12 November 2013 — Our Kingdom
The First World War plays a key role in our national story: a warning against violence, to be wary of our leaders. With his 100th anniversary events, David Cameron is seeking to change that.
The format of this year’s Remembrance Sunday was roughly the same as any of us can remember. The context, though, was very different. In affect, it was the start of four years of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War and its various battles. The annual debates about whether or not to wear blood red poppies were, therefore, a useful reminder of the foundational roles that the world wars play in the national story of Britain.
Most of my generation have a specific understanding of the wars of the 20th century. The curriculum teaches WWI with poetry books and WWII with history books. At home, we learnt about the Great War from Blackadder and the Second War from old films and Dad’s Army repeats. In my experience, this means most of us know more about 1939-45, but better understand 1914-18.
Ask any Brit under the age of, perhaps, 35 about the second war and the themes will be relatively consistent: Spitfires and the Battle of Britain; Hitler and the Normandy landings; the blitz spirit and the enigma code; Churchill and “we will fight them on the beaches”; Going Solo and the Great Escape (the theme tune, but not the ending).
Unless we’ve read Kurt Voneggut, we will almost certainly know nothing of what our forebears did to Dresden, and you’d have to wait a long time before anyone uttered the words “Horoshima” or “Nagasaki”. Americans may have pressed the buttons, but they did so in our names. There is, of course, the grimness of the holocaust, but that’s taught as a separate event or to re-emphasise the core point: we are the goodies.
The reason is simple. A good spin doctor knows not to lie, but to emphasise the more convenient truths. The moral crusade of the fight against Hitler allowed for the construction of a positive national story, and it is a tale we are steeped in. World War Two serves at once as our rebirth (as Anthony Barnett has pointed out) as a country rather than an empire, and at the same time as a baptismal redemption for the imperialism we’ve largely forgotten – the centuries my teachers barely mentioned.
What we know of the first war, on the other hand, is less spun: rotting feet and the first day of the Somme; “gas, gas, quick boys” and Blackadder going over the top; rats, lice, and barbed wire coils; the poignancy of Christmas football and the pungency of trench warfare. The First World War is a muddier affair for the elite, with little moral high ground and no great Tory heroes. All history lessons are propaganda, but the truth is smuggled down the decades by court jesters – in the English curriculum and in TV satire: the ‘Great’ war still casts a dark shadow over Britain. It is a savage reminder of the failure of our leaders and the folly of following them blindly.
Or that’s what it’s been until now. Because this year, with a younger generation who know little of the history and with no one left who can speak with the authority of memory, we can be sure the government will want to change all of that. David Cameron is marking the centenary of the start of the war by committing £50m to events he says he hopes will echo the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. As Jean Urquhart puts it: “Not commemorating, but celebrating; not the end of war, but the start of war”. Paxman didn’t maintain his BBC impartiality on the matter: “anyone who wants to celebrate war is a moron”.
In particular, the iconic Newsnight presenter said “not to acknowledge the war’s significance would be wilful myopia” but that “the whole catastrophe has been overlain with myth and legend”. He is right on both counts, but perhaps something else Cameron said is more worrying still.
The Prime Minister declared that events should “say something about who we are”. And this is when we begin to get to the core of what they will mean for Britain, and why Cameron is “making these centenary commemorations a personal priority”.
There are a few reasons for this – and for the government’s choice to have a “truly national moment” in 2014. Most have nothing to do with the Scottish independence referendum. But the decision to hold Armed Forces Day 2014 – surely a key moment in the festivities – in Stirling on the same day as thealready announced Bannockburn anniversary, months before the vote, certainly is. He’s parking his tanks on Salmond’s lawn. More precisely, he is parking them at Stirling Castle – my grandfather’s regimental headquarters.
That the Prime Minister is marching celebratory troops over the spiritual home of those lying in war graves to make a political point is illustrative: it shows us how adept he is at using pomp and flags to carefully steer our national conversation. By cloaking himself in the grief of war widows, he can use his office to make deeply political points whilst shielded from criticism and, often, without even opening his mouth. This choice of venue and date also answers any question about whether No 10 is so cynical as to be willing to exploit the death of troops for political advantage – we now know it is.
Which leads us to the the second thing worth noting: Cameron understands better than most the power of circus. The Royal Wedding marked the end of the 2010-11 protests. The Euro-Jube-Olympics have been the highpoint of his premiership – one summer, the flames of riot roared over London, the next, the fire in the capital was the Olympic torch. The Prime Minister is desperate for more street parties. Add to this the fact that the Falkland’s are seen to have saved Thatcher, and the Iraq War, Dubbya. Getting the nation to stand in line behind the flag before an election is an old trick for a struggling leader.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the role that the First World War plays in our collective identity – a fact he addressed at length in the speech last year announcing these events. And to understand this, it’s worth looking at what it is that he is proposing in particular.
First, he says there will be a massive transformation of the Imperial War Museum “to make it even better than it is today”. It’s worth considering what this particular museum teaches the 2 million or so visitors it attracts each year. Despite its name, it makes little mention of the imperial wars. In all, Britain has invaded 172 countries out of the 194 on earth. If you haven’t heard of the Anglo-Aro war, it’s worth asking yourself why. Where history looks kindly on military leaders, they are noted. Where they were murderous or foolish, they are hidden behind the tales of their troops. Its top floor is “the Lord Ashcroft Gallery” – it seems the Tories’ main donor isn’t just content with controlling the present.
One notable thing – when I visited at least – was how little mention there was of WWI. By far the most covered years were 1939-45. The picture it painted of that war was clear. From the atrium – with its heavy artillery and suspended Spitfire – on, the building is a temple to the greatness of Britain. This is the museum which will now turn itself to teaching us about WWI. If it gets beyond the image of our nation as victims and heroes, it would not be “making it even better”. It would be a curatorial revolution.
In fact, what Cameron said this “transformation” will do is ensure 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”. “inspired”, “incredible”, “courage”, “toil”, “sacrifice”. It’s strange how each is, in its way, a positive word. The rhetorical formula is simple: scale of death is acknowledged, is dwelt upon even, but the shared mourning cloaks any sense of responsibility or injustice: dulce et decorum est.
The second thing Cameron announced was “a major programme of national commemorative events” – back to the circus: Union Flags and the commandment that remembrance must mean silence, even in the face of injustice. Third, most terrifying of all “an educational programme to create an enduring legacy for generations to come”. They have finally decided that it’s time to teach the young about the war they like to call “Great”.
And with that, we return to poetry. Cameron finished his speech with a line, written by a young solider a week before his death: “but for this war I and all the others would have passed into oblivion like the countless myriads before us. But we shall live forever in the results of our efforts.”
It is, in ideological terms, a direct rhetorical challenge to a better known comment, written by another young soldier at the time, and read by every young pupil since:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The works of Wilfred Owen are possibly the most radical text learnt by every child in England. Apart, maybe, from Tennyson’s “someone had blundered”, they are the only time I can remember being taught anything which challenged our foundational myth that the ruling class can be trusted to run our country.
It is a challenge which many have tried to crack down on over the last 90 years. In 1921, Lady Haig chose another poem – if “In Flanders’ Fields” can be called that, I see it more as an advertising jingle for jingoism and murder – its abuse of the English language is as brutal as its call to kill. With it, she developed a propaganda symbol – the poppy. In doing so, she hid her husband behind his boys’ body bags: ‘if he was wrong, if our leaders were wrong’, she was saying, ‘these boys died for nothing’.
The trick was a clever one – learnt after some servicemen boycotted the 1919 victory parade. But it could only go so far as long as those who remembered lived on: the first year poppies were worn, a group of veterans disturbed the ceremony at the Cenotaph to protest against the treatment of the living. But these activists are long dead and gone, and now those with the loudest voices can claim to speak in their names.
Cameron’s challenge, though, is a broader one. The idea that armies of our ancestors were sent to their deaths for little good reason remains a powerful reminder not to follow today’s elites wherever they tell us to go. Just as the language of WWII is invoked to back every invasion, the memory of WWI is pulled out to argue against. It is this later reminder that the PM has to trample, and to replace with another story: the inspiring one he mentioned in his speech, at which Owen spat exquisite verse.
And the context makes this task complex. As time, and the world war generations, have passed, Britain’s relationship with war has shifted. With the Falklands as a stepping stone, we jumped from Churchillism to liberal interventionism. You can trace this transition with the tone of each annual Remembrance. Here, for example, is The Rationalist, describing what Shirley Williams told them she has seen happen in her lifetime:
“The Wilfred Owen tradition,” Williams says, has been downplayed in Britain in recent decades. She says the governments of Harold Wilson and Edward Health and James Callaghan tried to underline the importance of “putting war behind one” and “the sorrow of war”.
That has now changed, she suggests. “It’s gone back to being a good deal more militarily-based. Funnily enough, I think the effect of our involvement in so many wars in the last few years has been to go back to somewhere between the heroic tradition and the tradition of grief.”
If the recent wars are a part of the cause, it’s not surprising. With the armed forces mired in a military and identity crisis in the desert in Afghanistan, a repurposing is demanded once more: both at home and globally.
Cameron is no giant on the global stage. The leader of an increasingly parochial party, it seems unlikely he’ll do the heavy lifting on a new military doctrine. But he is very adept at public relations. In 2010, he made one intention clear. A Mail on Sunday journalist reported a speech he gave to a group of troops in Afghanistan:
“During the first and second world wars and during the Falklands War, there was real support in our country for the military. We want to put you front and centre of our national life again…’ Speaking in the midst of a sandstorm, Mr Cameron quoted poet Charles M. Province: ‘It’s not the politician that brings the right to vote it is the soldier, it is not the poet that brings free speech, it is the soldier”.
And we’re back to the poets. And if Cameron wants to play that game, it’s worth pausing for a moment to remember this, from Seigfried Sassoon:
I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
‘Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.’
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.
Over then next four years, under the horns of the marching bands, from behind the lines of parading soldiers or in the shadow of the Cenotaph, listen carefully for a sound: David Cameron, pencil in hand, will be sketching a new history of Britain. Bear headed and bare-faced, he will, dressed in respectful black and with a wreath in hand, twist the past and change the moral of our national story.
Our Prime Minister is a PR man. He knows the powers of symbolism and narrative. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were referenced in his speech, but in truth they present a powerful challenge to the inspiring World War One story of “courage”, “toil” and “sacrifice” he wants us to learn to recite; the story which will pull the perfect verse of those two great men from our rebellious heads.
The picture he paints – where the mistakes of his predecessors are ignored – is of a world in which he and those like him born to rule. With the magic of military ceremony and through the tears of mass mourning, he will try to make that image come to life. There are few things more dangerous than a politician hiding behind the bravery of young soldiers. Let’s be careful not to let Cameron change our past.