The government is unveiling commemorative paving stones laid in the birth places of those members of the British Empire forces in World War I who received the Victoria Cross for their bravery. The government’s stated aims are to “provide a lasting legacy of local heroes” and “honour their bravery”. All 627 Victoria Cross recipients will be so honoured over the next four years, with the promise that “no hero will be forgotten”.
This represents the most radical remaking of Great War commemoration for decades. It turns the emphasis from grief at a costly tragedy to lionisation of the warrior. It is a move that has more to do with the contemporary politics of militarism than with any genuine attempt to honour the memory of those who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918. The prime minister, David Cameron, candidly revealed his politics when, in unveiling plans in 2012 for the centenary commemorations, he said he wanted: “A commemoration that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country … like the Diamond Jubilee”.
What, you may ask, is wrong with celebrating heroes in this way?
War to end all wars
It is an attempt to rewrite the history of the war as somehow glorious and necessary. The war was an ugly clash of imperial rivalries, marked by the unspeakable horrors of trench warfare. Far from proving “the war to end of all wars”, it scarred a nation whose sons would be sent to die against the same enemy within a generation.
Veterans also tend to baulk at their lauding as “heroes”, explaining themselves more humbly as men just doing their jobs and looking out for their comrades. Great War memorials rarely record either rank or medals, but are starkly simple alphabetical lists of all those who had their lives taken from them. By singling out only those men who received the top military award, the government is tearing up a century of practice.
Why has the government taken this radical departure? The answer is in part a reaction to the public scepticism about military operations that has become mainstream with the failures of the “War on Terror”. The unprecedented anti-war demonstrations against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the early 2000s may represent a sea-change in public attitudes to foreign wars. This has alarmed conservative politicians of all parties and the military top brass, who have been scrambling to regain ground ever since.
This began in earnest with then prime minister Gordon Brown’s 2008 report on the National Recognition of Our Armed Forces. It identified a supposed lack of public understanding of the military due to decreased “familiarity”. The response to this perceived malady was to recommend a range of measures including celebratory home-coming parades, encouraging soldiers to wear uniforms in public and greater military presence in secondary schools and national sporting events. This was a grievous misdiagnosis: the real reason for the supposed disconnect was a reaction to the deceits and failures of Tony Blair’s Iraq invasion.
Cameron shared Brown’s concern about the increasing drift of British public opinion towards pacifism. The commemorative paving stones must be interpreted as a further attempt to rehabilitate the military. But Cameron has been cannier than Brown – whereas it was easy to decry the bogus logic in Brown’s initiative, it is hardly tasteful to protest at the unveiling of monument to a dead soldier.
They also served …
So how can we counter this shameless use of World War I to re-militarise the present? By celebrating and commemorating those who, in their foresight, opposed or questioned the industrial slaughter of World War I. These included women’s activists, Christians and political radicals who strove to recapture visions of a unified and pacific Europe – as well as the many workers who went on strike and soldiers who mutinied. These men and women exhibited great bravery, facing scorn, impoverishment, prison and death. Although widely reviled at the time, history has vindicated their opposition to a catastrophic conflict that decimated Europe and need never have been fought.
Of course, no British government will lavish funds on those types of commemorations. It falls to citizens and scholars to recover and retell these histories – as indeed they are doing up and down the country through books, talks, exhibitions, music, drama and art.
But these activities usually require substantial effort, particularly in researching their background. Here’s an easier suggestion: help your community celebrate the centenary of the December 1914 Christmas truces.
The truces commonly began with German soldiers putting up Christmas trees, shouting or writing Christmas greetings, and singing carols recognisable to their British counterparts. Troops met in no-man’s land to bury their dead, exchange gifts and souvenirs, share festive food and drink, sing and entertain each other, swap names and addresses, pose for photographs, conduct joint religious services, and play football.
These were not isolated incidents but were widespread right down the western front. Although the most famous, the 1914 Christmas truces weren’t one-off events. Throughout the entire war many combatants managed, through a “live-and-let-live” system, to reduce risk of discomfort and death by complicated local truces and tacit understandings that enraged the high commands of both sides and discredited the jingoistic propaganda that they pedalled.
The extraordinary events of 100 Christmases ago are easy to celebrate this year, as a variety of non-profit organisations have produced resources to help schools, churches and civic institutions mark them – and, in so doing, critically reflect on both the legacy of World War I and the continuation of war in our world.
The tragedy of World War I needs remembering - but not in a way that reinforces militarism today. It is fitting to recall Siegfried Sassoon’s verdict on an earlier government’s attempt to memorialise the dead, the Menin Gate in Belgium.
Who will remember, passing through this Gate
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
The poet threw his Military Cross into the Mersey in 1917 as part of what he described as “an act of wilful defiance of military authority”. His sombre verdict on what the fallen may have thought of the Menin Gate’s “peace complacent stone” is worth recalling as the government of today lays paving stones around the country:
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.