Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Euston Road Cemetery

Driving back to London from Paris today, we stopped in Picardie near Arras at the Euston Road Commonwealth military cemetery. This was the heart of trench warfare during the First World War and there are military cemeteries every one or two kilometres. The Euston Road Cemetery is where my great uncle Duncan Fairley is buried. As his tombstone indicates, he was killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the first Battle of the Somme, on of history's greatest and most devastating engaements.
Duncan was a lieutenant in the Second Barnsley Pals Regiment of the British army. The British took 60,000 casualties that day, and Duncan was one of them. He was 26 years old and like his father he had been a schoolteacher in Barnsley, the Yorkshire town where he was born and raised.
The Euston Road Cemetery is about a kilometre from Beaumont Hamel, a name well-known in Canada because an entire Newfoundland regiment was wiped out there on 1 July 1916.

The Commonwealth military cemeteries are beautifully maintained, a moving but sombre tribute to the futile deaths of the men who are buried there. On either side of Duncan's tombstone is the grave of an unknown soldier. There is lovely rosebush, and a fragrant plant that attracts a lot of bees, signs of life in this very melancholy place. About 1,000 British soldiers are buried there, most of them from Yorkshire and Lancashire, along with several hundred New Zealanders and a few from Canada, Australia and India. Duncan died only a few kilometres from the cemetery where he is buried.
Approximately 17 million people, 10 million of them combatants, lost their lives in the First World War. That is about 12,000 people every day. We should bear in mind that at the time the population of the world was about 2 million. In today’s terms, this would be the equivalent of about 43,000 deaths every single day. I don’t think there has been anything comparable since 1945.

We may not be able to thank international law for this but we can certainly recognise that it has codified the fact. Aggressive war was not prohibited by international law in 1916, as it has been since the United Nations Charter was adopted in 1945, nor was aggression an international crime, as it has been since Nuremberg.
My great uncle Duncan died because he was a soldier in a war of aggression. A British subject, he was fighting in France to prevent it being invaded by Germany. At the time, nobody spoke about the ‘right to life’, a fundamental human right enshrined in article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Duncan, as well as his parents – my great-grandparents – and his brothers, one of whom was my grandfather, were victims of a violation of the right to life.
The prohibition of war must be a central theme in the struggle for human rights. This is why it is so important to strengthen recognition of the human right to peace and to entrench the crime of aggression within the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

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