Dan Jarvis: Why we must strive to remember the war that changed our world forever

IT is heartening to know that there is such widespread interest about the 100th anniversary commemoration of the First World War ahead of the two-minute silence to mark the Armistice.

Our commemorations here will also be part of what will be a truly global event, which will include contributions from our friends in the Commonwealth and events taking place around the world.

The Government has pledged over £50m towards the centenary anniversary commemorations. The plans include a refurbishment of the First World War galleries at the Imperial War Museum; a nationwide scheme that will allow school students from across the country to visit First World War battlefields; community projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and designed to educate young people to conserve, explore and share local heritage of First World War; and a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund to support HMS Caroline in Belfast the last surviving warship from the First World War fleet. We support those plans and will work with the Government to ensure their smooth delivery.

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As we commemorate the centenary, there will be those who say we should seek to understand the fundamental question of why Britain went to war in the first instance. A recent poll for British Future asked how much people knew about the war. Its polling showed that 66 per cent of people knew that the First World War began in 1914, that 47 per cent knew that the war was in part sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and that nine per cent knew that Herbert Asquith was the British Prime Minister at the start.

What polling will not capture, however, is the extent to which the public understand the original motivations for the war. A student of history might conclude that, aside from the strategic rationale, Britain’s motives for entering the First World War demonstrated a conscientious effort to uphold international law and a desire to defend smaller, more vulnerable nations. There will be those who will seek to have this informed debate, but there should be no doubt about the profound impact of this war.

Many people may know that between 1914 and 1918, 1.2 million volunteers came from around the globe to serve alongside the allies, answering the call of “Your Empire Needs You”. Many people appreciate the scale of the loss of life that was to follow, and many people know something of the 750,000 British soldiers who died or the 1.5 million soldiers who returned home injured. They may have heard something of the 20,000 British soldiers who were killed on the first day of the Somme or they may recall Wilfred Owen’s imagery of choking soldiers drowning in a sea of chlorine gas. They will also understand that sacrifice on this scale must always be remembered—it must always be commemorated.

It is important to remember the First World War for more than just the industrialisation of death that it brought with it. It paved the way for numerous world events, including, of course, the outbreak of the Second World War – events that shaped the world we live in.

The war had a profound impact on Britain, and many countries in the Commonwealth sought independence after it ended. Britain lost its place as the world’s largest investor, and the role of women changed for ever.

By 1931, 50 per cent of women remained single, and 35 per cent never married while of childbearing age.

The other great social change that came from the First World War involved voting. Before the war, neither working men nor women had votes. The sacrifice of men from all classes, combined with the fact that women were taking on jobs that had previously been seen as a male preserve and with the campaigning of the suffragists and suffragettes, compelled politicians to change the position.

In the light of that, Labour MPs consider it essential for us to ensure that the right tone is struck when we are remembering the First World War. I believe that we are all clear about the fact that this is not a celebration, but a commemoration. War should never be celebrated; instead, it should be remembered, and we should learn from it.

We agree with the Government that there should be no flag-waving, that there should be an absolute right to remember those whose opinions differed, and that there should be no rigid Government narrative. It is right for us to give people the facts, and then to let them conduct their own analyses and form their own judgments.

However, it is important that, as a country, we do not shy away from addressing some of the war’s complications.

There is a strong public perception of what it was like, formed partly by war poets and reinforced by productions like Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth. They stand as powerful and eloquent testimonies to the savagery of the First World War, but if they are all that we know, they are poor history.

* Dan Jarvis is a former soldier and the Labour MP for Barnsley Central who spoke in a House of Commons debate on the centenary commemorations for First World War. This is an edited version.