A hundred years ago this July just gone perhaps the largest military disaster of recent times began. Over the course of 4 years around 17 million people, both military and civilian, were killed when the various empires of the world, to borrow a phrase, decided it was too hard not to fight anymore (which is a very basic version of events but works here for sake of brevity). I am, of course, referring to the First World War. And since it’s been a whole century it’s become the theme of the year to commemorate it. As you can predict this has become a bit of a media circus in the UK, and not one I personally feel is wholly appropriate given the circumstances.
The First World War, or Great War, or whatever your local name for it is, was, of course, a tremendous waste of life and resources, with the old empires of Europe trying to one up each other in the manner they had been doing for centuries only with technology that rendered the old ways badly obsolete. It was simultaneously the last old fashioned- and the first modern- war and one that didn’t need to happen. There was no real ideology involved, at least not in opposition to one another, as all the major combatants were essentially similar empires that were dragged into conflict by a confusing web of treaties and alliances. Millions of ordinary people were killed fighting under officers who had no real experience with the modern technology, in a war that was essentially an imperial dick-waving contest. It is absolutely important that we remember this absolute waste however it is increasingly clear that we’ve distorted the history of it all in recent years, which has come to a head with the centenary.
Every media outlet predictably has it’s own take on the history of it, generally dictated by the viewpoint of the audience it strives for. The right wing press in the UK, for instance, goes straight in with the rather jingoistic “they died for this country and it was a noble and glorious victory at the end,” totally ignoring the fact it was that kind of thinking that led an entire generation to their deaths in the trenches. Even the more centre- and left-wing- outlets seem to be heading more down the “celebration” route rather than remembrance, which, as I outlined above, strikes me as wholly inappropriate. Sadly this seems to be the way the government is promoting the centenary, totally ignoring the absolute horror that came out of the front lines. In general I find glorifying war a rather uncomfortable thing to behold, but when it’s the wholesale celebration of one of the worst in recent times the effect is multiplied by several orders of magnitude.
In the UK there also seems to be a rather Anglo-centric feel to the commemorations. Everywhere is quick to mention “the brave tommies” and their exploits, but often forgets that there were more than the British contingent involved. The French, Belgian, Italian and American involvement on the Western Front, for instance, is often totally overlooked, as is the Russian Empire’s eastern front and many others. The involvement of Japan and Italy is often forgotten completely when talking about the era. Even within the overall label of “Britain” it seems British outlets also forget how expansive the Empire was at the time, and how pretty much every corner of it contributed troops who fought and died alongside the Europeans or had their own fronts with equal outcomes (Gallipoli for the New Zealand and Australian army instantly comes to mind). Which is to say nothing about the lack of acknowledgement of how bad the war was for the Central Powers also.
Commemorating the start of a war also doesn’t sit entirely right with me. Don’t get me wrong, it is important we remember such historically significant dates, but surely the national commemorations would be better suited to marking the end of such a disastrous event, or even certain events within it as has been seen by the 70th anniversary of D-Day from the Second World War. Indeed, Remembrance Day, also known as Armistice Day, has become a yearly event in Commonwealth Countries and a number of other nations, which is specifically timed to be on the anniversary of the treaty signing that ended the war and has occurred yearly, in the UK at least, since 1919 and has been expanded to include remembering all UK, Empire (when such a thing still existed) and Commonwealth service personnel that have fallen in battle since. While it does have it’s own issues, such as the politicising of the poppy symbol associated with it and the current feel of nationalism that many try to attach to it (to the point where one former Prime Minister suggested the 11th of November for a “Britishness Day” though this was quickly dropped if I recall) this yearly ceremony, which is still treated as a very somber occasion which is fully appropriate for what it is intended for.
The subject of the First World War is one I have very powerful feelings over, and it is an event I don’t believe should be forgotten. My studying the war and it’s immediate aftermath during my school years had a profound effect on me, especially after a visit to a German war grave site in Belgium which I consider one of the most soul-crushing events in my life and part of why I am now something of a pacifist. Despite my criticisms here I do believe we should make sure something is done to remember the events of 1914 to 1918, just the fact we seem to be veering into the realms of celebration is somewhat distasteful. Thought is required when talking about such events, and we need not just to remember that it happened, but the effects it had on society, on politics and on the world that followed on from it.
Until next time,
—Lest we forget.
(And credit where it’s due to the Roger Waters song Southhampton Dock from Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut for the title there)