Poppies and parades must prompt, not end, thought about Europe’s wars
One hundred years ago this Sunday, at 11 o’clock on the morning of 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent in France. Nearly a million British combatants had died since August 1914; another eight million died from other nations. The occasion was so momentous that it is still marked each year with solemn ceremonies across the land and in the annual wearing of poppies. No one now survives who fought in what contemporaries called, without irony, the Great War. Only a handful now have any memory of the Armistice itself. Nevertheless, Sunday’s commemorations, including a “people’s procession”, will be the largest for years.
As one of the war’s leading historians, David Reynolds, has long argued, modern Britain has “lost touch” with the first world war and the European historical context in which it occurred. Our view of the war is now, as he put it recently, a “tragic-poetic” one, shaped as much by Wilfred Owen and some iconic photographs as by the causes for which the combatants actually fought and the outcomes they would formalise at Versailles. Remembrance has long been extended to take in other conflicts too. Nevertheless, the first war still looms massively in the collective consciousness and in the stories of families across Britain. The release this autumn of Peter Jackson’s remarkable film They Shall Not Grow Old – it will be screened on BBC2 on Sunday evening – has helped to make the war freshly vivid for new generations.
Five years ago, David Cameron went to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London and announced plans for a “truly national commemoration” of the war’s many centenaries, then all upcoming. In his speech, the then prime minister said that the purposes would be “to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learned live with us for ever”. That was OK as far as it went. Veterans are there to be honoured. The dead should be remembered. But Mr Cameron never spelled out the hard bit – what those lessons were and, more importantly in 2018, what they are now.
At first, it seemed as if Britain’s centenary commemorations would simply repeat the rituals of the imperial military past. In this tradition, the armed forces are presented as unifying symbols for a supportive nation, led by its rulers, to be honoured for their service. But we simply do not inhabit such a Britain today, in the aftermath of divisive conflicts like Suez, the Falklands and Iraq, and arguably we never really did after 1918. In his book Disenchantment, published in 1922, the Guardian writer CE Montague (who had served right through the war) concluded that: “The lost years, the broken youth, the dead friends, the women’s overshadowed lives at home, the agony and bloody sweat – all had gone to darken the stains which most of us had thought to scour out of the world that our children would live in.”
Since 2014, however, a more nuanced and honest story has been emerging alongside the official one. There has been a welcome attempt to reach out to Germany in this year’s events. The important
Irish dimensions of the war have been sensitively handled. The roles of Indians, Chinese and Africans, and of women workers, often hidden from history in the past, has become part of the more detailed and complex narrative. Artists have generated some remarkable memorials and events. The IWM deserves credit for the pluralism of its central role.
But it has not been enough. These centenaries might have been a civic honouring of the greatest lesson of 1914-18 – that the horror and sacrifice of European wars have finally given way to European peace and European cooperation that we must preserve. Instead, Britain has voted to turn its back on our European friends, allies and neighbours at the very time when the United States – which helped make the Armistice possible a century ago – is angrily pulling up the drawbridge. We shall remember the dead this weekend. But those who deceive themselves about the past are doomed to deceive themselves about the present too.