World War One: truth and commemoration
November 11th marked Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth. Although it serves as a memorial to all those who have given their lives in the line of duty, there is a special connection to the First World War, the day itself specially inaugurated as the official day of remembrance by King George V in 1919.
Now, as we steadily approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, the question as to how the centennial commemoration should be marked has entered public discourse. David Cameron pledged £50 million to deliver a “truly national commemoration”, in which children from every state secondary school in the country will be given the opportunity to visit the sites of the battlefields.
Cameron’s special representative for the remembrance is to be Andrew Murrison MP, a former Royal Naval Medical Officer. Speaking about the plans, Murrison declared that it was a commemoration, not a celebration and that there would be “no judgment about fault, right to wrong”.
Indeed, any insight that the government has given into what might constitute the centenary events has assiduously omitted any reference to the morality of a war in which more people were killed than at any point in history theretofore and which inflicted such calamitous injuries on civilisation itself. Murrison continued: “The fact is that it happened. Millions of people died.” It is certainly difficult to imagine how any meaningful commemoration of an event in which millions died could occur without some consideration of the moral justification of the cause itself.
Consideration of the justification of the war inevitably leads to conclusions which, one way or another, are judgments. The problem with the government’s approach to the issue of national commemoration is that it promotes a kind of “safe” history – a sterile narrative of the past which attempts to steer clear of the difficult questions and serious debate as to the rights and wrongs of past policy, and maintains attention on personalised accounts of the war and its effects on local communities.
It is right and proper that people today devote serious consideration to the war and its effects. The event serves as a key milestone in the national memory. Indeed, it is impossible to make any sense of subsequent history, either in Britain or the world at large, without extensive reference to those four years of carnage.
As far as Britain was concerned, the Great War was an unnecessary war. Britain’s own security was never seriously under threat from Imperial Germany. Entrance to the war was the sour fruit of a policy of continent-wide entangling alliances and the abandonment of the late Victorian pursuit of “Splendid Isolation”. Involvement proved costly beyond imagination. British military deaths tallied over 800,000. (Together with the huge contribution of the Empire, this figure rises to 1,115,97.)
All in all, the war claimed over 37 million military and civilian casualties. Far from being “the war to end all wars”, the war marked the transition to the age of total war as whole nations were to be drafted as part of the war effort, decimating domestic liberty and accruing colossal public debts.
An exhaustive study of the destruction unleashed on society by the Great War would probably fill an entire volume. Although the strains on the old order had been evident for some time, the war was a monumentally transformative event in British society. What had been a largely individualistic nation, albeit one possessed of conservative habits and tastes, became increasingly collectivist. It is true that successive British governments had been steadily enlarging their interventionist remit since the 1870s. The Great War accelerated this trend into full-blown statism. The late Victorian spectral fear of Britain becoming a “nation of inspectors” was realised.
This point was picked up by the historian A.J.P. Taylor who noted that prior to 1914, the “sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state.” With the war, everything changed. The level of state intrusion into everyday life was unprecedented. Taylor contended that “the state established a hold over its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the second World war was to increase. The history of the English state and the English people merged for the first time.” And with this merging, conservative-classical liberal Britain was dead.
The natural reaction in the face of such loss is to scour the wrecked landscape for some fleck of consolation. Structurally, we should be thankful that Britain’s presence on the winning side of what was a rather Pyrrhic victory spared it the ill-sighted naivete of Wilsonian idealism. The rest of Europe was not so fortunate. Making the world safe for democracy inevitably meant removing the central European monarchies, the result of which was a vacuum which would be filled by the ghastly totalitarian ideologies, with which the history of the twentieth century has become synonymous. If an indulgence in counterfactual history were acceptable, it is almost certain that without the Great Tragedy there would have been no Russian Revolution, no Fascism or Nazism, no Second World War, no Maoist China and no Cold War. In light of this, Britain’s retention of the forms of traditional government, if not their actual substance, does seem little solace.
What exact form the centenary commemorations will take remains to be seen. Contrary to official statements emanating from government, it is to be hoped that national memory is not something which can exist in a value-less, judgment-free vacuum, but must seek to embrace the historical truth even when it is painful. Britons would do well to recall the words of the forgotten classical liberal F.W. Hirst, who upon his resignation as editor of The Economist because of his opposition to the war, hastened to remind readers that “truth and patriotism ought to be reconciled”. Anything less is a disservice to all those who gave their lives for Crown and country.
Alastair Paynter is a UK-based Masters graduate in History. He writes about the intersection between current affairs and the ideas and events of the past.