Lest we forget: A warning against complacency

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. A colourised image from Peter Jackson's film. Photo: Contributed

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. A colourised image from Peter Jackson's film. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Contributed

Let's not forget, peace in Europe is not a natural state. We have to fight for it, says MITCH BENN

I don't know if you've seen any of the archive footage of the First World War trenches 'restored' by filmmaker Peter Jackson for his new documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. I put quotes around 'restored' because while that's the usual term for the process of cleaning up and otherwise enhancing old film stock, it doesn't really come close to doing justice to the process Jackson has developed in this instance. 'Enhanced' is in fact probably a better term.

Firstly, the footage has been slowed down to remove that strange sped-up look early 20th century films tend to have. Back then, film cameras shot around 16 to 18 frames per second; with the advent of sound pictures in the late 1920s 'frame rate' became standardised at 24 frames per second, so when old movies are shown using modern equipment the action appears to be about 50% too fast.

Jackson's technique involved not just slowing the trenches footage down to the speed at which it was shot, but also using computers to colourise the images and smooth out the gaps between the frames to avoid the flicker-book effect of what, to modern eyes, would look like a weirdly slow succession of images.

Finally, since all the footage was of course silent, Jackson brought in army veterans to dub in the conversations the soldiers are having onscreen, in some cases bringing in forensic lip readers (who specialise in discerning the content of conversations captured on silent CCTV video) to figure out what exactly the men in the films were saying, the better to match the words to the images.

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The end result is at once startling and moving; it's pin sharp, full colour and sound footage of real events from more than 100 years ago; perfectly rendered film of soldiers who, even assuming they survived the war (and by no means the least moving thing about watching the footage is the knowledge that many, if not most of them, wouldn't) have now been gone for decades. The film's release is of course being timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Armistice; the end of the war to end all wars, except it didn't.

Not only was Europe plunged again into bloodshed just a little over two decades later, it's generally accepted that the disastrous prosecution of the peace process from 1919 onwards led, at least indirectly, to the outbreak of the Second World War.

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The decision to extract crippling 'war reparation' payments from Germany (which had disastrous consequences for the economy of Europe, with nations shovelling loans into the German exchequer in order to be able to demand the money back again) and, most cruelly, inserting a clause into the Treaty Of Versailles blaming the German nation – not the Kaiser, not the generals, but all of Germany – for the bloodiest conflict in history, made the rise of Hitler, or someone like him, all but inevitable.

The period which preceded the Great War, as it was somewhat euphemistically known at the time, was, largely, one of peace in Europe. It had lasted from 1870 to 1914, and indeed, a cursory glance through European history will tell you that a period of 44 years without any major conflict erupting between European powers was almost unprecedented.

We've now beaten that period of peace by 29 years. There's no-one still with us who fought in the First World War and precious few who were alive at the time. While there are still plenty of people left who lived during the Second World War (when I was growing up, everybody's parents had lived through at least part of the war) there are not many now who remember it as adults, or indeed fought themselves.

My generation, and those generations before and since, have grown up without it ever occurring to us that at any moment, war – actual war – could break out between us and a nation so close that the conflict might directly affect us here at home. For us, wars are things that happen on the other side of the world. Even if it's a war involving Britain, there's no conscription here; participation is strictly voluntary. Wars, as far as Brits from the baby boomers onwards are concerned, are someone else's problem.

There are two main reasons we can afford such complacency: NATO and the EU. One of those is being undermined by the current US president's obsequiousness towards Russia and the other is being undermined by Brexit.

I could point out that there's a common thread: that Vladimir Putin has an equal interest in both the rise of Donald Trump and Britain's departure from the EU. I could point out that it's no coincidence that as the western alliances fragment, Russia's influence over its neighbours grows ever stronger; that while we get smaller, they get bigger... but that's a conspiracy theory for another time.

I just wanted to point out, as we remember our war dead, that peace is Europe is not the natural state of affairs. It's actually freakishly unusual, and if not diligently maintained, will not survive.

Brexiteers do love to invoke the spirit of wartime, to wrap themselves in the flag and try to monopolise the concepts of pride and patriotism. We must not let them. Because the worst way to dishonour the fallen is to carelessly add to their number.

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