The role we must not forget
Just about everybody, I hope, must be aware that this year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The next four years will see countless events, large and small, marking it in a multitude of different ways. And it will be truly worldwide. The First World War was just that: the first time a military conflict had touched every corner of the world. There will be exhibitions, radio and TV programmes aplenty and — just as importantly — many moments where everyone will get the chance to reflect on that time.
In London, the historic Bevis Marks Synagogue, for example, together with the Board of Deputies, are marking the occasion with an evening ceremony on Monday August 4, the start of the national commemorations.
All of us, I hope, will pause and think about what it meant then, what came out of it in the years that followed, and what it means for us today – 100 years on – as we try to piece together an answer to the biggest of all the questions: was it worth it?
As minister responsible for the government’s programme to mark the centenary, I’m clear that our role is not to create or promote an “authorised” version of what happened, and why. That’s for historians.
But what we can do is help others – individuals, community groups or institutions – as they try to make sense of it in their own way.
When the Prime Minister launched the government’s national programme, he made it clear that remembrance would be at its heart. Alongside this, education and reaching out to young people to help them make the connection between their forbears’ sacrifice and themselves, would also be a priority.
As we tell the stories of that time, both at home and on the battlefronts, we hope to make this easier.
The Jewish community, to no one’s surprise, provides a rich source of such material.
You may well have already read about, or have gone to see the exhibition in the Jewish Museum in London’s Camden Town, For King and Country? which tries to capture the role and experience of British Jews in theFirst World War. Another exhibition — Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour — which has just opened at the British Library, also has fascinating material on the day-to-day life of those fighting.
The role of the Jewish community in the First World War is not widely enough recognised, in my opinion.
Both here, and overseas, they often found themselves conflicted when it came to taking part. Around 40,000 British Jews fought in the war (an extremely high proportion of the total community,) but 100,000 fought for Germany and 300,000 for Austria Hungary.
The war also saw five British Jews honoured with the VC, and this too is a really high number per capita taking part.
British Jews can be proud of their contribution
Religious convictions, and faith more generally, are an interesting aspect of the 1914-18 conflict..
It surprises some people just how important faith was to those sent to the horror of the trenches. Some assume the battlefield must have been a godless place, with morality suspended for the duration of the hostilities.
But that’s not the case. All British servicemen were issued with a Bible when they joined up as part of their essential supplies, for example.
There are photographs showing Sikhs singing religious chants outside their billets and piquant pictures of Christian church services in the field.
One of the British Library’s most touching exhibits is a letter from Sher Muhammad Khan, recuperating at the Brighton Pavilion Hospital, in which he describes the problems of keeping a copy of the Koran clean during warfare, an important element of religious faith in Islam.
The Jewish Museum exhibition includes the story of a man called Marcus Segal whose letters home describe a life during warfare, which included, rather improbably, building a succah in the trenches and helping Reverend Michael Adler, the first Jewish chaplain employed by the British Army on active service.
The next four years give us all in this country, and from all our communities, a chance to reflect on that far-off time.
For British Jews it should be a moment of serious remembrance, but also of pride in the sacrifice your families made at the time.
We, today, should never forget them. Helen Grant, MP for Maidstone and The Weald, is minister at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport