Exploring the fine line between commemoration and glorification 100 years after WWI.
With today marking the centenary of the First World War, consensus on how we should remember those who lost their lives remains elusive.
Naturally, remembrance must draw upon a tremendously complex array of emotions, clashing narratives and competing understandings. Literary historians tend to hold a perspective conspicuously shaped by the war poets, owing to the tragic and sorrowful narrative that seems to have prevailed in recent years. On the other hand, a number of military historians paint a triumphant picture of the Great War and discern glory in the victory of good over evil.
The absence of a correct default attitude to WWI remembrance leaves us, as a nation, in a state of perpetual ambiguity as to how we should engage with a series of events which continues to bear down on our national character.
Last year’s government declaration that £50 million would be set aside to commemorate the lives of the fallen soldiers of WWI in this centenary year provoked a diverse reaction.
Jeremy Paxman was quick to ridicule Prime Minister David Cameron’s desire to see a “commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, says something about who we are as a people”. The ensuing tête-à-tête wound up with the invariably forthright host of ‘University Challenge’ arguing that centenary events should “have almost nothing in common” with the Jubilee and expressed concerns that the centenary could become a “celebration of war”.
Indeed, Harry Leslie-Smith in last week’s Guardian echoed fears over the centenary’s capacity to glorify war. The former RAF serviceman and WWII veteran saw the government’s intention to spend £50 million as an attempt “to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane.”
Ninety-year-old Leslie-Smith cited the rise of jingoism and growing distrust of foreigners amongst an expanding minority of Britons as the most potentially malignant force in our changing national character. His decision to remember friends and comrades in private next year stems from his perception that the “solemnity of remembrance has been twisted into a justification for conflict.”
Will Addison, a Junior Officer in the City of Edinburgh Officer’s Training Corps, reflected: “ritualistic war commemoration certainly has some role to play in contributing to the ego building that can lead some young men and women down the military path.” The third year student added that “although there is indeed a fine line between the glorification of war and commemoration of those men and women who gave their lives for the country, the tradition of remembrance offers a nation that seems to come together less and less, the opportunity to rediscover a sense of solidarity through humility.”
So, the question arises as to how much the national character is shaped by our experience with war and indeed, whether our national pride depends upon our military experience.
Orson Welles’ famed character Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’ aptly, if rather cheekily, expresses the notion of war-induced national greatness: “In Switzerland they had brotherly love and five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
The view that remembrance should include a celebration of the military achievement of the “war to end all wars” does, and will most likely continue to, divide national opinion. That said, perhaps modern Britain is beginning to find glory elsewhere besides great military victory, remembering Yeats’ challenge: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.”
Broadcaster and historian Dan Snow urges that in the midst of our increasingly secular society, the way we remember Britain’s military experience must keep pace with a changing national demographic.
Snow contends that for many of us, “the dominance of the Anglican Church in our remembrance tradition diminishes the importance of the ceremony”.
Indeed, Tabinda-Kause Ishaq, a 24 year old London based student, has created a poppy hijab in order to provide Muslim women with a unique way to commemorate of the oft-forgotten 400,000 Muslim soldiers who fought alongside UK troops in WWI.
Whatever the winning narrative of our remembrance, be it triumph or disaster, pride or sorrow, it must reflect the society it serves. Should the vying perspectives lead to general disillusionment, people will forget what ought not be forgotten.
As Snow reminds us, when we forget, we repeat.