History | Culture | Ancestry
Before our eyes we are seeing the gradual transformation of a historic event into a religious ritual. The striking sanctification of World War One is a phenomenon that not only makes me feel very uncomfortable, it makes me feel completely ostracised from what appears to be the accepted, main stream view of the subject.
In some sense we shouldn’t be surprised by this transformation. War commemoration in the UK has long taken on many aspects of religious iconography, from the veneration of regimental standards within churches to the ritualistic utterances of the Ode of Remembrance.
Yet, as a history graduate there is a part of me that inevitable winces at the prospect of history being digested and interpreted through the lens of the commercial media. I suppose this is a feeling that has been reinforced by spending my formative years in Australia, where people do not easily buy into lofty rituals and are naturally very sceptical, even dismissive, of anything passed down by authority figures.
I happened to watch the French-German joint ceremony that recently took place to commemorate World War One. The event was suitably sombre, measured and appropriate for such an historic occasion. Clearly a delicate balance had been found in what was a commemorative event primarily based on the idea of reconciliation. German publications such as Der Spiegel have also been note worthy for reporting the war anniversary in a tasteful and appropriately analytical style.
However, in the UK we have been bombarded with absolutely anything related to World War One, including a commemoration for a horse in Leicester. Some of this coverage has been very interesting and informative with Radio 4’s programme about the events leading up to the war being of particular interest. To my mind this was achieved by presenting what essentially amounted to an academic recital of the facts. Other coverage has been less than praise-worthy and at worse amounts to revisionist history. David Cameron has been particularly guilty of the ‘chest thumping Britishness’ view of the war. Much to my irritation I have heard Cameron say on more than one occasion that the war was fought “for freedom” with little or no mention of the fact that while we were fighting “for freedom” we were also colonising about a fifth of the world’s population.
This Orwellian distortion legitimises the reasons for war, and moves people away from the reality that 1914-1919 was a national catastrophe fought primarily to preserve Britain’s colonial empire. The interpretation of the war as a war “for freedom” is of special importance to the UK, which derives much of its current international influence from accumulated historical prestige, rather than an appreciation of contemporary military and economic realities.
I heard another interview recently which highlighted the patriotic enlistments of British soldiers following Germany’s invasion of Belgium. Without the slightest hint of irony, the person being interviewed spoke glowingly of Britain, heroically motivated to preserve the freedom of Belgium – a poor victim being tyrannised by Imperial Germany. Leaving aside the fact that the very same British Army had been used to impose colonial rule all around the world over the preceding 300 years, this tiresome interpretation did not allude to the fact that Belgium itself was a particularly brutal colonial power. In fact, until 1908 the Congo was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium and even by colonial standards, Belgium’s rule of Congo was cruel. Local villages were required to meet a quota from their work on the rubber plantations, when the villagers failed to meet the Belgian demands – their hands were cut off.
I highlighted this interview because it made me realise something very important. Many people who have recently commented on the justifications that Britain gave for entering the war in 1914 are not doing so to record the historic reasons given at the time, they are actually echoing those reasons to justify Britain’s involvement from our modern perspective. While this is taking place the more unsavoury or less palatable reasons for the war are being quietly brushed to the side. It’s very hard for the British Government to say that millions of men fought and died to preserve an empire when we have almost universally rejected imperialism as a concept, so it makes their sacrifice seem less pointless if we tell ourselves that it was for ‘freedom’ instead.
Of course I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t commemorate them, obviously their bravery and self sacrifice are beyond reproach, but at one point are we finally going to see the events with the clear sightedness that’s provided by a hundred years of distance? The UK’s most recent World War One infatuation has manifested itself in Paul Cummin’s commemorative planting of the Tower of London’s moat with ceramic poppies. I’ve noted glowing praise of the work, with many commenting on it’s apparent beauty. My immediate reaction on the other hand was one of revulsion and I am glad that a quick Google search shows that I am not the only person that thinks it looks like a river of blood, flowing out of a window in the tower. It appears that this was the purpose of the installation, which has been named after the poem ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. Personally I find it crass and distasteful, but apparently a river of blood constitutes a fitting tribute to soldiers physically and psychologically maimed by the war.
I suspect that part of the awkwardness about the First World War is that it occupies an ambiguous position for a historical event. The Great War is old enough to be considered distantly historic, but its young enough that many people have met someone who participated in it. I always feel somewhat sceptical of anyone who have a strong emotional attachment to a particular historic event that they have no direct personal connection to, particularly when it is to the point of veneration. I would compare this phenomenon to when Margaret Thatcher died, prompting an out pouring of celebration from many who were not even alive when she became Prime Minister. While I didn’t like Thatcher, and I don’t like what she did to Scotland, I can’t identify with the seething hatred felt by people of my generation to someone who was essentially a historic figure.
As the World War One show rolls into town, there is also all manner of travelling salesman ready to cash in on events. Again, this is where the boundaries of commemoration start to become blurred at the edges. I’ve seen a variety of products related to the war being sold now that the anniversary is upon us. Historians on twitter dutifully report their latest World War One book is now available, while the genealogy website’s have the latest military records for you to prove your family’s military credentials. The marketing departments of these family history websites do err on the slightly cynical side of things by appealing to our desire to ‘find our war-hero/suffragette/royal ancestor.’ All of these things, even in a small incremental way, contribute to our view of the British soldier of the Great War as a deified figure. Commercialisation is an important influence in that respect, it helps to cultivate that part of us, deep down inside, that still ultimately accepts that we live in a warrior society where martial skill is celebrated. That is why sites like Ancestry encourage you to “find the war hero in your family.” They know this concept still resonates with us. After all, who says that they want to be descendent of a hard working munitions factory worker, tirelessly hammering out pieces of metal for 12 hours a day, trying to support six children who live in an over populated tenement in the Gorbals?
The problem with history is that it’s not obligated to fit comfortably into the perceptions that are being imposed on you regarding your personal family history or that of your country. As far as I’m aware, none of my direct ancestors were in the trenches during the First World War. For many this would be a disappointment, but I see it as cause for celebration, my forefathers were extremely lucky to have missed the slaughter.
The most alarming aspect of the veneration is the way it creates taboo subjects where even the most reasonable of discussion is painfully construed to be a sacrilege. Bizarre media debates have emerged in the last few years about ‘poppy etiquette’, what the much respected journalist Jon Snow controversially described as ‘Poppy Fascism‘. In more recent times, politicians have been criticised for tweeting during the ‘lights out’ event to mark 100 years since the beginning of the war. We need to not only challenge that kind of thinking but we also need to have an appropriate commemoration for veterans, free of the spin that is beginning to saturate these events.
People far more articulate than me, such as Robert Somynne have written about this subject before and are worth reading. However, in all of the recent media coverage there is one voice that I haven’t heard yet, that of Harry Patch, who was the last known soldier to have fought in the trenches for the British Army in World War One. Therefore I will give the last word to him –
“When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?” – Henry John Patch (1898-2009)