It is almost 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, hailed in its time as the ‘war to end all wars’, and preparations have, as they are every year, been underway to mark the occasion. Plans included commemorating the battle of the Somme (1916) and Armistice Day (1918), and selected schoolchildren visited the numerous battlefields of the war. Very few people would argue that the commemoration was unwarranted but it was debated as to what kind of commemoration it should have been.
David Cameron has asserted that the war is a “fundamental part of or national consciousnesses” and he’s right. Although there are no remaining veterans of the Great War, the stories and accounts of soldiers, officers and civilians live on through rich literary and historical accounts. The First World War though seemingly remote, continues to evoke strong sentiments, a general sense of honouring the dead of a just war is a deeply embedded feeling that is reflected in commemoration. The central features are mourning, sorrow and quiet reflection; the objects of those emotions are the soldiers, the self-sacrificing honourable individuals who died a glorious death protecting our valued freedoms. Commemoration both created and perpetuates this state of affairs, yet, how many people even know what the war of 1914 was about? The collective memory sees World War One as a just war in which Britain went to the aid of little Belgium, the neutral state faced with German aggression. In short this was a battle between good (democracy) and evil (German militarism), in which good ultimately triumphed.
The truth is that Germany never invaded Britain, and Britain was as motivated by strategic and imperial considerations as it was by maintaining the neutrality of Belgium. To suggest that this was also a defence of democracy when Britain held most of the world in servitude is to disregard an inconvenient truth. As for the soldiers, millions of whom died, no amount of ceremonial pomp can erase the fact that this was a brutal war that defied all manners of logic. Whilst much has been said of the mechanisation of war which began with World War One, the real weapons of war were the soldiers themselves, sent to the slaughter fields of the Somme, Pachendale and Ypres in a war of attrition. The war was an indictment of the failures of politicians and institutions to prevent what essentially was a ‘tragedy, a vast and avoidable waste’ and an even greater failure to observe the base sanctity of human life. Despite this, the preoccupation with victory remains, yet it is hard to say what that victory actually was. If world war one tells us anything, it is caution against what was essentially a ‘bad war and a bad victory.’ The Versailles settlement forced on Germany in 1918 was the sad precursor to World War II that inflicted a suffering even greater than its predecessor. And almost 100 years on, ‘the war to end all wars’ has not eliminated the scourge of war. Thus, we can excuse some contemporaries who may indeed see WW1 in terms of a victory in a just war fought in defence of neutrality and democracy, but it would be dishonest of us to peddle the same view given what we now know.
In his speech at the Imperial war museum, David Cameron asserted that ‘remembrance would be the hallmark of our commemoration.’ The purpose he continued ‘being to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons live with us forever.’ The question is: what are we going to remember? There is a consensus that commemoration has to be apolitical – in this show of militaristic triumphalism, there is neither room for questioning nor dissent; one may be considered disrespectful towards the memories of the fallen soldiers and even ungrateful for the services they rendered to country and people. But it escapes the minds of these individuals that the very act of commemoration is itself political. David Cameron betrayed this fact when he said that he wanted a “commemoration that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people.” Aside from the inappropriate comparison between the diamond jubilee and the celebration of war, the idea that the commemorations should capture the ‘national spirit’ smacks of an attempt to use the tragedy of war for political gain, after all ‘politicians love to appropriate the bravery of others’ and there is nothing like a good ceremony of remembrance to keep the torch of nationalism lit.
What is not acknowledged in the narrative of commemoration is the fact that the war and its meaning were debated even by the people of its time. Interpretations of the war varied as patriotic sentiments coexisted alongside much more critical readings of the war. The very soldiers whose memories commemoration seeks to preserve had mixed feelings about the war as the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen illustrate. The lapse in time shouldn’t be a reason to gloss over the realities of conflict and rather than being dominated by neatly packaged clichés of national pride, the commemorations provide an opportunity for Britons to be more critical and nuanced in our understanding of not only of this war, but every war since.