2014: The Year of Remembrance
- January 02, 2014
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.
In 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 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 of men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound into submission.’
This unprecedented bloodbath proved to be 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.
These objectives produced Guernica, strategic bombing, and the atomic bomb. Today western governments have attempted to seduce the public with fantasies relatively bloodless ‘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 army’s recent military failures, the coalition government is attempting to present the armed forces as the embodiment of national virtue.
As a result 2014 is likely to generate a great deal of stirring talk about the sacrifice, freedom, patriotism and heroism of those who died, in World War I, but not so much detail about how they died and how they killed.
So expect lots of pageantry, heritage, and sacrifice; Rupert Brooke and red poppies; gun-ho war documentaries; frowning politicians in black suits and royal women in sombre hats. Expect celebratory speeches and op eds that present World War I as part of an unbroken tradition of noble British warfare that reaches from Flanders to Iraq and Helmand Province. Expect patriotism and 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. World War I is a momentous and terrible event that should be remembered and debated. But we should be wary of those who plan to turn the centennial into a celebration of militarism.