Monday, 4 August 2014

We Remember...?

As a historian and given the date I ought to be saying something. As an historian of the First World War in particular and given the fact that it's the centenary of that conflict kicking off it would be rude of me not to say something or comment upon it. I have already written about my own attempts to fictionalise the conflict and the work of people such as Frederic Manning and Siegfried Sassoon in this blog. Indeed, I have probably also made known the fact that I have a greater respect for the poetry and message of Sassoon over that of Owen (in part influenced and inspired in equal measure by my own University lecturer on the subject, a Dr Warburton).

And now it is the centenary and everyone will be posting poppies on social media and bleating the same tired phrases about memory and how 'most people' won't share a picture of a poppy and isn't it so sad how the younger generations don't have a clue about the sacrifice that was made in their name in nationalist terms and sponsored by bloody neo-Nazis and aaaaaaargh!

Taken in 2007, this shows students from West Yorks at the
monument to the KOYLIs erected in Bus-les-Artois with some
French veterans (not of the FWW) and villagers.

Be warned, I have bile for this. Read on at your peril!

What's prompted this? Mainly the date, seeing as tomorrow (when most normal people will read this post) will be the exact date 100 years on when the war really kicked off in Europe. The date at which there was no going back and the unbridled optimism of the upper classes and the up and coming middle classes collided with the trains of nationalism that they had set in motion to avert Socialist uprisings, found their parity and then descended into a conflict that would forge the age in which we live in a way that is hard to deny. This was a War that really was to end all wars before that point, the clue is in the title. However, it ushered in an age in which warfare really took off and terrorised on a grand scale never before seen. And yes, the total numbers of dead from conflict, as a percentage, were significantly smaller than at any other time in the past. It would create the narrative that we still hear now - one of fear and it would immortalise a generation of noodlings from the rich and monied at the expense of the poor which, at first, were ignored and then idolised. In the end, it is the rich and the wealthy and the self-interested who have had the last laugh, assaulting the social revolution that grew from the ashes of Europe over the next thirty or so years as hard as they could again and again until the banking crisis of 2008 split everything wide open again.

Secondly, I have been seeing worrying things. Augurs of something else. For a long time now there has been a resurrection of a debate I had assumed done and dusted - that of the futility of the war itself. In my own studies I read much about the futility of the conflict but also an increasing and grudging realisation of why that conflict reached its own momentum. The deaths and the suffering and the sacrifices of all those millions had to have something to show for it. After the initial clashes of 1914, when it should have all been settled as a stalemate, no one was prepared to back down and admit defeat with so much blood on their hands. That included most (but not all by a long chalk) of the public as well. Hence the poetry and the letters and the rising Socialism in the trenches and at home.

So it was that heroes started seeing cracks in the way that things were being done, and saw things being hijacked by politicians for partisan gains and for personal notoriety and fame. So it is the same now. I am seeing posts on social media that say that only 1% will remember the War and that people will not know what their sacrifice was for. I am glad that our veterans are dead. I am glad they did not live to see what should have been a clear klaxon to announce the death of the evils of nationalism, begun in 1914 and rung out by 1945, ignored and even turned into a rallying cry. The consensus in historical study, and teaching of the conflict by the by, is that the war was terrible, awful, but not futile. The trenches were awful but they were not Blackadder and there was more to things than mud, blood and trench warfare. More died of VD than bullet wounds, for example.

But this valid point was politicised by the Conservatives through Gove recently. Then Hastings, the arrogant little historian, jumped in and supported his political heroes. This was not welcome to me and worried me. Sure enough, the battle lines were drawn and out came the hordes of drooling savants with their eyes on book deals and TV tie-ins, the chance to be famous, with a new debate: heroism and staunching the tide of German nationalism (because Nazism and Wilhelmine Germany are indistinguishable from one another, obviously) versus the mud, blood, trenches and the death of a generation. Both of which are misrepresentations of what happened and that was bad enough but today I saw the first memes of Neo-Nazi origin doing the rounds. They won't be the last.

I expect Union flags to start flying soon, poppies against a background of nationalism and appeals to unity and remembrance of a British victory. The sad thing is that the Allies did win the First World War, and they won it. But that's not a cause for celebration or navel gazing - it is a cause for pretty much the same behaviour as with any historical conflict - understanding and no further. We don't look upon Henry V and start getting all worked up about the sacrifice of St Crispin's Day, nor do we look at the victory of 1805 and ruminate on how it granted the British Empire impunity at sea for a century. Nor do we bother linking the invasion of Britannia in 55BC with modern exhortations to be against immigration. For some reason we do this with both World Wars and we're about to witness some truly appalling hijacking of a centenary for some truly awful and desperate ends.

So I finish my rant with this: what are we to remember? When you post the icon of the poppies and talk of the futility of war or link it with Syria and Gaza - what are you remembering?

Very few of us knew personally anyone involved in the conflict and so we can't have our own private remembrance because there's nothing there. We can't recall experiences of conflict because no one alive lived through it and vanishingly few spoke of it to their families. We can't remember anything about the actual experience and we can't all go and read reams of material that will be published until 2018 with the diaries and the letters and the scraps and the leavings all carefully edited for a particular agenda (I've read one account of an 'unknown soldier' in three separate books - he was a German and we know his name, his family and where he served and, in 2007, I saw his grave - unknown my hairy arse - and each take on his letters was different simply because of how they were edited and then inserted into a narrative). So it's not that.

It can't be to avoid wars in the future. We are those crowds with kindling eye who have cheered when soldier lads march by - support the troops but oppose the war has been the cry - and so we should all slink off to our beds and cower in shame from the words of Sassoon. None of us has bothered to seriously challenge the governments and powers that continue to drop bombs or fund others to shell, fire missiles or blow themselves up in the name of freedom or security or it wouldn't be happening day in and day out. Few of us has experienced conflict and many believe that all wars are intractable and beyond our means to do anything about. In 1919 there was a riot in which veterans burned their pass books and sang 'keep the home fires burning' rather than go quietly into poverty and certain lingering death. These people successfully voted against war until the bitter truth emerged in 1939 and even then weren't too certain. Some theatrical moves by a certain Minister who was to become PM later and the War was joined once more. Isn't it strange how we don't focus on the words of Ellis in 1924 or the fact that the war of 1940 could have been won rather than lost or the fact that the development of the horrors of the Second World War had very little to do with the West (not that we weren't part of the horror, rather than we, the West, weren't the movers and shakers of that second, larger, conflict).

It can't be sorrow. About what? We are no more responsible for the First World War than we are the Spinning Jenny or the trilithons at Stonehenge. We could no more understand the societal and political mindset of the people of the time than we could tap into Pasteur in the 1880s or Irj, Guardian of the Anus in Ancient Egypt.

So what do we remember? Is it the Blackadder and Oh What a Lovely War shit about lions led by donkeys? Is it the carefully pruned but authentic experiences of Journey's End or The Middle Parts of Fortune? Is it the cynical use of the conflict for a gay love story in Birdsong or the poets' war of Owen and Sassoon? If so, what are we actually remembering and celebrating in this centenary?

My view? I am a student of the conflict, I absolutely believe in its importance and want to make sure that, when I teach, I impart why it should be learnt to my students. I want to take my children to the battlefields and the memorials and the cemeteries. I want to write about it, read about it, see it as the crucible of the modern era. I want to shatter myths, broaden the scope of the understanding and penetrate that fog of time that descends ever more quickly on these things in our collective recent past. But not like this. This centenary is pernicious and brutal and simplistic and I want, as a scholar and a human being, to have nothing to do with the use of it by interest groups.

I don't know where we're going to go in the next four years with this within the context of the world in which we live but the augurs that I have seen so far are not encouraging.

No comments:

Post a Comment