the dockyards and the Armed Services. The expansion of hospitals and Service medical facilities in Malta to create an impressive 25,000 beds in 27 hospitals made Malta famous as “the Nurse of the Mediterranean”.

The history of the world in the last hundred years has been deeply affected by what happened in the Great War. It was a conflict that would leave millions dead and wounded, destroy empires, redraw countries’ borders and reshape economies. It transformed Europe and the world we live in today. It led to America’s emergence as a world power.

But the Great War also led directly to the scourge of Soviet communism, the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany, fascism in Italy and Spain, the outbreak of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The turmoil in the Middle East today has its roots in the world it created.

The First World War is often portrayed as a tragic landmark in world history. Millions of combatants and civilians died in the conflict. A veritable bloodbath: over two million in Russia, 1.7 million in Germany, 1.4 million in France, 1.1 million in Austro-Hungary, almost one million in the British Empire, about half a million each in Turkey and Italy.

War is cruel and rarely glorious. At this distance, we find it impossible to look at the destruction of tens of millions of lives in the years after the opening battle and believe that it made the world a safer place. Coming from a very different society, we struggle to grasp why British and German men and women, and those of so many other nationalities including Maltese, were prepared to endure sacrifice on such a vast scale.

The four years of the war proved that the veneer of civilisation in Europe was paper-thin. Its collapse was mired in the mud and blood of the trenches of the Somme, Marne, Mons and Verdun. The plains of northern and eastern France are etched into the history and memory of the First World War, just as the scars of battle – the remains of the trenches and the hundreds of military cemeteries – mark the French and Belgian countryside today.

Today the war dead – on both sides – are worthy of remembrance. Western Europe will be marking the end of the First World War with commemorations, simple ceremonies and prayers of reconciliation. It will be done with dignity and without even a hint of triumphalism in the knowledge that all wars offer lessons for new generations.

In four weeks’ time, on Remembrance Sunday, November 11, Malta too – as befits its status alongside other member states of the European Union deeply affected by the war, where former enemies have become friends – will surely wish to mark this historic day in a fit and proper manner of reconciliation in commemoration of the millions of Europeans, including nearly a thousand Maltese servicemen, who made the supreme sacrifice for a cause in which they believed.

The centenary of Armistice Day marking the end of such a long and terrible confrontation should be commemorated not only by a ceremony at the War Memorial in Floriana with diplomatic representatives from all the key countries on both sides in the conflict, but also by a solemn Te Deum Mass at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta in memory of those who died.

“We will remember them.” 

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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