It was a couple of summers ago when a friend and I cycled to Canterbury. It was during the holidays and I’d been teaching First World War literature to A-level students like yourselves for two years. Now, I was pretty foolish in attempting the ride. I hadn’t been on a bike in six months and so had exactly six months of accumulated flab to carry on the journey. I was also stunningly unfit. By the time we reached Canterbury, I’d had to buy a new, soft bike seat because my rear end had been bruised and shredded. Not dignified!
Anyway. When we finally trundled into Canterbury, we decided to go and see the Cathedral, walking around the grounds with our bikes. It was while nosing around the close that I saw something that rather discombobulated me.
In the gardens in the eastern part of the Cathedral grounds, I found a stone memorial to the First World War. I looked it over. It was, as many of these memorials are, a moving testament to the dead. Yet as I read, I noticed that the dedication read not ‘1914-18’, but ‘1914-19’.
At that moment, a mild panic swept over me. Was it possible, I thought, that I had been teaching the wrong dates for the First World War for two years?
It’s the kind of thing that makes you reel for a second and question everything. Do cats and dogs secretly get on? Does night follow day– or day follow night? Is the Pope Catholic?
The solution to the riddle was simple, however; the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th, 1919, though the armistice took place, as we all know, on the 11th of November, 1918. Hence ‘1914-19’: though perhaps, if German paper Bild and some of the British broadsheets are to be believed, it should be re-engraved ‘1914-2010’.
For in an interesting historical twist that will come as news to the generations who have lived between 1918 and today, the press have been reporting that the First World War only officially ended a week last Sunday.
The Daily Telegraph leads with an attention grabbing headline: ‘First World War Officially Ends’. Odd, eh?
Here’s the key: 92 years after the end of the war, Germany has made its last reparation payment of £59m to Great Britain. Reparations are compensation payments for wrongs done: Germany was held responsible for the war and forced to make massive reparations by the Treaty of Versailles. It was so punishing a schedule of payments– pushed for heavily by victorious France– that the level of debt that Germany was thrown into is today widely held to have contributed to the rise of Nazism. The Guardian writes a short but interesting article, ‘Why does Germany still owe money for The First World War?’ explaining the peculiar phenomenon. It just goes to show that even today we still live with the effects of World War One.
While you’re there, you may want to check out the Guardian’s First World War site. It’s not compendious, but it does have lots of interesting little pieces– like the articles on Harry Patch and the Guardian Series on the Great War. Check it out.