The UK has launched a series of global events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. In Montevideo, Ambassador Ben Lyster-Binns gave a keynote speech at the opening of an exhibition at the Parliament’s library on 28 July. “A century on from the First World War”, the exhibition features newspapers from that time with the aim of reflecting the news that Uruguayans got and how it was processed by local media.
These were Ambassador Lyster-Binns words, who was invited to the opening together with Vice President Danilo Astori, Ambassadors and other diplomats from Germany, France and the United States of America:
Why does this matter so much? Why should we make such a priority of commemorations when money is tight and there is no one left from the generation that fought in the First World War?
I think there are three reasons. The first is the scale of the sacrifice. When the armies set out, none of them had any idea of the length and scale of the trauma that was going to unfold. For many British men, going off to war was a rite of passage. Many of them were excited; it was an escape from a hard and monotonous life. They would eat better than they had when they were down the mines or in the textile mills. They would have access to better medical care, and many thought they’d be home by Christmas, anyway.
Four months later, one million had died in the heavy artillery battles. Four years later, the death toll of military and civilians stood at over 16 million, nearly 1 million of them Britons. 200,000 were killed on one day of the Battle of the Somme. To us, today, it seems so inexplicable that countries that had so many things binding them together, could indulge in such a never-ending slaughter. But they did. The death and the suffering was on a scale that outstrips any other conflict. We only have to look at the First World War memorials in British villages, churches, schools and universities and across the Commonwealth. This was the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation. It was a sacrifice they made for us, and it is right that we should remember them.
Second, I think it is also right to acknowledge the impact that the war had on the development of Britain and on the world as it is today. For all the profound trauma. The resilience and the courage that was shown. The values we all hold dear of friendship and loyalty. And the lessons we learned changed the United Kingdom and made us who we are today.
The First World War’s geopolitical consequences defined much of the twentieth century. It unleashed extreme political forces and - with the failure to get the peace right - the great tragedy of an equally cataclysmic Second World War, just two decades later.
There is a third reason why this matters so much. It is more difficult to define. There is something about the World Wars that makes it a fundamental part of national consciousness. Put simply, this matters not just in our heads, but in our hearts; it has a very strong emotional connection.
The fact is, individually, as a country and internationally, we keep coming back to it. This is not just a matter of the heart for us in Britain. It is a matter for the heart for the whole of Europe and beyond, including Uruguay. And that from such war and hatred can come unity and peace, a confidence and a determination never to go back is in some way fundamental. However frustrating and however difficult the debates in Europe, 100 years on we sort out our differences through dialogue and meetings around conference tables, not through battles.
This centenary is also providing the foundations upon which to build an enduring cultural and educational legacy, to put young people front and centre in our commemorations and to ensure that the sacrifice and service of a hundred years ago is still respected in a hundred years’ time.
Our duty towards these commemorations is clear: to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons live with us forever.