It was the war to end wars, they said, but when the bugle sounded for the Armistice, it was only the end of the beginning, the start of a chain of events that would lead to a second world war and to border tensions that continue today.
And there are so many 'what ifs.' What if Kitchener, for instance, had not set off for Russia on HMS Hampshire on 5 June 1916 and lost his life along with almost everyone else aboard? We picture him today in the recruiting poster, the secretary of state for war, who created an army for an unprepared nation and sent it into battle in the trenches, to fight as fiercely as he had fought in Sudan and South Africa. But in both of those earlier conflicts he also negotiated a peace that was fairer than it might have been.
That was a point made by his former chief staff officer, Sir Ian Hamilton, in 1922 while unveiling a war memorial in Scotland just three years after the settlement of Versailles – where, he said, 'our politicians entirely ignored the ideals of those to whom we have raised this memorial by making a vindictive, instead of a generous, peace.'
But in contrast: 'Lord Kitchener forced them to make a good peace in South Africa. For six months Lord Kitchener fought the politicians who wanted to make a vindictive peace, an 'unconditional surrender' peace as they called it, a peace which would above all things humiliate and wound the feelings of the conquered…he beat them and made his own peace; a generous soldierly peace.'
And indeed, it was a peace very unlike that imposed at Versailles. In South Africa there was no levy on the Boers to pay for the costs of the war: indeed there was a payment by Britain of £3m to help with reconstruction.
As to what might have happened at Versailles if Kitchener had lived, there is Lord Derby's account of their conversation together, just three days before the fateful voyage:
'There was only one thing that he really hoped to live for, and that was to be one of the English delegates when peace was made. I asked him whether, saying that, he had any strong views that he would want to put forward and he said he had one very strong one, and that was, whatever happened, not to take away one country's territory and give it to another. It only meant a running sore and provocation for a war of revenge to get back the ground so lost. He was most emphatic about that…'
Kitchener's career had begun in the Royal Engineers, and he had years of experience in surveying in Palestine and Cyprus. He took an engineer's approach to organisational challenges. The building of structures and the planning of systems, with a mastery of detail, which was at the heart of his organising of armies, was also there in his patient fitting together of the elements for a lasting peace at the end of a conflict.
A soldier's view of war, with its terrible consequences around him, can have at times a greater humanity than that of others further from the front. Richard van Emden's book 'Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War,' opens with the story of Captain Robert Campbell in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1916, learning that his mother was dying. The camp commandant offered to arrange to let him go home on a fortnight's leave, if he would promise to return. Captain Campbell gave his promise and was released to spend time with his mother. Then, true to his word, he said goodbye to her and went back to the camp for the rest of the war.
The book includes the account by Private Arthur Wrench of the Seaforth Highlanders of the taking by his division of a village near Beaumont Hamel, and how the walking wounded began to stream by, and among them two men – '…a wounded kilty of the Argylls walking arm-in-arm with a wounded German. As they passed the coffee stall there, one man ran out with a cup of coffee which he handed to the Argyll. He in turn handed it to his stricken companion after which they limped on their way together smiling. Enemies an hour ago, but friends in their common troubles. After all, this war is not a personal affair.'
Richard van Emden interviewed 270 veterans and the stories are sometimes harsh and sometimes heartbreaking; and sometimes deeply moving. He tells for instance of Lieutenant Jack Brewster at Ypres, who mistook a command and rushed forward on his own towards the German trenches and was felled by a shot in the thigh. He started to drag himself back but was trapped in a narrow ditch amidst the fire from both sides, and eventually fell into a deep sleep. He was woken by a German sergeant, and for a time they spoke together, amidst a rain of bullets from both sides passing overhead.
By now the ground they were on had been taken by the Germans, and Sergeant Wagner bandaged his leg, gave him some bread and wine, and had him taken for treatment. His injury was so severe that he was eventually sent into internment in Switzerland, from where he went back to Britain in 1917. Meanwhile, Sergeant Wagner had written to his parents, to let them know that he had survived.
A year and a half later, the Brewsters had another letter from Sergeant Wagner, to say that his brother had been badly wounded and captured, and was in a military hospital in England. Right away, Lieutenant Brewster went to see him. Sergeant Wagner's brother only had his hospital uniform and winter was on the way, and so the Brewsters provided warm clothing and money.
And there are other stories elsewhere, such as accounts of what happened in the terrible winter war, when the Italian army invaded Austria-Hungary and both sides were locked in combat on the mountains around the river that the Italians call the 'Isonzo' and the Slovenians the 'Soča'. They fought in the ice and the snow, hauling guns up steep rock faces and excavating caverns for storage and protection, and the sheer power of the heavy guns would take the top off a hill or bring a cliff down upon the men below. There are several accounts of advances by one side or the other towards positions so heavily defended that attackers were cut down in waves, and eventually the defenders simply stopping shooting.
Mark Thompson recounts in 'The White War': 'On one occasion the Austrian machine gunners were so effective that the second and third waves of Italian infantry could hardly clamber over the corpses of their comrades. An Austrian captain shouted to his gunners, "What do you want, to kill them all? Let them be." The Austrians stopped firing and called out: "Stop, go back! We won't shoot any more. Do you want everyone to die?"'
And somehow that is the language we have to learn today, the language coming from people in the front-line, people who have seen and experienced horrors that haunted them for the rest of their lives. The message they are sending us is about what unites us all, and tells us that what matters is not any form of division between countries and people, but feeling and compassion for fellow-humans wherever they come from. If we could just take this message from them and live it out in our own lives, societies and politics, then maybe we could start to say that their sufferings were not in vain.