Within a year the UK will be immersed in the first stage of a centenary commemoration like no other the world has seen: that of the First World War. But what will that great commemoration of the Great War be like?
Already, plans are being laid from national government to local history groups. Outline information is emerging, from TV programmes to a candlelight vigil marking the war’s outbreak. But the next year will be crucial for setting details of the commemoration, and defining the sorts of questions that are asked about the war.
There are two dangers in the questions we might ask. One is that the commemoration becomes a triumphalist celebration. So it would be helpful if people could avoid making comparisons between the commemorations and the celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee. The other danger, more subtle, but with a huge possible impact on how far the public engages with the true nature of the war, is that we do not address its complications.
There is now a strong public perception of what the war was like. That view was partly formed by the war poets, reinforced by the 1960s stage and film productions of Oh! What a Lovely War. It has been maintained since the late 1980s by Blackadder Goes Forth. These cultural representations stand as powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of the First World War and the pain of loss. But if they are all that we know of the war, they are poor history.
On the basis of these views, those schooled in stories of the “lost generation” are surprised to learn that across the British forces in the First World War the fatality rate was 12 per cent. That is a terrible figure, more than literal decimation, and some communities were affected much worse than others, but it is not nearly as high as people tend to imagine.
Nor are public views of daily life very accurate. Blackadder lived for years in a dugout, infantry battalions in fact spent on average about one week every month in trenches. There were notable exceptions, but they do not disprove the generality of soldiers’ experiences.
So as 2014 approaches, Britain could replay a familiar narrative of war showing desolate Western Front landscapes against a backdrop of recited poetry. Or it could take a more reflective approach considering how the war was seen by a much wider range of people who fought in it, and considering how historians (rather than only writers of popular literature) now address it. We suggest that there are (at least) three ways in which the complications of the war need to be addressed.
First, go beyond the Western Front in how we think of the war: remember all the different fronts on which Britain fought such as the Dardanelles, Italy, and parts of Africa. Who now remembers the joint Anglo-Japanese operation against German forces at Tsingtao in China? Do not forget wider theatres of war in which other nations fought, notably the Eastern Front. Such an approach involves also remembering the huge contribution of British Empire forces from around the globe, and it must address the social change at home which came out of the war.
Second, there is a gap between the “pointless futility” narrative and what soldiers actually believed they were fighting for – both during and after the war. Just as today our forces in Afghanistan take a pride in the job they do, and the bonds of service which they form, the same applied to those who fought in 1914-18. In those years, soldiers fought for much: a belief that their country was threatened, the rights of small nations, and when it came down to it, the man next to them in the trench. If we want to pay proper tribute to the dead of the war, and those who came through it, we would do well to remember that.
Third, we need to recognise that the British military, along with its allies, defeated Germany militarily in the war, with the final period marking one of the most effective in the history of the British army. If the war was entirely a story of “lions led by donkeys”, how did that happen? For many decades historians have pointed to military tactics developing and improving in 1914-18 through a learning curve which eventually enabled the allies to breakout from the stalemate of the trenches. That is little consolation to those who lost ancestors in the war’s early years. But it does explain why Haig’s funeral in 1928, surprisingly to us now, saw so much public grief from the veterans who served under him.
In tackling such complications there is already one example of where public thinking on the war has changed: on the island of Ireland where there have been remarkable changes over the past two decades. In Northern Ireland, it was once common only for unionists to commemorate the war, while nationalists almost completely ignored forebears’ service in an army which many saw as that of an occupying power. Yet in recent years there has been much grassroots nationalist engagement, and even Sinn Fein figures now take some part in commemoration. Meanwhile, in the Irish Republic over the past 20 years, there has been a steady engagement of political leaders who would once have boycotted ceremonies, paving the way for The Queen’s groundbreaking acts of commemoration there in 2011.
Such changes took investments of time and money – both from government and from individuals who work in the many different areas of First World War history. If such investment can happen across Britain, then we can emerge from 2014-18 having not only paid tribute to sacrifice, but also remembering survivors and service, and more accurately understanding the true significance of the Great War.
Dan Jarvis is the Member of Parliament for Barnsley Central. Richard Grayson is Head of History and Professor of Twentieth Century History at Goldsmiths, University of London.