This year, 2014, sees the First World War being commemorated.
A search online brings up this on a UK government website:
“2014 marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. Within government the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is leading plans to build a commemoration fitting of this significant milestone in world history.”
Perhaps it is just me, but ‘Culture, Media and Sport‘ do not seem the most appropriate words to place alongside this commemoration.
The juxtaposition of ‘The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’ and the thought of the death, suffering and sacrifice of WWI makes for an unfortunate and unpleasant combination. Not for the fact that it is important that the war be remembered, but a sincere hope that the commemoration is not reduced to a shallow media-fest and that it will actually be a solemn commemoration and not a media consumer event.
This is a commemoration and not a celebration, and a part of me wonders, would the commemoration be better centred on the end of the war, instead of its beginning? I don’t know.
This is still ‘living history’ and not some event from the distant past. The First World War resulted in many changes in our society, and it is vital that we remember. It is a cliche that ‘those with no knowledge of the past are doomed to repeat it’, and, whilst polls and surveys always need careful examination, this article from 2009 is extreme:
One in 20 schoolchildren thought Adolf Hitler was a coach of the German football team, a survey said.
And one in six youngsters said they thought Auschwitz was a Second World War theme park while one in 20 said the Holocaust was a celebration at the end of the war.
The survey for a veterans’ charity also found one in 10 thought the SS stood for Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, and one in 12 believed the Blitz was a European clean-up operation following the Second World War.
The charity questioned 2,000 children between the ages of nine and 15 about their knowledge of the key people and events of the two wars.
What is needed is not a commemoration verging on a celebration, or something for nationalistic fervour co-opted by jingoistic idealogues, but a serious memorial that marks this with the solemnity it deserves.
The First World War was labelled as ‘The War to End All Wars’ (attributed to H G Wells and later Woodrow Wilson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_war_to_end_war ), whether ironically or not, it became a common phrase.
Take these words by Harry Leslie Smith:
“Considering the hunger, the turmoil and the squalor in Britain during the early years of the 20th century, it was miraculous that I lived to see my third birthday. That I survived colic, flu, infection, scrapes and bangs without the benefits of modern sanitation, hygiene or health care, I must give thanks to my sturdy peasant genes. As a baby, I was ignorant of the great sorrow that enveloped England and Europe like a damp, grey fog. The nation was still in mourning for her dead from the world’s first Great War. It had ended only five short years before my arrival. Nearly a million British soldiers had been killed in that conflict. It had begun in farce in 1914 and ended in bloody tragedy in 1918. In four years, that war killed more than 37 million men, women and children around the world.
Even when the guns across the battlefields were made dumb by peace, the killing didn’t stop. Death refused to take a holiday and a pestilence stormed across the globe. It was called the Spanish flu. The pandemic lasted until 1921 and erased 100 million people from the ledger book of the living.”
Not an article about the First World War, but about the creation of the National Health Service following the Second World War (WWII).
Perhaps the commemoration of the First & Second World Wars should also be a time to remember the changes brought about in society by the people who lived through these wars; like the creation of the National Health Service and things like the efforts of Twin Town Associations to create links between people and places?
Why? Because superficially, these things might not be obviously linked, but if you read the words of Harry Smith, it is difficult not to think that time is being rolled backwards, and, with events in Ukraine, it is not hard to see that the manouevering of various countries and economies and commerce masquerading behind the mask of ‘freedom’, could, god forbid, lead to yet another war.
We need to remember these wars, the people who died in them, and the people behind them, not as an idle commemoration, but because it must not happen again.
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