Pop­pies and pa­rades must prompt, not end, thought about Europe’s wars

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

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.

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