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UK WWI commemorations should embrace Commonwealth experience

The First World War has different resonance and meaning across the Commonwealth nations, which should be reflected in the UK and Scottish government’s commemoration plans. EPA/Andy Rain

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s speech at the recent UK and Commonwealth First World War centenary commemoration subtly emphasised its politicised nature. At no point did he use the term “British” state or empire in framing the cause that Scots fought for. Instead, he located remembrance and its transnational connections within distinctly Scottish contexts.

And by emphasising the futility of the conflict, Salmond aimed to distinguish commemorations in Scotland from what one independence supporter has argued is the UK government’s “jingoistic celebrations” of the “Great Slaughter” of Scotland’s young who died because of “misplaced loyalty”.

The politics of the Scottish independence referendum confirm that while the First World War centenary acknowledges both the conflict’s transnational and globalised nature, war commemoration typically focuses on nation-states. The promotion of homogenous British national identity has typically referenced important conflicts that are widely understood to establish symbolic continuity between the national past, present and future.

However, the centenary raises complex questions about whether British war commemoration should be principally realised at a national, multinational or transnational level. Remembrance of past conflicts reveals war commemorations are always contested and contentious. They are also prone to generational reinterpretations that reflect changing political and historical analyses.

Adopting an inclusive narrative that informs centenary commemorations of the First World War has proven acutely problematic for the UK government. This is because the public primarily remembers the conflict for the huge loss of life, often barbaric fighting conditions and, ultimately, its failure as “the war to end war”.

The challenge for the UK government has been to encourage a more objective public understanding of the war. Critical to such considerations is the extent to which revisionist interpretations of the conflict that emerged during the 1960s, such as the “lions led by donkeys” thesis first posited by Alan Clark and which continue to resonate strongly in the public imagination, should be challenged.

The centenary also raises questions about whether to commemorate the loss of life or more enthusiastically celebrate the defeat of aggressive German imperialism.

Such discussions have revealed ideological tensions in how the war is remembered. Conservative politicians, including former UK education secretary Michael Gove, have accused “left-wing Marxist” historians and television programmes such as Blackadder Goes Forth of distorting analysis of the Great War’s causes, conduct and legacies for political purposes. The response of politicians and other commentators criticising Gove have revealed the extent to which the “history wars” are shaping politicised responses to the centenary.

A clip from Blackadder’s Goes Forth.

Concerns about the depth (or lack) of public knowledge about the conflict, particularly among young people, has raised further questions about the purpose of the centenary. While British prime minister David Cameron has suggested it is important that the “sacrifice and service of a hundred years ago is still remembered in a hundred years’ time”, there is less certainty as to what the motivations of those who fought and died was. And how relevant are they for future generations?

Government representatives have often tried to argue that British forces were motivated by a desire to defend Britain’s “special tradition of liberty” and “the western liberal order”.

Others suggest that British combatants were defending the patriotic values of a deeply hierarchical and “strongly religious society”. Their “collective loyalties” were shaped by monarchy, empire and nation. But these concepts have little relevance to young people in 21st-century Britain.

The contribution of the empire ensured British forms of war commemoration extended beyond the boundaries of the state to include former colonies. However, this has raised wider questions about colonialism’s legacies. Cameron has sought to acknowledge enduring Commonwealth ties and recognise the “extraordinary sacrifice” and “catastrophic” death toll of “our friends in the Commonwealth”.

Although shared transnational modes of war commemoration have endured, the sacrifices of the First World War are now largely understood in terms of progression towards post-British national self-determination.

British prime minister David Cameron has acknowledged the service of Commonwealth soldiers in WWI. EPA/Stephanie Lecoq

The centenary across the Commonwealth also reveals other divisions over interpretations that compromise the potential for shared commemorations. In countries such as India where British rule was explicitly colonial, the war is peripheral in the national consciousness. In March, Indian vice-president Hamid Ansari acknowledged that the war is seen to motivate a shift towards independence. It highlighted:

… that the British were not going to live up to the promises of representative self-rule.

The failure to appreciate that debates about the war’s legacies are deeply entangled with those of British colonialism is replicated in the UK. This has particular resonance for post-war migrants from across the Commonwealth. For example, (now former) British government minister Sayeeda Warsi has argued that subjects from across the Empire fought to defend British domestic liberties. This is highly questionable when considering the exploitative and racialised nature of British colonial rule.

How the First World War centenary will be commemorated could be further revised if the UK is radically reformed in September by a vote for Scottish independence. That aside, both the UK and Scottish governments’ current approaches appear to overlook the transnational dynamics of First World War commemoration. This is what gives the conflict different resonance and meaning across the Commonwealth.

This is the final piece in The Conversation’s Commemorating WWI series. Catch up on the rest of the series here.

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