Few people will need reminding that 2014 is the centenary of World War I, or what posterity has called the ‘Great War’, and our government is already preparing to mark the occasion in its own inimitable manner. In a speech at the Imperial War Museum last October, David Cameron promised to commit more than £50 million to the centenary commemorations as part of a rolling series of events throughout the year, declaring:
‘Our ambition is a truly national commemoration, worth of this historic centenary. I want a commemoration that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people.’.
Lord Snooty stressed the educational importance of the centenary, and hoped that ‘ new generations will be inspired by the incredible stories of courage, toil and sacrifice that have brought so many of us here over the past century.’
Quoting a twenty year old soldier who wrote just a week before he died, ‘But for this war I and all the others would have passed into oblivion like the countless myriads before us . . . but we shall live for ever in the results of our efforts’, Cameron insisted that:
‘Our duty with these commemorations is clear: to honour those who served; to remember those who died; and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us for ever. And that is exactly what we will do.’
What ‘lessons’ will the nation’s youth be expected to draw from the Tory festival of remembrance, apart from stirring tales of ‘ courage, toil and sacrifice’?
World War I inaugurated a new age of mass industrialised slaughter that pitted human flesh and muscle against modern artillery and the terrible destructive power of the recently-invented machine gun. ‘ They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them,’ recalled a German machine gunner of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which resulted in the loss of 57,000 British soldiers in a single day, 19,000 of whom were killed.
In his excellent The Social History of the Machine Gun, John Ellis quotes a Lt. Col G.S. Hutchinson, who describes how he took possession of a machine gun post after much of his company had been destroyed during the same battle:
‘I seized the rear leg of the tripod and dragged the gun some yards to where a little cover enabled me to load the belt through the feed-block. To the south of the wood Germans could be seen, silhouetted against the sky-line, moving forward. I fired at them and watched them fall, chuckling with joy at the technical efficiency of the machine.’
Shortly afterwards, Hutchinson used his weapon against a German artillery battery whose shells were falling amongst the British wounded:
‘Anger, and the intensity of the fire, consumed my spirit, and not caring for the consequences, I rose and turned my machine gun upon the battery, laughing loudly as I saw the loaders fall.’
Approximately ten million soldiers died in such encounters, in addition to some seven million civilians. In Germany tens of thousands of civilians starved as a result of the economic blockade directed against the Central Powers, whose aim, according to Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914, was to ‘starve the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission.’
This unprecedented slaughter acted as a catalyst for the barbarism of twentieth century politics and the even greater levels of slaughter during World War II. In their determination to avoid a repetition of the strategic stalemate of static World War I battlefields, the great powers developed new strategies and tactics which shifted the focus of military destruction onto civilian populations as well as uniformed armies.
The result was Guernica, the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II, and the invention of the atomic bomb. Today western governments – ours amongst them – have attempted to seduce the public into a fantasy of perfect bloodless and ‘humanitarian’ wars, waged by remote-controlled machines in the world’s ‘wild places.’
Faced with a public that has become increasingly skeptical about the British elite’s predilection for war as first choice instrument of policy, the Coalition government, like its Labour predecessors, has been keen to re-militarize British society and present the armed forces as the embodiment of national virtue.
In these circumstances 2014 is likely to generate a great deal of stirring talk about the sacrifice, freedom, patriotism and heroism of those who died, but not so much about how they died and how they killed, or how so many men were lured into a fantasy of virtuous war that was as false then as it is today.
We can expect pagaentry, heritage; lofty talk of Queen and country; lost generations and Rupert Brooke; pretty displays of red poppies; quasi-religious war worship’ a Niall Ferguson documentary; gung ho battlefield tours of the Dan and Peter Snow variety; suited politicians with bowed heads remembering a sanctified and sanitized version of the war.
We will hear celebratory speeches and read op eds that attempt to present World War I as part of an unbroken tradition of noble British warfare that reaches from Flanders to Iraq and Helmand Province; paeans to Britishness and Britain’s ancestral role in fighting for freedom – from the leaders of a country that remains one of the most prolific sellers of weapons to repressive regimes in the world today.
Of course there will be more than this, and there needs to be. Because World War I is a momentous and terrible event that is worthy of remembrance and debate, from which a variety of lessons can indeed be drawn.
But we should be wary of those who plan to turn the coming year into a launchpad for new forms of militarism, and present the centenary as a cause for celebration, rather than a the horrific and disgusting tragedy which it was.
And regardless of Lord Snooty’s remarkably fatuous comparison, we ought to bear in mind that World War I was not like the Diamond Jubilee. It really wasn’t.