Why we must never forget the horrors of the First World War

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TODAY, a hundred years ago, Britain entered the First World War.

A different age, it is hard to think now that the blind optimism with which so many greeted the outbreak of hostilities would be repeated today.

A large part of the reason for that is because we know what happened next.

Almost a million British soldiers died in the Great War. Some died alone, killed by a chance shell, grenade or bullet; many died together as they attacked or defended against attack.

In Leeds, as in other towns and cities, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters were left to mourn the loss of their loved ones on some distant foreign field.

The Leeds Pals, a battalion made up of men who had enlisted together with the promise they would be able to serve alongside their mates, were wiped out on their first day of action in the infamous Battle of the Somme.

“We were two years in the making and 10 minutes in the destroying,” noted one of the few to survive.

Out of more than 1,000 men who went to war from Leeds, fewer than 50 returned home alive.

With a century’s hindsight, such scale of sacrifice is all but inconceivable. The best part of a generation wiped out in just four years.

Yet despite that passage of time, the war stays with us. And, if anything, our understanding of the sacrifices these men made and the horrors they endured has grown even greater. As a result, our appreciation for what they did has only increased.

Even now, communities in Leeds are campaigning for war memorials so that they can honour those from their area who perished in the war – as well as subsequent conflicts.

On the eve of war, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, with dread for what lay ahead, said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Tonight, a century later, the Royal British Legion is asking us to switch off our lights at 10pm and leave only a single light or candle in what will be a symbolic act of reflection and hope.

It’s often said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it – and that is as good a reason as any never to forget the First World War and those who fought, and died, in it.

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