Demented Choirs of Wailing Shells Martin Hall blog [Aug.11, 2014]: Words of Inspiration and Dreadful Sounds from the Cloisters

Dr. Jeffrey Levett*

Vice Chancellor Martin Hall [University of Salford] called attention to Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. Its 100th anniversary was commemorated in Manchester Cathedral in ‘radical fashion’, a commemoration of ‘irretrievable loss’. Bishop David Walker remembered the mud and blood of the trenches, the rats and the fear as he marked the roles of ordinary men and women. He pointedly focussed on the need to reinforce our common humanity, draw strength from mankind’s diversity and to foster altruism. The sounds of gunfire and shelling echoed across the nave to open the commemoration and to forge a dread and terrible link to Gaza, now under bombardment as well as to the dozens of other locally raging wars and their numberless casualties. Where civilian life is violently cut short at all ages, childhood is impossible.

WWI was set in motion on a pleasant summer day one hundred years ago when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, to malign the Balkans and precipitate a post war generation of women without men and men without limbs. Days after the assassination the Russian Minister left his Belgrade Delegation for vacation, noting that ‘no important events can now be expected’. Gavrilo, a student, freedom fighter and terrorist told his prosecutors, “I am not a criminal”….“I destroyed that which was evil” only to die peacefully of tuberculosis in an Austrian prison hospital. Yet to come, evil inconceivable, indescribable evil: gas, tanks, aerial bombardments, strafing of civilians, battles and massacres and much more. “Only the monstrous anger of the guns…only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle”. The horrors of appalling casualties, endless and useless infantry assaults where no blood and mud splattered trench should ever fall, to a background of dysentery, typhoid, typhus and the ‘stench of rotting flesh’ were penned by the war poets, no more heart wrenching though than the long sad moment, when George Barnes, Britain’s first Minister of Pensions and one of the founding fathers of the International Labour Organisation [ILO, LoN] should have addressed WWI war casualties. Rising to speak, he stood long in silence, and then retreated in tears. No word was ever said. He left the casualties assembled on the hospital lawn with their crutches, eye patches, head bandages, in wheelchairs, with empty sleeves and trouser legs. Even so, in the Balkans [mentioned by the Bishop]and in Britain, home front misery was great.

As we reflect on war and contemplate a fairer world, one without fear, one without want, one without ‘physical and mental scars, for life’ we should recall the gains from public health and demand humanitarian access when disaster, devastating to health, strikes. Public health development can help rein in inequality and vulnerability and build more resilient societies. We should be thankful to the international community [UN, UNICEF, UNDP, WHO] for all and any effort to fill in difficult voids when disaster strikes. At the same time however, we should not lose sight of failures to act, dulling of transparency or when politics compromises health. If the world’s health rested within the Security Council, a praiseworthy altruistic initiative, and lofty ideal and if we can really ‘learn from the past’, then perhaps, the UN mission might yet be fulfilled.

*Professor, Management Public Health and International Health [Athens, Belgrade]
Member, Honorary Committee Public Health, ASPHER, Brussels
Member, ECPD Academic Council, UN UoP, Serbia.