More than £50m has been allocated for a “historic” commemoration of the centenary of the start of World War I, David Cameron announced this week at the Imperial War Museum. The commemorations in 2014 will comprise “three vital elements:” a “massive” transformation of the Imperial War Museum “to make it even more incredible,” a major programme of national commemorative events “properly funded and given the proper status they deserve” and an educational programme “to create an enduring legacy for generations to come.” The Prime Minister has defended the use of the public’s money in this way, saying: “It is absolutely right that these commemorations should be given such priority. 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.”
It all sounds quite nice and fitting but critics are afraid that the Government is formulating its plans based on a narrow view, articulated by war poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and later cemented in popular culture by the hit musical ‘Oh! What a Lovely War.’ According to this interpretation, it was a futile, avoidable and unnecessary war, the brutality of which was made worse by the incompetence of the generals in charge. Maria Miller who is part of the committee organising the events has given an implicit plea that we avoid taking sides over who was to blame for the First World War and the Government understandably does not wish the commemoration to become anti-German in tone. Max Hastings writing on the Daily Mail said, “the Government has not uttered, and apparently does not plan to utter, a word about the virtue of Britain’s cause, or the blame that chiefly attaches to Germany for the catastrophe that overtook Europe.It calls this a ‘non-judgmental’ approach. The rest of us might call it a cop-out.” Political correctness does seem to be holding sway on these events;it does make one wonder how the commemorations for World War 2 when the time comes will not include any negative German connotations. Max Hastings clearly thinks that the British were on the “right side,” a fact that has been disputed by many other historians who think that it was more truthfully the case that it was simply Imperial powers competing with each other and point out that there was no democracy in the British Empire.
Many people, and I think I am in this camp, wonder why we are commemorating at all this terrible war which was a military disaster and a human catastrophe. The Stop the War movement are keen that rather the commemorations shouldn’t turn into celebrations and focus should be on remembering that “this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe, and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded.” It is right to mark the courage of those who fought in the war but equally important to reflect on the devastation caused-and wonder why we are still at war.