The First World War is not quite ancient history, but it is very much part of the past. All those who fought in the war have now died and even those with hazy childhood memories of the conflict are very few in number. So the ‘war to end all wars’ is no longer part of living memory. Yet in the summer of 2014, the outbreak of this seminal clash of empires was commemorated, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, across Europe and the wider world. Since then, the centenary anniversaries of many of the major milestones of the war have been marked by national governments and local communities and received extraordinary levels of popular, political and media attention. In Britain, the well-established rituals of Remembrance Sunday and the 1st of July have been imbued with yet greater symbolic weight and the Imperial War Museum has been completely reinvigorated, its lavishly overhauled galleries now offering a flawed but highly inventive and visceral impression of the British experience of the war. We’ve also seen the staging of some truly imaginative and moving commemorative projects, including the ‘Poppies in the Tower’ installation, which has become a traveling exhibition, and the remarkable ‘we’re here because we’re here’ living memorial ‘unveiled’ to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July. Alongside these, there have been a myriad of smaller but no less affecting community projects, which have seen schoolchildren born in the new century remember the dead in the company of senior citizens whose fathers fought in the war.
As we continue to journey through this period of intense commemorative activity, it’s worth emphasising just how unprecedented all of this is. In the history of the commemoration of conflict, nothing on the scale of what we have witnessed over the past three years has ever occurred before. The very early date at which the British government announced its intention to commemorate the centenaries and the sheer amount of government money being spent on commemoration were both quite new. As early as October 2012, almost two years before the centenaries formally began, David Cameron pledged to devote at least £50 million to commemorative projects, a substantial amount of money at a time when many communities in the UK were experiencing severe economic hardship. The very fact that the outbreak of the war was commemorated by several national governments in August 2014 was a very new departure indeed. Traditionally, of course, the start of the war has not been commemorated so this was a new, and not uncontroversial, move.
But why has the British government been so determined to demonstrate its commitment to commemorating an extraordinarily violent war that took place a hundred years ago? A key reason for the political interest in centenary commemoration is the fact that remembering the First World War remains central to British identity and popular culture. Indeed, arguably no other historical event retains the same emotional resonance for the British as the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, and the commemoration of the conflict is something many British people take very seriously. This emotional attachment to the war ensures that even those who know little about what occurred between 1914 and ‘18 tend to have strong feelings about how the war should be interpreted and commemorated. We see evidence of this every year in the weeks before Remembrance Sunday, when there is always a certain amount of discussion about commemoration in the British media. There is nothing new in this, but the centenaries have really thrown both the positive and negative aspects of British commemorative culture into sharp relief.
In the year or so before the centenary commemorations ‘broke out’ in the summer of 2014, there was a particularly interesting and often heated public debate in Britain about the real meaning of the war and how it should be appropriately commemorated. The debate intensified with the publication of an article by then British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in the Daily Mail on January 2nd that year. This all seems very distant now that we remember Gove for other things, but two years ago he was a rather controversial Secretary of State for Education seeking to promote a narrowly Anglo-centric version of British history. In the article, he was scathing of what he regards as the apparently dominant left-wing version of the war which, in his view, portrays the conflict as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ and thus denigrates the ‘patriotism, honour and courage’ of those who lost their lives in the conflict. His comments quickly met with robust and highly critical responses from his Labour counterpart, Tristram Hunt, and a range of other prominent commentators, including historians Richard J. Evans and Antony Beevor. A group known as the Stop the War Coalition was particularly critical of his views on the war.
The German press also weighed in, with Die Welt printing an article with the headline ‘Britischer Minister gibt Deutschen die Kriegsschuld’ on 9 January. But Gove was also publicly defended by the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who went so far as to demand Hunt’s resignation and, in an article in The Telegraph, insisted that ‘Germany started the Great War, but the left can’t bear to say so’. So although Gove’s Daily Mail diatribe was a charmless combination of ignorance and self-righteousness, it revived a debate that reveals a great deal about British understandings of the First World War.
In very broad terms, the debate, which continues, divides those who, like Gove, regard the war as a bloody but necessary conflict in which British servicemen heroically achieved a great victory, and those for whom the war was little more than a futile exercise in mass slaughter. Most British people probably stand somewhere between these opposing views or, importantly, have no view. Yet the image of the First World War as the ultimate example of the futility of war, which was reinforced during the 50th anniversary of the conflict in the 1960s, remains very persistent in the UK. One striking feature of this emotive public discourse is that while there is a great deal of political, academic and popular disagreement on the historical interpretation of the war, everyone seems to agree that those who lost their lives between 1914 and ‘18 should be remembered with reverence and respect. So, unlike in other states that experienced the conflict, notably Germany, in Britain literally no one publicly opposes the custom of remembering the war and those who died in it. Even groups that are very critical of official, government-driven acts of commemoration, such as the Stop the War Coalition and the No Glory in War Campaign, have never, to my knowledge, gone so far as to question the wisdom or morality of commemorating dead soldiers.
As an act of community remembrance, or a simple expression of solidarity with our ancestors, the commemoration of war is not necessarily political. The millions of British people who wear poppies every year in the weeks before Remembrance Sunday are not making political statements by so doing. Nor are they retrospectively endorsing or honouring the First World War, or any war since. What they are doing – at least on the face of it – is honouring the dead. And yet the intense and generally exclusive focus on the dead is perhaps the most obviously problematic aspect of British commemorative culture. An undivided emphasis on the sacrifice of those who died as a result of military service made sense in the 1920s and ‘30s when millions of people across the globe were still suffering intense bereavement. We should also remember that, whatever we feel about the cause for which they were fighting, the dead gave everything they had; they made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ in the parlance of the times, and this alone makes them worthy of our interest. The relative youth of those who died makes their stories all the more poignant, and we are understandably moved– and disturbed – by the power of industrialised warfare to cut short so many lives. Indeed, reflecting on the fate of the dead helps us to appreciate the catastrophe of inter-state conflict.
And yet a commemorative culture that focuses exclusively on the dead arguably overlooks the vast majority of people who were affected by the war. Approximately 750,000 British and Irish servicemen died as a result of service in the First World War. But many more, in both countries, technically survived the conflict but were physically disabled or psychologically traumatised by their experiences. As soon as the wounded began returning from the fighting fronts in 1914, and for decades after the war, severely disabled veterans were a common sight on the streets of European cities. Men who were psychologically traumatised were perhaps less visible but no less numerous than the physically disabled. Allied and German soldiers were remarkably resilient and cases of shell-shock, although common, were not as widespread as we might think. But tens of thousands of soldiers from across the British Empire were traumatised to the point that they simply couldn’t function in civil society and most veterans suffered some form of psychological distress. The pain of witnessing this mental torment – and the various, sometimes violent ways in which it manifested itself – must have weighed very heavily indeed on the families of those who returned from the front, physically intact but visibly altered by what they had seen and done.
Which brings us to those who played no direct role in the fighting but were nonetheless deeply affected by the violence that raged around them. Millions of families across Europe and the wider world suffered from profound and enduring grief when their sons, husbands, brothers and friends were killed or mortally wounded in the theatres of war. Death, even the sudden death of young people, is by no means unique to war but during the First World War the pain of bereavement was often particularly traumatic. Many of those in mourning knew little of the circumstances in which their loved ones had died, and were denied the consolations of a funeral or a grave on which they could focus their feelings of loss. In a move that was unique to the British Empire, the grieving relatives of the dead that lay in identified graves were granted the right to pay for a customised epitaph. These personal inscriptions give us an extraordinary insight into the mentalities of those who neither fought nor died but on whom the violence of the war had a very direct and lasting impact. Indeed, the often moving personal messages from grief-stricken relatives remind us that every headstone we see today in a Commonwealth cemetery marks the grave of a dead serviceman, but it also represents a lost son or husband or brother and a family in mourning.
Many of us feel – on some level – that the bereaved, the disabled and the traumatised are central to the story of the Great War, and are as deserving of our attention as ‘the fallen’. And yet the popular and official language of 21st century commemoration rarely alludes to the plight of those who were left behind and there is little room for them in our official commemorative ceremonies. To its great credit, the Royal British Legion began incorporating disabled servicemen into its ad campaigns in 2013 when Lance-Corporal Cassidy Little, a Royal Marine who lost his leg while serving in Afghanistan, featured in the poppy appeal campaign that year. The sight of a soldier who had very clearly lost a limb on posters throughout the UK reminded us that war and those mutilated in combat remain a part of British life in the 21st century. Other organisations and individuals have also drawn our attention to veterans who have suffered life-changing injuries, including Prince Harry, who helped establish the Invictus Games in 2014. And yet no disabled servicemen were formally incorporated into any of the major centenary commemorative events that have thus far taken place. In a more historical but equally glaring omission, the hundreds of thousands of disabled soldiers who were demobilised during and after the First World War are simply never mentioned in the national discussion on commemoration.
Added to this rather one-dimensional retrospective understanding of wartime sacrifice is a superficial valorisation of all those who served. While it would be wrong to suggest that British commemorative culture glorifies war, it does arguably venerate dying in war to the point of glorification. The focal point of the official Remembrance Sunday ceremonies each year is Edwin Lutyens’ great Cenotaph in Whitehall, on the side of which are inscribed the words ‘The Glorious Dead’. During the war and in the decades that followed the Armistice, it was important for those in mourning to believe in the righteousness of the Allied cause. The belief that their son or husband or brother hadn’t died in vain, that the cause for which he had given his life was glorious, clearly gave comfort to many of those in mourning across the Empire. Indeed, our ancestors’ interpretation of the war as a just, necessary and even glorious conflict is quite understandable. The war was an extremely personal business for those who experienced it, either as civilians or servicemen, and they were very emotionally invested in it. That same interpretation should, however, be a lot less understandable today.
Expressing solidarity with our ancestors and empathising with their pain is perfectly human, and even healthy. For cultural historians who explore the mentalities and emotions of past generations it’s also a professional skill. But a completely uncritical retrospective understanding of soldiers who fought in this extraordinarily bloody conflict is problematic because it tends to suggest that all the morality during the First World War
was on one side. This widespread view was reflected in media commentary on the war throughout 2014, in which historians and others highlighted the German violation of Belgian neutrality and the mass killing of unarmed civilians by members of the German armed forces. Such mass killings of civilians definitely occurred during the invasion of Belgium and northern France in 1914 and in the U-boat and airship raids that began in 1915 and continued for much of the war. As uncomfortable as such historical incidents may be politically for German leaders, and indeed for ordinary German people, it is important that we become familiar with them if we want to understand the ‘total’ nature of the war. That the war was sold to and understood by the people of these islands as a righteous endeavour is key to understanding the British and Irish experience of the conflict. And German atrocities – both those that were fabricated and those that were all too real – were central to the process of cultural mobilisation across the United Kingdom in 1914 and ’15.
It is important, however, that we acknowledge that the armed forces of the Allied states were also directly involved in the taking of civilian lives between 1914 and ’18. The most obvious example of this was the Allied naval blockade of the German coast, which was orchestrated by the Royal Navy and thus very much a British enterprise. The North Sea was formally declared a ‘British military area’ in November 1914 and the blockade essentially lasted from then until German representatives signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 (fully 7 months after the Armistice). By mid-1915, German imports had fallen by 55 per cent from pre-war levels, leading to major fuel shortages but also to serious and increasing scarcity of vital foodstuffs. By 1917, disorders related to malnutrition, including scurvy, tuberculosis and dysentery, were common across Germany. Official statistics gave a figure of approximately 760,000 for those who died of malnutrition as a result of the blockade.
The blockade was certainly a factor in German capitulation in 1918 and the outcome of the First World War. It also significantly influenced the experience of the war for ordinary Germans and evidently led to the deaths of many thousands of civilian men, women and children. Yet in all the commentary on the war that has pervaded the British media since the beginning of 2014, I do not recall a single reference to the Royal Navy’s role in the taking of German lives. Nor has there been any mention of the hundreds of unarmed civilians who were killed by British servicemen – invariably veterans of the Great War – in the immediate aftermath of the war in India, Mesopotamia and Ireland.
I do not raise this issue of British complicity in the killing of civilians to in any way denigrate the conduct of British soldiers on the Western Front or at Gallipoli or elsewhere during the First World War. Many British officers and men, and indeed soldiers from all sides, served in a plainly self-sacrificing and often heroic fashion, and we are understandably impressed by their stories. But there is a persistent popular belief in the UK that the British soldiers of the Great War were victims rather than perpetrators of violence – and not both – and that they are morally beyond reproach. If we genuinely want the centenaries to become a moment in which we improve our understanding of the ‘war to end all wars’, this should ideally change.
Finally, there is a striking and increasingly jarring contrast between the great dignity and reverence with which most British people remember the war dead and the tone of the national conversation about commemoration. Over the past number of years, press commentary during ‘remembrance season’ has become ever more antagonistic and we’ve seen the emergence of the particularly unpleasant practice of calling television personalities and other public figures to account for not wearing the poppy. Jon Snow is a well-known example, but there have been others. This year, the Daily Mail has led a campaign to force the FA to go against FIFA and allow English and Scottish footballers to wear poppies emblazoned on their shirts when they play against each other on Armistice Day. ‘Poppy War’ screams the front-page headline. At the risk of stating the obvious, this press-manufactured spat over football jerseys is not a war. It is nothing remotely like a war. And using shrill, deliberately exaggerated language of this kind arguably does a great disservice to the memory of the men who fought and died on the Western Front and elsewhere. Historians still disagree about the motivations that led so many men to enlist or seek commissions in the British Army in the first year or so of the war. We can be quite sure, however, that whatever they thought they were fighting for, it wasn’t self-righteousness, invented indignation or gutter jingoism.
The British have every reason to be proud of their highly distinctive culture of commemoration. The sincerity and dignity with which most British people – irrespective of class, or status, or race – remember the dead each year is truly impressive and admirable (particularly to a foreigner). But if we genuinely believe that the dead of the First World War are worth commemorating, we should seek not simply to remember them, but to understand them. We should thus take time to reflect upon the totality of their experiences, to think of those they left behind, and to appreciate the remarkable colour and complexity of the world in which they lived and died.
Edward Madigan is Lecturer in Public History and First World War Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London