John Bird: One hundred years into this new world the challenges remain

The First World War thrust us into modernity but we're yet to defeat the enemy that is poverty

Old deaf men were everywhere when I was growing up. We had lots of horrible, anti-social games on these hard of hearing men, many of them veterans of the First World War. But every now and then we would run into a teacher, a police officer, or perhaps a bricklayer who would be appalled at our games and chase us off – or rightly give us a clout round the head.

By the Fifties the Great War was for old people’s memories, people like my grandmother who still dressed in the fashions from before the First World War. We had Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly! What did they have, the old ones? Scratchy old shellac-made records that you had to play on a gramophone, not on a modern record player.

Progress, part-built on their suffering and sacrifices, obliterated the past for us post-Second World War young. The second Great War of the century was more up our street. We could pretend to hijack German soldiers and rescue our fellow play soldiers from their captivity. The First World War though was old hat and not fun at all.

War was still sexy, but it had to be more modern. Wasn’t Elvis a US soldier stationed in Germany, among the very people who we’d beaten 15 years before? It was all good stuff, whereas the First World War was just old moustaches and tin helmets that looked like soup bowls.

But then, suddenly, the First World War came in for a reinterpretation in the Sixties. I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet shops became some of the most important of the Swinging London era, opening up in Notting Hill, Piccadilly and Chelsea. London became alive to the images of the First World War. Field Marshal Kitchener and his famous appeal for men in a war poster became a new image in Swinging London.

It was the Great War that broke us from the old world

From Clapton, Jagger, Lennon to Hendrix, old army clothes started to be worn by pop stars and their fans. Army overcoats left in lofts came back into circulation, along with campaign medals. And the Beatles seemed to top it all off with their decidedly old-fashioned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from this lost period; perhaps more Edwardian than Great War.

The longer the century wore on it seemed the more people began to see the First World War as ‘the’ war. As the big one, with the second little more than an expression of unfinished business; the unfinished business of the first. Even though more died in the Second World War, it was largely a People’s War, because most who died died as civilians.

It was the Great War that broke us from the old world. It was the war where technology started to overtake war itself. It was the war where national governments came to be the ‘in your face’ presentiment that is now the norm. The governments that seemed to control everything in your life. Before the First World War there was no pension or health service to speak of. There was no control of drinking, driving or numerous other manifestations.

Now we are ruled by governments who load down Parliament with new laws for new controls, and new standards to adhere to. Thousands and thousands of new laws since before that time when a disagreement over Serbia, and a murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne turned to mayhem.

The First World War brought us spluttering into our new world of orders. Into many, many controls and laws to control us.

Many of these controls are worthy of clinging on to. Around education, health and industrial responsibility. Around taming the power of commerce to destroy the lives of the poorest among us.

One hundred years later, there are billions who have no future. We have a dirtied planet, facing the extinction of many, many species

You would not want to return to the days when you could be thrown out by landlords on a whim; where dangerous substances could be used in manufacturing that, in the case of the Bryant and May match workers of the East End, would eat your face and hands away. ‘Phossy jaw’, they called it.

The new world that came out of the great sacrifices of the First World War is a bit like a Swiss cheese, with many holes in it. But the sacrifice must be honoured and remembered. The children of the Fifties who ridiculed the old and their sufferings came about because there was no attempt in a time of increasing prosperity to look back. Now, though, we seem more conscious of our past and the precious hardships of those who suffered so that later generations could prosper.

It was a very hot and cold affair. Many millions were murdered in the new world created by the legacy of that Great War. The political struggles that came out of the First World War caused the most deaths; especially the struggle between Soviet communism and Nazism. And of course the almost unbelievably murderous Holocaust.

One hundred years later, even though there are fewer people stuck in the old life and death of poverty, there are billions who have no future. We have a dirtied planet, facing the extinction of many, many species.

And also, of course, our own extinction. We have perhaps a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees; beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

The First World War threw up as many threats as it did opportunities. Many wars grew out of it. Yet we can be certain that those many who sacrificed their health – and some their lives – deserve every honour we can, all these decades later, give them.