It is time to ask whether ww1 was worth so many deaths

October 30, 1998

My grandfather had just turned 16 when the first world war broke out. The recruiting sergeant believed him when he lied about his age, but before the formalities of enlistment could be completed his mother arrived and dragged him home.

If the boy from Fife feared he might miss the action, his anxiety was unjustified. By the time he was allowed to join up the following year, any idea that the war would be a short one had been dispelled. After the usual months of training, he was sent to the trenches as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders, one of 557,618 Scots who enlisted in the British army during the first world war. Of these, more than a quarter lost their lives.

My grandfather was one of the lucky ones. He was shot through the shoulder and survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage.

Not many records survive of John Ferguson's war. He published neither poems nor memoirs and his letters home have not survived. His service file remains inaccessible and the regimental records offer only the barest information.

The first world war was the worst event in British history. 723,000 men from these isles died, far more than in the second world war. Most of us, raised on war poetry, would agree that the war was a horrible bloodbath. Yet the historiographical consensus remains that it was a necessary evil: because Belgian neutrality had to be upheld, or Germany stopped, or both.

Eighty years have passed since the armistice which ended the war; and no more than a few hundred of the men who fought in the trenches are still alive. I feel the time has come to question the assumption that my grandfather, and hundreds of thousands like him, had to kill and risk being killed from 1914-18. N.F.

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