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Peter Rhodes on defence, Roman-style, the centenary of the Armistice and putting our faith in the youth of today

By Peter Rhodes | Peter Rhodes | Published:

Talkin' about your generation.

Colonel Tim Collins - speaking up for youth

WHAT have the Romans ever done for us? Well, they may have given us an idea of how to build an army. Britain's armed forces are considering recruiting young men and women from Commonwealth countries, even if they have never lived in Britain.

THE Romans were doing the same 2,000 years ago. The "Roman" regiments manning Hadrian's Wall came from Spain, Romania, Belgium, Syria, North Africa and other places. I wouldn't lose any sleep if teenagers who grew up in Nigeria, Fiji, Malta or Cyprus joined Her Majesty's forces. In fact, given the success of royal tours, there seems more enthusiasm and loyalty for Her Majesty in the Commonwealth than in some parts of her United Kingdom.

AS the centenary of the Armistice approaches, one of the downsides of honouring the lads in khaki of previous generations is that we contrast them with today's lads in hoodies. The conversation usually begins on the lines of: "Youth of today? Rubbish." So it was good to see Colonel Tim Collins, the soldier's soldier, speaking up for today's youth, "more diverse and less bound by traditional ties than previous generations, yet far more informed and politically aware." He wrote in the Daily Telegraph that young people today have a great sense of fairness. Collins believes future wars will be all about fairness: fair access to food or water and so on. He believes that if the youth of today are ever asked to fight in a fair cause, "their resolve will be astonishing."

A FRIEND wondered whether, after the centenary of the Armistice this Sunday, we might move on and let the First World War slip into history. I doubt it. Since my first battlefield tours in the 1980s, I have noticed something about British men. They may be truants, wasters and hooligans in their youth but as they reach 50 many of them suddenly discover their family history and find themselves wandering through the gravestones at places like Thiepval and Tyne Cot. They get all quiet and reverential.

SOMETIMES these middle-aged chaps speak self-righteously about the youth of today: no patriotism, no respect, no gratitude for the freedoms won by the lads of earlier generations. I recall pointing out to one pilgrim in Normandy that he'd admitted being a Teddy Boy in his youth and carried a cut-throat razor. "Only for show," he insisted, adding, "this generation, they're rubbish."

AT that point an old chap in the party, a wartime tank driver who took his Sherman from the Normandy beaches to the Rhine, smiled and joined the conversation. "I remember my father in 1939 saying my generation was rubbish. But we didn't do too badly, did we?"

THROUGHOUT history, each generation has despaired of the generation following it. So maybe the best thing we can do on this 100th anniversary of the ending of "the war to end wars" is to have a little more faith in the kids of today.

Peter Rhodes

By Peter Rhodes

Award-winning columnist and blogger. Keeping an eye on the tribulations and trivia of a fast-changing world

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