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Gone to graveyards every one

  • 10 November 2021
Aficionados of United Nations Days and Weeks will know that this is the Week of Science and Peace. In the middle of it, perhaps deliberately and certainly paradoxically, sits Remembrance Day. Initially called Armistice Day, it marked the end of the First World War and of the industrial scale killing involved in it. The events of 1918 and what they might say about the relationship between war and science merit reflection today.

Remembrance Day is still observed ritually in Australia by one minute of silence at 11.00am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Initially it recalled and honoured the many soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War. Now it encompasses all those who served in later wars and peace keeping operations. The poppies sold to raise funds for returned soldiers and their families recall the trenches on the fields of Flanders where these blood coloured flowers grew. The date and the time are those when an armistice came into force. It was signed earlier in the morning, but in some places fighting continued regardless. Over 2000 soldiers died on that day.

For the German people it was a bitter day. The were forced to accept the harsh conditions imposed by their enemies, including the resignation of the Kaiser and a sustained naval blockade. Their humiliation was intensified by the conditions imposed on them at the end of the war, and by the disorder and suffering caused by inflation and civil unrest afterwards. In retrospect Armistice Day can be seen as the time when one war ended and the seeds of the next were planted.  

When we look back at the First World War it is difficult not to notice the contrast between the great exercise of practical intelligence shown by the scientists and others who designed and engineered ways of killing and destruction, and the lack of wisdom of the human beings who allowed the world to decline into war, presided over the human loss and futility of its continuance, and ensured its return.

The war displayed the remarkable development of transport technology that could rush guns, shells, poison gas, men and other instruments of war to battle fronts, of manufacturing technologies that could streamline the production of increasingly destructive weapons, and of information technology that could sustain the war by inciting fear and hatred among civilians. The lack of wisdom among leaders who allowed the war to