Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The First World War: How Should We Remember?

From LSHG Newsletter 51 (Spring 2014)

2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the First World War and there will be no shortage of commemorations. Already there are over 100 books published on the subject and the Government has announced extensive plans for official activities which can be found on a dedicated website. In November 2013 David Cameron said

Next year we will commemorate one of the biggest sacrifices our Forces ever made as we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. We have already announced some of the ways in which the government will be leading the tributes next year, from ensuring that school children learn about this important part of our history to protecting the memorial in towns and villages around the country which honour those who gave their lives to funding for the new First World War Galleries which will open at the Imperial War Museum London next Summer. This week Cabinet will be discussing our plans to make sure they are a fitting way to commemorate all the heroes of the First World War.

The Prime Minister’s words beg an important historical question. Who were the heroes of the First World War? Not presumably the generals and politicians who led the ‘war to end wars’ which unfortunately did not. Arguably the ‘poor bloody infantry’ who died in huge numbers in a dispute about imperial power not just in Europe but worldwide?

The official commemorations will certainly recognise that war is a terrible thing in which terrible things happen and there are plans to mark the Christmas Day truce between British and German soldiers with a football match. There are those who argue that the official view is rather too agnostic about the First World War. Writing in The Guardian earlier in the year Gary Sheffield, who is a leading historian of the period, argued that the war was in fact fought for desirable ends and that, while it is correct to mark the death and suffering it caused, in the end it was a just cause. Sheffield means of course that British imperial power was to be preferred to German imperial power which was considerably more autocratic. It is an interesting historical debate but one doubts that the First World War would have got off the ground if it had been posed as British imperialism is better than German.

There will be some good history in the official activities around the hundredth anniversary. There will be the chance to make war memorials listed buildings and a limited possibility for teachers and students to visit World War One battlefields. But what there won’t be is a focus on those who opposed the war by taking strike action while it was on, by deserting from the army and particularly by those who used it as an opportunity to try and make revolutions to put an end to imperialism of all kinds, German, British and others.

While the official commemorations will start on 4th August 2014, the London Socialist Historians held an event on 25th January which looked at the other war, the class war, and how they was reflected in that war that did not end all wars one hundred years ago. The hope is that the voices of the poor bloody infantry, those who died in the trenches and those who tried to stop war may also get some kind of hearing amidst all the pomp and ceremony.

Keith Flett

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