War of words over lessons to be learned from conflict

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The First World War commemorations are as much about the battle for the war’s legacy as they are about the conflict itself, says Chris Bond.

WHEN David Cameron said in 2012 that he wanted the First World War centenary to be a “commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, says something about who we are as a people”, he opened a can of worms.

Everyone from Ian Hislop to Jeremy Paxman criticised his choice of words. Commemorate? Yes. But celebrate? Celebrate what exactly? We can appreciate the bravery of those who gave their lives fighting for their country, but I doubt very much whether the wives, mothers or fathers of those who died felt much like celebrating at the time, and nor should we a century later.

Education Secretary Michael Gove also found himself under fire when he claimed “left-wing academics” were using Blackadder “to feed myths” about the war. Despite the barrage of criticism both men inadvertently touched on an important issue – namely how should we commemorate a war that wiped out so many lives?

It’s one that Dr Andrew Mycock, a reader in politics at the University of Huddersfield, has been studying and which forms the basis of his forthcoming public lecture, The Politics of the First World War Centenary.

He believes that history is always about the present. “The debates taking place about the First World War have very little to do with what actually happened during the conflict. They are very much to do with what is happening now.”

The idea of “lions led by donkeys” has long had popular appeal but the argument that it was a “necessary war” in order to halt German imperialism has also gained support in recent times. “The dominant view of the war is the one shared by Blackadder and Oh! What A Lovely War, that it was all a terrible waste, it’s one echoed by some of the war poets and it’s a view we’ve become familiar with,” says Dr Mycock. “But there’s evidence to support both views, that it was a war that had huge social costs but at the same time was necessary to fight.”

The conundrum for politicians today is that history doesn’t always make good politics. “The Government needs to find the right tone but at the moment it’s struggling because the centenary needs to be about more than just commemorating lots of people dying,” says Dr Mycock.

“The First World War had significant social, economic and political ramifications, women were brought in to work in the factories and there was a more liberal view of society that we recognise today. But the decline of the British Empire can be traced back to this period and the country we recognise today was shaped by this war.

“So when we talk about legacy we’re talking about the state of Britain today as much as what happened on the fields of Flanders and Gallipoli.”

It’s a legacy he believes we’re still coming to terms with. “It was supposed to be the war to end all wars and it wasn’t. There was a feeling that the First World War didn’t resolve anything and that the post-war settlement didn’t solve the tensions that led to war in the first place.”

But what the conflict means is hugely important because history shapes our national identity. “The problem is the values of a hundred years ago don’t connect with modern society. The Government wants young people to take a message away from the First World War, but it doesn’t know what that message is. If it’s a futile war then it’s basically saying ‘don’t listen to political leaders.’

“What it boils down to is what are we commemorating and why and what are the lessons? And these are always going to be contentious.”

The Politics of the First World War Centenary, June 18, at the University’s of Huddersfield’s Sir George Buckley Lecture Theatre. For more information call 01484 473 845.