Why we must remember those who fell in the First World War - but must understand too
10:57 03 August 2014
Keith Simpson, the Norfolk MP and military historian, on why - and how - we should mark the centenary, and the danger of “war fatigue”
A young history graduate once asked me why we were commemorating the First World War and not the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
After all, those wars lasted over twenty years, saw campaigns fought across the world, the enlargement of the British Empire, serious casualties, the acceleration of the industrial revolution, post war revolutions and political upheaval – a good question.
My answer was that although these wars were significant the long-term impact was not apparent at the time of their centenary, and it was difficult for us to really empathise with that generation because the literary and illustrative material was limited.
The First World War is within our living memory. For those of us of a certain age we can remember talking and listening to our grandparents’ generation, while the last survivors only died recently. We have vast quantities of physical evidence still to be seen in the scars of the battlefields, the cemeteries and memorials.
Apart from official documents and histories, we have the diaries and letters of tens of thousands of men and women of both wars, a literate generation. We can reach out to them through photographs and film so that although their hair styles, uniforms and clothes might look old fashioned they still look like us.
And that is without taking into account the sheer enormity of the casualties and the political instability after the war which contributed to what we were to call the Second World War.
Rightly, we should commemorate the centenary recognising that whilst our British experience has a commonality with other belligerents there were and still are major differences, often of memory and interpretation.
The British government has decided to commemorate – not celebrate – the anniversary. This has been controversial in some quarters, by those who wish to emphasise that Britain fought a just war, and those who believe the war could have been avoided and only benefited the political and military elite.
On the whole, the British public seem to believe the programme of events gets the balance correct.
The government has laid down a number of commemorative ceremonies to follow the time line from 2014 to 2019 which emphasise service and sacrifice. Funds have been made available to allow local communities to undertake work of commemoration and to enable a teacher and two pupils from every secondary school to visit the battlefields of the Western Front.
This aside, the government has rightly not attempted to micro-manage. Individuals and groups will want to work on everything from the impact the war had on local communities, the people behind the names on the memorials, the role of women, the war on the home front and conscientious objectors – just to name a few.
The challenge is for the commemoration to go beyond merely a series of Remembrance Sunday-style events and to address the possibility of war remembrance fatigue. Over the next few weeks there will be highly significant and emotional national events on the outbreak of the war, and then there will be gaps before further events such as the Christmas Truce in 1914.
There is a danger that the commemoration will merely recycle old arguments about the war based on the generals were all “donkeys” and their soldiers were “lions” and that the ordinary soldier’s experience was accurately interpreted by poets such as Sassoon, Graves and Owen.
The hard part of commemorating the war is not the experience of the individual and communities at the local level but to approach it taking into account that the war was not inevitable nor was its outcome.
Although there had been tensions and crisis between the European powers they had been resolved on previous occasions. The question is why this did not happen in June, July, August 1914? Trying to understand the contemporary world of 1914 is crucial.
As the European countries mobilised the declared war, the majority of their citizens genuinely believed they were right and were defending national honour and territory.
Finally, in considering the why and how we should commemorate the First World War, we should place the human experience front and centre.
Our ancestors in the summer of 1914 had no idea that the war would continue for four years and involve such heavy casualties and dramatically change their society and the world.
We should think about what those casualties meant to families and local communities and how they were remembered. In retrospect we can see that maybe our German friends are right in believing that commemorating the First World War cannot be seen in isolation without understanding the interwar period and then the Second World War.
We are a lucky generation having survived a Cold War and unlike our forbearers some of whom lived, fought and endured two World Wars. We should not take an absence of war as peace, and there are enough conflicts and crises worldwide to give us pause for thought about why we are commemorating the centenary of the First World War.
Keith Simpson is MP for Broadland, a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Board on Commemorating World War One and a Parliamentary Commissioner on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission