Was World War 1 an exercise in futility or a just war that saved the future of democracy in the continent?

As the United Kingdom prepares for a four-year centenary commemoration of World War 1 (1914-1918), which will see a string of official and popular events to mark each stage and turning point in the war’s progression, an intense national conversation on the significance and lessons of the ‘War to End all Wars’ is gathering volume and pitch, threatening to draw level with the sounds of the celebratory bugles and trumpets. Was WW1, with its terrible toll on Britain of 16 million dead and 20 million injured, an exercise in futility; a grotesque mistake that sent a generation of young men to an early and senseless death, with nothing gained? Or was it, as many would argue, a just war that saved the future of democracy in the continent, by putting paid to the ambitions of an aggressive Germany bent on world domination?

These two positions are the book-ends that enclose a debate of many shades and nuances of historical detail and ideological positions, reflected in media debates and more lastingly, in a surge of WWI books that have flooded bookshops.

A ‘just war’

One end of the polemic is represented by the Education Secretary Michael Gove who, in a recent article in the Daily Mail, berated those (he singled out Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and other “left-wing academics”) who view the war a “mistake” — as the “unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”

As examples of these “misbegotten shambles,” Mr. Gove held up anti-war productions such as “Oh! What a Lovely War” (a new version of the classic anti-war musical of 1963 is now running at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London); “The Monocled Mutineer” (a four-part 1986 BBC drama, written for the stage by Alan Bleasdale about Percy Toplis, a British soldier who is supposed to have led a British Army mutiny in northern France in 1917 at the height of the war); and the anti-war episodes in the fourth and final series of the BBC “Blackadder” sitcom series. Professor Evans in an article in The Guardian argued that “the men who enlisted in 1914 may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong.” Mr. Gove cited the works of historians such as Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford University, Gary Sheffield of Wolverhampton University, and military historian William Philpot, who has written on the battle of the Somme, in defence of his argument that it was a “just war.”

The other argument

At the other end of the spectrum in the WW1 debate are the signatories to an open letter of eminent British citizens who denounce the “celebration” of war. “Far from being a ‘war to end all wars’ or a ‘victory for democracy,’ this was a military disaster and a human catastrophe,” the letter says. Posted on the ‘No Glory in War’ website, the letter has been signed so far by 70 anti-war protestors. Among them are actors Jude Law, Simon Callow and Vanessa Redgrave; poet and playwright Carol Ann Duffy; musician and composer Brian Eno; politicians Tony Benn, Ken Livingston and Jeremy Corbyn; writer and author of War Horse, Michael Morpurgo; and British film director Ken Loach.

“We are disturbed, therefore, to hear that David Cameron plans to spend £55,000,000 on ‘truly national commemorations’ to mark this anniversary,” the letter says. “Instead we believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe, and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded.” The signatories call on everyone “in a time of international tension” to ensure that “this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.”

“Mainstream historians look for whose ‘fault’ the war was, and who fired the first shot. My view is that it was an imperialist war,” Neil Faulkner, an archaeologist and historian, and a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, told The Hindu. The author of a recent book, The Real History of World War 1, Dr. Faulkner is active in the ‘No Glory in War’ campaign. “It was centred primarily in Europe, which was divided into competing nation states and spheres of influence, each dependent on overseas markets for their expansion. Tensions mount, there is an arms race amongst hostile blocks, and it explodes in 1914,” he said. A small ruling class of bankers and generals who led the war in the competing nation states “did not care about the lives of their own citizens, never mind their colonial subjects who fought in the war.”

The U.K. government, however, is pulling out all stops for the commemoration. A candlelit vigil at Westminster Abbey on August 4 this year will set the four-year programme campaign rolling. The cultural side of the remembrances for which £10 million has been allocated will be lead by Jenny Waldman, creative producer for the London 2012 Olympics. He will be working with organisations and partners across the country as part of a team that includes Vikki Heywood, Chairman and former Executive Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC. The celebrations will see battlefield tributes in memory of the Battle of the Somme (1916) and Armistice Day (1918).

The celebrations will give an impetus to historical interest in the war with new learning and education opportunities opened up. The Imperial War Museum will be reopened in July after a £35 million refurbishment of the WWI galleries, new digital assets from its collection and specially curated WW1 timelines. The Victoria and Albert Museum is already organising exhibitions on the participation of soldiers from former British colonies like India.

The publishing industry has seized the opportunity with a slew of new books that address the theme of the Great War from new angles and with new historical material. Among them are Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914; Richard Evans’ From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke; and former BBC war correspondent Katies Adie’s Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War 1.

The Great War and its lessons will be represented in many ways over the next few years — performance, spectacle and celebration being only a part of it all. The educational impact of the celebrations will be deep, as will the war’s moral legacy.

The anti-war poetry of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon is seeing renewed interest. And surely, the proposed re-enactment of a famous football match that took place in Flanders on Christmas Day, in which German and British soldiers participated during a spontaneous truce when soldiers exchanged gifts, sang carols and buried their dead together, will send a powerful message on the futility and folly of war, then and now.

parvathi.menon@thehindu.co.in

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