Speech on lessons to learn from the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War – Martin Callanan, Strasbourg, 16th April 2014

Apr 16, 2014


Mr President, it is perhaps appropriate that what may be the last contributions of Presidents Daul, Swoboda and Cohn-Bendit should be in a solemn debate to reflect on the past. Whilst we have many political differences which we no doubt will continue to argue about on future occasions in other forums, I would like to put these to one side today, to express my respect for their work and contribution to public life in this Chamber

Politicians are all too easily and frequently criticised, but I believe that there is nothing more noble or honourable than devoting a life to public service and seeking to create a better world through robust democratic argument and debate about ideals sincerely held. I would therefore like to pay tribute to them today.

The First World War was, in the words of Fritz Stern, “the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.”

The sheer cost in terms of human sacrifice means we should be obliged to remember in our private thoughts and our public words all those who gave up so much in that struggle: their lives, their health, their families, their property, their way of life.

The First World War may not have been the first industrial war, nor was it the first global war, or even the first civilian war but it was all of these things on a previously unimaginable scale. Its impact and reach were of a new magnitude: in looking at the numbers of dead, the casualty rates, the 54,000 soldiers remembered at the Menin Gate in Ypres whose bodies were never found, – it is hard to comprehend the full impact of the war.

But behind all the numbers are the human stories. Each of the 54,000 had a mother, a father, many of them a wife, and many of them children. The First World War touched farming families in India and factory workers in Australia.The First World War shaped the modern world and in many aspects we are still living in its shadow.

But even now it is possible some countries still refuse to learn the lessons. They try to get what they want by force, by threats, by creating a false sense of grievance to whip up domestic opinion and to provide a pretext for military action. Tactics we had hoped never to see again deployed in our continent are being used right now just beyond the frontiers of some of our member states.

In 1914 it was not clear what the democratic world wanted, what it would accept, what it expected of others, and what it was prepared to do to defend these ideals. These are mistakes we must not repeat again.

But as we reflect on the horror of the First World War, we can also take inspiration from some of the individuals who in tragic circumstances pointed to a better world.

I think of people like Edith Cavell, the nurse who helped soldiers on all sides and was eventually executed for helping a group of Allied soldiers to escape. She became an inspiration for women’s rights.

And I think of the first Black soldier to command white soldiers in the British Army – a man called Walter Tull – an action that what would seem normal to us today which was revolutionary in its day and helped take some of the first tentative steps towards a new era of equality.

Walter Tull is a particular hero of mine as he was a professional footballer – albeit for Tottenham Hotspur – as he was only the second black professional footballer in the English league. And it reminds me of the famous story of the 1914 Christmas day truce that perhaps best sums up how humanity can shine through even in the darkest days. Ordinary people putting differences aside and meeting on the football pitch instead – history does not recall, Mr President, who won that match, but I’m sure that Germany once again won on penalties.

So, as we head into an election campaign where all of us will be straining to highlight every difference and to demonstrate our divisions, events like this actually serve as a useful reminder to all of us that what unites us far outweighs what divides us.

And, since the chain of events that began in Sarajevo a hundred years ago, we have learnt that when we have differences, we can find peaceful ways of resolving them. It is one of the greatest achievements of western civilisation that must never be taken for granted. It is the legacy of all those who suffered during the twentieth century and it is the legacy we honour here today.